'Oxenfree' and the sweet spot of supernatural, teenage drama

There's an alternate reality game buried in Oxenfree's radio frequencies.

"Do you want a cigarette?"

It's a simple question for most people. But for a high school senior surrounded by friends, acquaintances and crushes, the inquiry can be a minefield of reputation management. The question becomes even more treacherous when that high schooler is an adventurous, blue-haired young woman who happens to be drinking with her judgmental peers on a secluded beach next to a decommissioned military base. You know, normal teenager stuff.

This is the opening scene of Oxenfree, Night School Studio's supernatural adventure game that landed today on Xbox One and PC. Oxenfree features terrifying creatures, cave diving, breaking and entering, mystery, death—and, of course, teenage drama.

"Those little tiny moments of being a teenager and what it's like to navigate—'I want to impress somebody' or 'I feel bad when somebody says something bad about me'—all of it exists in this small, intimate social construct," Night School co-founder Sean Krankel says. "We thought that stuff was really exciting to help set the stage for a larger-than-life story."

Krankel is a veteran game developer who most recently worked for Disney. Night School co-founder Adam Hines formerly worked for Telltale, the studio behind The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Game of Thrones and other licensed, story-driven adventure games. Oxenfree is a chance for these two to craft their own story with their own characters. And they choose to build a game about being a teenager.

"That period of time is so defining," Krankel says. "For better or worse, I feel like most of who I am was defined by the time I was like 18. You don't really change that drastically afterwards unless you're like a sociopath." He laughs after that statement, making it either hilarious or infinitely more eerie.

Oxenfree is a coming-of-age tale disguised as a supernatural thriller. It stars Alex, a high school senior who accidentally embarks on a dangerous journey with a handful of friends one fateful night. Players are able to choose what Alex says, where she goes, which doors she opens, how her personality evolves and more.

"You determine how she comes of age," Krankel says. "That's not marketing lingo. By the end of the game, you really do get to interact with a coming-of-age story in ways that a movie or book don't let you."

Oxenfree isn't trying to be The Goonies, Super 8 or Stand by Me, classic stories of young friends getting into trouble and, eventually, saving the day. In Oxenfree, Alex doesn't even like some of the people on the island with her. She simply puts up with them. It's the real-life "friend of a friend" dynamic, played out on the screen.

"We set out to make sure the game didn't feel like the Scooby gang," Krankel says. "They're not a bunch of buddies that are all like 'Let's go on an adventure together.' ... They're teenagers, and there's that friend dynamic there that is not in other games. We can tap into all of the familiar beats of going through being 16, 17, 18 years old that most people have."

High school is inherently dramatic, fraught with overwhelming emotions and changes, which makes it the perfect fodder for a narrative-based adventure game, according to Krankel. For Oxenfree, Krankel and Hines focused on crafting genuine, relatable, intelligent characters who happened to be teenagers, rather than relying on tired horror-movie stereotypes. There's no "jock," "nerd" or "cheerleader" here, but there's plenty of tension in Alex's small group of friends. And that's before the otherworldly creatures show up.

Other recent games have embraced teenage angst, like Life Is Strange, another adventure game with a supernatural bent. Life Is Strange came out halfway through Oxenfree's development, and when it did, the Night School team had to force themselves to stay away from it.

"We didn't want to impact our design process, because they did feel like they were doing so many things right, and we didn't want to veer into their lane," he recalls. "We almost put on earmuffs during the entire release process of Life Is Strange. Our entire team is dying to play it now."

Like Life Is Strange, Oxenfree gets dark. It deals with divorce and the deaths of family members, and it isn't afraid to treat its teenage characters like adults. But it could have been even darker, Krankel says.

"There were some versions of endings that were extremely dark that we ended up cutting because they just didn't feel right, they weren't satisfying," he says. One of the chopped endings "was as bleak as can be imagined," but that extreme darkness betrayed the rest of the story.

In the end, Oxenfree is a bittersweet experience, littered with as much humor and sarcasm as it is death and terror. Kind of like real life.

Speaking of reality—Oxenfree holds more secrets than the screen can contain. The whole game is actually "inspired by true events," an aspect that becomes clearest at the end of the adventure. In a partnership with Robert Kirkman's Skybound Entertainment, Oxenfree will transform into other formats as well, including film.

And there's an alternate reality game coded right into Oxenfree, tied to the radio that Alex carries around the island.

"For the people who dig super-deep into the weird radio station stuff and the secrets that are on the island, there are elements that will actually lead people to things outside of the game, like physical, real-world stuff," Krankel says. "If you align a certain number of radio stations in a certain sequence, and call a certain number, it will guide you to a certain place in the real world."

No spoilers here, but if the radio sequences guide you to an old military base on a quiet island, maybe just stay home. Or be sure to bring a group of friends (and enemies) with you.