The Aesthetics of Dialogue in Oxenfree

Julián Carrera 

December 2019

Horror cinema has given us a wide collection of scares, from the fear of murderers to the fear of the unknown, passing through iconic films like Poltergeist, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Halloween.

Out of the five examples I have listed, four belong to a particular subgenre of horror known as teenage horror, which is focused on telling its stories involving teens in one way or another, with perhaps its most visible representative being the teens of Camp Crystal Lake from Friday the 13th. To this list of teenage horror, one must add a member from another genre: Night School Studio’s 2016 visual novel, Oxenfree.

While Oxenfree takes inspiration from slasher teenage horror, it adds a paranormal twist to the formula while keeping an 80’s aesthetic.

Taken during gameplay on a PC.

Oxenfree is a weird video game to put next to these films. On the one hand, it takes inspiration from these movies, though these movies are solidly considered to be slasher-style horror while Oxenfree fits a more paranormal style of horror. And yet, there are similarities to be found. Oxenfree starts with a group of teenagers staying overnight illegally at Edwards Island, a decommissioned military base turned into a tourist attraction. As the night goes on, the story delves into the paranormal as Alex, the game’s protagonist, and Jonas, her stepbrother, tune into something on a cave with a pocket radio. Had the paranormal been substituted for a slasher, Oxenfree’s Edwards Island would have everything to be another Camp Crystal Lake.

The cast of Oxenfree, from left to right: Jonas, Ren, Alex, Nona, and Clarissa. An odd group of friends with weird social dynamics brought to light by Jonas, the newcomer.

Taken during gameplay on PC.

           But what, exactly, is Oxenfree? I called it a visual novel earlier, but this is not usually how the game is categorised. It is categorised as an adventure game, next to the likes of LucasArts’s Grim Fandango (1998), Amanita Design’s Machinarium (2009), and Sierra’s/The Odd Gentlemen’s King’s Quest franchise (started 1980, latest release in 2016). And yet, the label of “adventure” does not quite fit Oxenfree. Adventure games typically rely on solving puzzles, particularly using items: as players explore the world of the game, they find items that they can use to solve puzzles elsewhere. While Oxenfree has its own puzzles, they do not rely on item-collection. It is worth pointing out that, in recent years, the adventure genre has de-emphasised collecting items in favour of free-form exploration, particularly with the boom of so-called “walking simulators” like The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home (2013), Campo Santo’s Firewatch (2016), or Giant Sparrow’s What Remains of Edith Finch (2017), as well as non-item-driven adventure games like Infinite Fall’s Night in the Woods (2017). Where Oxenfree diverges from adventure games is in its reliance on dialogue.

An example of the dialogue choice-making mechanic in Oxenfree. Notice the static and the warping, too.

Taken during gameplay on PC.

This is not to say that adventure games do not have dialogue, they do, but it is dialogue of a different kind. Think, for example, of a game like Grim Fandango. It fits the object-oriented model of the adventure genre, but it has an abundance of dialogue. The main character, Manny, will say his thoughts about whatever the player interacts with. It will not be uncommon for the player to have more than 3 dialogue choices with every character Manny speaks with. Sometimes these conversations have some relevance to the puzzles, so, for example, in the beginning of the game, Manny needs a driver. A mechanic offers his help, but needs a signed form from the boss. So the player needs to get the form and the signature. Most of the dialogue, however, could be considered world-building: it does not add much to the game itself, but it helps players understand its world.

Despite having other game mechanics (like puzzle-solving and relatively free movement through the island), the core of Oxenfree lies on picking what to say from choices given to the player/reader, which puts the game, at least on a mechanical level, within the realm of the visual novel, a form that abandons most mechanics in place of dialogue. Instead of using other mechanics to progress through the game and using dialogue to establish the game’s world, visual novels turn the game into dialogue and text. The player/reader clicks through dialogue boxes to read the story without much input, but eventually the flow of the narrative stops, and the game offers different choices for the player/reader to make, and the choice has repercussions on how the story plays out.

 Oxenfree puts a twist on this system: it does not stop for the player/reader. Dialogue choices appear and, given enough time, disappear, making silence the result of not picking. The player/reader, then, has to be engaged with the narrative to know what to say, or if they should say anything at all. The stipulation in the realism of dialogue, however, does not take away from Oxenfree’s state as a visual novel, since the mechanic of the choice-making moment is still there. Silence, though not made visually evident, is also a choice available to the player/reader, and it turns the default state of not picking into a viable option. The time constraints make Oxenfree’s dialogue mechanic more like a conversation. Instead of being faced with dialogue boxes that wait for the player/reader to finish reading, Oxenfree is voice-acted to make it more real. Likewise, instead of pausing the narrative to choose certain dialogue options from time to time, Oxenfree is relentless in how many dialogue choices are given to the player, having the opportunity to interject or respond frequently. The stipulation on the realism of conversation makes Oxenfree feel more like a film, particularly those it takes inspiration from.

An example of the screen glitching.

Taken during gameplay on PC.

I want to return to this point now to bring up a formal feature of Oxenfree: glitching. Whenever the ghosts (Entities? Beings?) of the island show themselves, the screen shows visual glitches to signify that something is wrong, but they are not the glitches one would expect in a 2016 game: rather than showing more modern glitches like those in a visual novel like 2017’s Doki Doki Literature Club (which I briefly talked about in a previous article), which has character sprites breaking and turning into a mess of black squares and bits and pieces of other sprites, backgrounds distorting into computer errors, a simulation of a computer crashing, or sound files corrupting. Instead, Oxenfree relies on outdated glitches like static and warping. The game as a whole is interested in anachronistic depictions of technology, from instant photographs to pocket radios, passing through mentions of atomic bombs. Oxenfree hides most of its backstory on optional events, but it still retains its focus on a more film-inspired form of dialogue mechanic.

This article is part of an ongoing series about video games and visual novels. Previous pieces make a case for the relevance of video games to the literary; investigate a video game retelling of Hamlet through Ophelia’s eyes in the game Elsinore; describe the nature of the visual novel, and take a closer look at one particular example, Bury Me, My Love, which tells a story about the global migration crisis. In the next article, we will continue to analyse the limits of the visual novel as a form through an analysis of Sukeban Games’s VA-11 Hall-A.

Julián Carrera is a Literature and Creative Writing student at NYU Abu Dhabi.