OXENFREE Game Review: Believable Dialogue From Dimension X

Teens fight ghosts and their own demons in Night School's well-written adventure.

The worst thing about most video games is the dialogue. To some degree, it’s inherent to the medium - video game writers have to bring their work to an equilibrium with the requirement to tell the player what to do in gameplay. So games with genuinely naturalistic dialogue are the unicorns of the industry, and must be treasured. Oxenfree is one of these unicorns, and while it’s not perfect, its speech system is a model for how to treat dialogue in video games.

You are Alex, a teenage girl on an excursion to Edwards Island, a tourist trap with shops and a beach and a disused military base. People come here to fuck, we’re told, and aside from that the island is either painfully boring or full of mystery, depending on who you ask. Together with new stepbrother Jonas and friends Ren, Nona, and Clarissa, Alex explores Edwards Island, plunging facefirst into a truly bizarre supernatural nightmare.

Oxenfree blends concepts from last year’s Life Is Strange and Whispering Willows into a sidescrolling, dialogue-driven adventure game. You’ll wander about the environment looking at and interacting with things, any backtracking leavened by scripted incident, as you work through the central supernatural mystery. The island and its inhabitants are rendered in beautiful, moody 2.5D graphics, with elements like speech and thought bubbles lending interactions an almost Sims-y air. Like its 2015 cousins, there’s also a unique gameplay mechanic that manipulates the game’s supernatural element. That mechanic - a radio which picks up frequencies from another dimension - isn’t as interesting as it could be, and actually gets frustrating and repetitive by the end of the game. You can also use the radio to listen to old-timey music, but like in Fallout 4, you’d be missing out on a rather terrific score (linked below). Other than that, the gameplay’s pretty much just dialogue.

Now, I say “just dialogue,” but damnOxenfree boasts a bounty of well-written dialogue and lively voice acting that for once seems like it's coming from real people. Most games would cut a lot of Oxenfree's dialogue out for being irrelevant, but it’s vital to building the characters. In stark contrast to Life Is Strange (which I loved!), it actually feels like real teenagers talking, too, which is hard to nail in any medium. But as well-written as the dialogue is, the system through which it’s deployed is even better.

Oxenfree’s dialogue system is possibly the best in video games, because it actually functions like conversation. Night School Studio has paid attention to the social cues and flow of conversation, and interpreted that into a series of smart mechanics so obvious it’s surprising they haven’t been done before (or this well). As in Telltale games, you’re given three options for any branch of dialogue (four, if you count staying silent). Sometimes your conversation options are extraordinarily varied: you can insult people, hurt them emotionally, agree, disagree, or avoid confrontation. So far, so standard.

With every dialogue choice, you can choose from multiple options, but they all fade out over a few seconds. Characters won’t wait for you to respond before they continue - they'll just continue their conversations, and you’ll almost always interrupt them in a natural way, should you decide to butt in. Cleverer still, if you try to change the subject, the dialogue system is smart enough to spend some time on your digression, but eventually have the characters work back to what they really wanted to talk about. Lacking the usual cookie-cutter speech cues and forced timeouts that plague most games, Oxenfree’s dialogue feels less like a video game dialogue system, and more like real conversation.

What characters actually say in Oxenfree is as good as how they say it. Though occasionally it veers towards being overwritten, those moments are rare; the majority of the game is made up of believable, naturalistic dialogue that - for once - isn’t all about what the player is doing. Despite the fact that there’s a big supernatural phenomenon going on, the characters talk about their issues, tell anecdotes, complain about having to pee. That’s how people talk! People don’t talk about what they’re doing all the time; they talk about their lives through a filter of what they’re doing. It’s surprising and refreshingly naturalistic to see this kind of thing in a game, where usually dialogue is all about directing the player to the next plot point.

Oxenfree’s supernatural story twists will likely be the game’s most divisive element, especially given how the player influences what happens in the third act. Things get really weird - by the end, the story has involved time loops, doppelgangers, ghosts, the military, and more. The supernatural goings-on actually achieve some solid scares, which is surprising coming from a sidescroller; the chaotic sound design and glitchy video edits do a lot to build a discombobulating atmosphere. Unfortunately, that same sound design makes it difficult to make out what a number of non-player characters are saying - and much of that missed dialogue seems like it’s pretty important to unravelling the mystery of the island.

Tragically, as befalls many mysteries, the resolution - or at least, the one I ended up with - isn’t as interesting as the visuals or the storytelling that build up to it. Oxenfree is like a Twilight Zone episode in many ways, but its (potentially) predictable ending is not one of them. Although in some stories, the final twist would completely recontextualise what came before, in this one, it feels like a do-over of already well-trodden ground, adding little to the themes being explored.

Oddly enough, though, all of the hocus-pocus nonsense actually plays second fiddle to a simpler story of a group of teens trying to cope with loss. Like all ghost stories, a dead character is at the centre of this story, and how characters deal with that character’s death makes up a sizeable chunk of the narrative. These characters have been ruined by grief, their relationships split apart by bitterness and guilt. Whether referenced in dialogue or manifested in visions reminiscent of Forbidden Planet’s id monsters, the dead hang heavy over Oxenfree’s characters, as they well should. And since it's communicated so well, it's surprisingly affecting, even with ghosts knocking about as well.

Oxenfree is a terrific game about teenagers, trapped inside an uneven game about ghosts. It’s a triumph of writing, atmosphere, and dialogue design, let down by a story that builds up such an ungainly weight of entertaining strangeness that it can’t quite stick its landing. But despite its Lost syndrome (it's even on an island!), at Oxenfree's heart is a group of fragile young characters - and they're what really matter.