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Genre: Adventure/Exploration, Puzzle, Mystery, Horror
Developer: Night School Studio
Release Date: January 15, 2016
Let’s Player: ChristoperOdd
Date Started: 9/2/18
Date Finished: 9/5/18
A supernatural thriller about a group of friends who unwittingly open a ghostly rift.
With a heavy Stranger Things vibe and a female MC who’s a person of color, I couldn’t help but be drawn into this paranormal tale that starts out (like most) normally enough with a group of teenagers participating in a high school rite of passage that turns into a supernatural mystery involving secret subs, a lost crew, and a government cover up not dissimilar to The Philadelphia Experiment and Montauk.
Oxenfree, developed by Night School Studio and the brainchild of former Telltale and Disney employees, was released on January 16, 2016 accompanied by developmental documentaries and an alternative reality game (ARG), which allows players to interact with it in the real world, lending a creepier air to an already eerie narrative. The atmospheric music, composed by scntfc, adds the perfect accompaniment to Alex and company’s exploration of the abandoned Edwards Island. Along with the music, Morse code serves an integral part to understanding what happened here, though, as usual, the internet provides for those of us not savvy enough to be knowledgeable.
Since I watched a Let’s Play and didn’t play myself, I’m not qualified to delve too deep into the Gameplay. The story is both plot and character driven with multiple endings depending on Alex’s choices in both action and conversation, but the true end will still throw you for a loop (pun intended) with its almost Inception like quality. The Night School Studio did an excellent job making something equal parts eerie, equal parts heartbreaking, and equal parts mind fuck.
*******End of spoiler free review. Detailed story analysis below.*******
Story & Analysis
Some years ago, Alex lost her brother Michael in a drowning accident, which she harbors guilt for since he saved her life and lost his. His passing tore a rift in their parents’ relationship, which was already rocky and argumentative per Michael’s implications in certain “flashbacks.” Their son’s death was the final nail in the coffin, and they divorced. Not too long afterward, Alex’s mom met someone on a trip to Florida. She and him hit it off, and they quickly married. This was Jonas’s father who was unattached due to his mother dying, making Alex and Jonas step-siblings.
During her junior year, Alex’s best friend Ren invites her to Edwards Island to party (re: drink) on the beach. This is considered a rite of passage at their high school. The island has a reputation for weird and freaky radio signals, so most people bring one and attempt to tune in. Kids that have gone before left piles of rocks in specific areas where you can hear eerie things, and the caretakers of the island have also set up guided tour points. Turning to a specific station will yield historical information about Edwards Island, but this information isn’t remotely the whole story, which has to be pieced together from the narrative.
In 1943 (which is the same year the US military supposedly conducted the secret Philadelphia Experiment) the USS Kanaloa, a submarine with an experimental nuclear reactor in its belly, was sunk by the USS Walter Roy via friendly fire. Eighty-five officers and 12 passengers died for a total of 97 souls lost. The destruction of the Kanaloa occurred due to a misinterpretation of the garbled distress signal picked up by Margaret (Maggie) Adler, the comms officer on duty in Harden Tower that day. She mistook the message as an attempt to jam the radar. Per the guidebook recommendation, Adler signaled for surrounding ships to seek and bomb if necessary. The Walter Roy responded and fired upon the Kanaloa, causing the disaster. It is regarded as the only submarine casualty in American waters. The event was (of course) covered up with the guided tour station plaque near the propeller monument stating the sub was sunk by the Japanese.
Maggie Adler was haunted by what happened to the Kanaloa (and much more). When the game begins, Alex soon finds out from Ren that Maggie was the island’s only permanent resident, but she’s recently died. She left letters scattered around that Alex and her friends can find, detailing the truth that was hidden, The passengers on board the Kanaloa didn’t die, per se, but rather they were thrown into another dimension by the sub’s experimental nuclear reactor.
Why the Kanaloa was in distress in the first place is a question that’s never answered, nor do we know why the message was garbled, but that fact suggests there was a distortion in the transmission for reasons prior to the interdimensional rift. One of the anomalies on the guided tour gives a disturbing fact about how the island was named after Edwards for his “ethnic cleansing of the indigenous people” there. There’s no narrative clues whatsoever about this, and it could just be an offhanded fact, but it’s a contingency to consider. Was there something paranormal occurring on Edwards Island even before the accident? Did the nuclear explosion open a rift or did it just it cause a tinier tear to become larger? The submarine may have come across a small hole in space/time that caused an issue with their experimental nuclear reactor, and the subsequent explosion ripped a bigger gash in reality.
After the disaster, Maggie begins to pick up transmissions from the lost soldiers, but the broadcasts were dismissed as ongoing pranks by the other officers, as they had a childlike quality to them. She attempted communication anyway with the help of fellow comms officer, longtime friend, and possibly lover, Anna Shea. They went to the very cave Alex and Jonas visit in the beginning with their own radio, but Anna was absorbed through the rift.
Decades later, Alex and Jonas reopen it. Arriving on Edwards Island with Alex’s best friend Ren they meet up with two other classmates: Clarissa, who dated Michael before his tragic death and Nona, Ren’s love interest.
While exploring a cave near the beach, Alex tunes the radio near a pile of rocks, causing a light to flash on and off. Jonas discovers an even stranger light at the back of the cave and crawls in. Alarmed, Alex goes after him to find the fore mentioned spinning triangle, as well as vintage furniture in strangely pristine condition. As Alex continues to play with the radio, she unexpectedly re-opens the dimensional rift. The teens pass out after hearing garbled speech, waking up up in front of Harden Tower. Their friends on the beach have also been “magically” transported elsewhere on the island.
What follows is a series of supernatural invents that include Alex’s reflection giving her advice, time loops, “ghost” voices, and strange visions. Initially, only Alex realizes time is looping, and she has to explain it to Jonas who experiences headaches from it (and other nefarious things). Time only (possibly) corrects when they play the reel-to-reel tapes that appear as well. The game does an excellent job showing when things are disjointed by having the quality of the screen change. There are distortions at the top and flickers throughout. It looks like when a VHS needs to have its tracking fixed (for those of us who remember those days).
How and why the reel-to-reels are there is a mystery. Why would the “ghosts” give Alex and company a way to “correct” time unless it’s to provide an illusion of control (like the Other Mother in this Coraline theory). Though it’s only Alex who can use them, suggesting that she’s grounded in some way by having the radio, which does offer her a measure of control over the situation (but not nearly enough).
The teens eventually discover who the “ghosts” really are, the people lost but not killed on the SS Kanaloa. They’ve been trapped in the rift ripped open by the nuclear explosion, caught between life and death and desperate to break free. When they tried this with Anna Shea, they only succeeded in adding her to their number. The “ghosts” reveal to Alex they’ve seen the beginning and end of the universe ad infinitum, which has given them plenty of time to figure out they must possess people more slowly in order to furnish their escape. This opens up a world of possibilities to what’s happened to all the teens who visit Edwards Island. One noted example of this is Allison, Ren’s older sister, who went to the island before him. Before Ren goes himself, what Alison tells him about it is jarring. I can’t remember what it was (and the internet isn’t being useful, since she’s a minor character), but Ren recalls she seemed different when she came back, which makes me wonder if she had a “ghost” with her. She doesn’t warn him not to go, which might suggest if a “ghost” escapes, they use that person to influence others to come to the island. The kids would just think they’re encouraging the rite of passage, and leaving rock piles is a convenient way to tell other teens where to tune in, but it might be interdimensional manipulation. Other kids come. They bring radios. They tune in. The prisoners escape.
Because the accident was covered up by the US government, Maggie can only impart the truth in letters left around the island in hopes someone will find and decipher them. There are also radio stations that only play Morse Code, which translates into messages from the lost Anna Shea attempting to communicate with Maggie the only way she could.
This is another Stranger Things similarity as Will Byers did the same thing with the lights while he was trapped in the upside-down.
Throughout the game, Alex has visions of her late brother Michael where she can apparently influence his decisions. This highly suggests that these are not visions, but rather she’s jumped to the past, as her decisions in these moments can cause Michael not to be alive in the presence. The island literally has a time rift with “ghosts” who experience all of eternity over and over again as well as time loops that Alex herself needs to unwind. If Michael isn’t dead in the present then obviously Alex and Jonas aren’t step-siblings, though they can still know each other through Ren. The death of Jonas’s mother is a fixed event that can’t be changed, and he constantly hears her singing on the island. There’s a choice Alex can make later to let Jonas talk to his mom, but this has the consequence of him disappearing when she’s in the cave bunker.
Maggie’s plan to fix the rift was to cross to the other side and tune the radio from there, so Alex picks up the mantle and attempts to finish Mrs. Adler’s work even while confronted by a possessed Clarissa who warns her she’ll die if she continues. This could be a parallel to Maggie and Anna, though Clarissa’s warning is more antagonistic. Alex can choose to sacrifice her “friend,” which will lead to Clarissa not being remembered by anyone except her, or Alex can choose to stay herself. In choosing the latter, our heroine winds up alone on a black screen that eventually distorts so much that she disappears into a loop with Michael who tells his sister that he and Clarissa are planning to leave town.
Clarissa is not the only character with a variable fate. They’re all at the whim of Alex’s choices, though it’s less about existence and more about relationships. What’s notable is the two that center around the former are Michael and Clarissa, the once couple. As the group leave Edwards Island on the ferry, the screen flickers to Alex discussing her plans to go there and meet Jonas, revealing the time loop is either still going or was present from the very start. Replaying Oxenfree from the same save file allows the player, as Alex, to send her a message from the island. After the epilogue of the second play-through, a new scene shows her with Jonas and Ren at the market buying alcohol before boarding the ferry. Tuning in the radio, Alex receives the warning from her future self. Depending on how she responds, the three friends can decide to not go to Edwards Island, thus preventing the loop they become trapped in. But if a version of Alex had never gone to the island, than that version could never tell another Alex not to come, so either way in some universe, Alex is trapped in a time loop. The timeline just splits in a different way, so that the Alex buying alcohol receives the warning and (maybe) doesn’t go, but the Alex that sent the warning is still in that loop, trapped in limbo the same as the crew of the Kanaloa.
This is discussed more in NIKMOE’s video below.
Oxenfree has to be finished twice in order to get the true ending, and the game forces the player to be a part of the time loop. Near the (initial) end, during one of the mirror scenes, whatever name you put in (from the beginning) appears above Alex’s head, and the realization hits that she was talking to “you,” the player. She was talking to herself as played by the player who is controlling her as much as the ghosts wish to.
There is no way of knowing if the player is playing Alex’s first time in the loop when the game starts. It may our first time around, but we have no idea where we’ve entered from Alex’s perspective. Then again…the loops may not be loops at all, according to this fascinating theory.
The title “oxenfree” is a reference to the catchphrase “olly olly oxen free” used in children’s games to either indicate that players who are hiding can come out into the open, that the position of the sides has changed, or that the game is entirely over. All of these are either present or deliberately obfuscated in Night School Studio’s work. The “hidden players” are the crew of the SS Kanaloa; the “sides” are Alex’s reality and theirs, and the “game” never ends.