OxenFree Review : A Sashimi of conversations, ghosts and emotions

Our world is a bizarre place. Our regular thought processes are severely limited, bound by the years of selective, institutionalized brainwashing. Hence the need to search for something that bucks the norm is innate and as primal as the human species itself. But it is not always the thrill of discovery that drives us. With the advent of social media, the slow death of private corners have shed light to dark corners of a human mind – the torrid spirals of which are not yet traveled by many;  hence for some peeking into the unknown is through seances and EMF readers. and for some it is as simple (and hard!) as to life the veil of the human psyche.

Terribly enough, the culture of the millennium has often sacrificed the intricacies of conversations between two characters to focus on the haute-couture of atmosphere. While the prevalence of investing into the ambiance has paid off to capture the imagination for a brief moment, true masterpieces have often been story and dialogue driven rather than a melange of brilliant images. In between these two polar opposites, simple formulas like Doom proves time and again that sometimes people just want uncluttered pieces of entertainment that come without any baggage of expectations, but then those are one too few in a sea filled with AAA sharks that still want to squeeze every bit of milk from a beaten formula.

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Oxenfree caught my eye in a video a couple of months back. In that video the developers, Night School Studio, were talking about human interactions in the society and how the game emerged as  a development geared towards the reactionary impulses rather than a linear progression. That was interesting since in the paradigm of a video game, different endings were rather fueled by actions and presented as consequences for those actions, and hardly as a result of what you had said. In case of Oxenfree, the experimentation went one step further: the choices did not directly influence the game’s ending. but like real conversations they only built up or ruined relationships between its characters. For most, this open-endedness is rather confusing and ill-devised, but for some it is fascinating play, a foray into territories where the definition of a consumable media is dictated by a cocktail of art and curiosity. But then not all cocktails are Bloody Marys.

A relatively small download and around five hours of playthrough later, Oxenfree is something I wanted to talk about. This is a game where the premise is much simpler than previous story-heavy games that I had played, but that doesn’t mean that this is a slouch. The story in Oxenfree is weird – the kind of weird that makes you continue playing it. The story is layered, and yet the yarns around it are not difficult to pull apart, primarily to make you concentrate on the dialogues that form a majority of your experience – the discussions between people who often reminisce about their past, wish about their future, and do all the other things in between in their present. The visual experience of it mixes the colors of ageing with the colors of growing up, with bright splashes in between. Those patches are reserved for contacts and communications of a special kind : the tearing in space-time continuum, the importance of choices and the desperation of rebirth.

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Voice-overs are to the point as well. Erin Yvette’s Alex is a delight, evoking poignancy in her most vulnerable moments as well as showing remarkable fortitude and strength when being cornered. She is in truest sense the focal point of this adventure, helped along with the sorry camaraderie of people who tag along. Another voice(voices?) in the wall is the radio – but unlike Grand Theft Auto’s jukebox extraordinaire, OxenFree’s static, broken down, discordant catalogue of channels are lost voices in the ether begging for their time. A movie dialogue plays again and again and again; Someone keeps on sending Morse codes; A woman who hides her secrets in thin air; A crescendo that never hits – you often pause and listen to these and think about your own past, of statelessness and existence, of echoes that never go away. OxenFree makes you listen.

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Even with such a script for success, OxenFree at times feels deliberately heavy on walking from point A to B. Some sections are devoid of dialogues or things to do – and revisiting locations only make it worse, hampering the advertised replayability of the game. Although I feel that OxenFree should have been episodic, akin to Telltale’s excellent ‘The Walking Dead’, this in no way feels like a Hors d’oeuvre. Night School Studio should be very proud of what they have achieved here – a near perfect rendition of human interaction and its outcomes, presented in layers of grief, wish, love, awkwardness and longing.

Is OxenFree a perfect video game? No, not at all. But it aspires to be much more than a video game. That in itself is an ambitious leap of faith from an indie developer. It fails, at times rather badly, but what they have created here will stay with me for a long time. If not, just the radio static and the odd piano at the very end of the spectrum; or the Groundhog Day loops; or the horror story it ends up telling through these characters.

Recommended.

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What remains of Edith Finch : What really remains

Indie games are winning.

In an era where major AAA gaming franchises are either strained cash cows or a mass-marketing grand fiasco, indie games are continuing to hold the benchmark flags high. Video games to me are story driven pieces of art, an amalgamation of smart level design, breathtaking atmosphere and intuitive combat. At its core is story and gameplay mechanics. Somehow this notion seems to be unknown to even accomplished studios and people helming them (Peter Mollyneaux comes to mind). As a result we end up getting a lot of games that are unfinished. Either great story, or great combat, or a memorable soundtrack, but very few times coming together to create an unforgettable experience.

Last year, Firewatch became the raging point of discussion amongst the gaming community. A walking simulator as critics labeled games like these, Firewatch told a story that was emotional and lacked any fluff whatsoever. It was blunt and extended the right amount. Conservative in its frame narration and removing any sort of superhuman notion (which games like CoD and Battlefield have been famously known for), the game provided a riveting insight into the human psyche, painting a picture that was to last quite a while. Firewatch to me was the best game of the year, followed closely by another gem, Inside.

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What remains of Edith Finch is a different take on the Firewatch genre, but it keeps the core ideas same and evolves on the concept. Telling the story of a decaying family from the perspective of its youngest member is quite a task to take on, and this game hits it out of the park. This is not so much a game as it is an experience, a soul wrenching at that. There is an unbridled joy in freedom of expression, in freedom to choose life and death and the realities that surround us, and visiting every Finch, knowing their fate through their own words is both harrowing and spectacular. The monsters that consume them eventually are their own creations : fame, desperation, despair, fear, delusion, craving — and most of all, a relentless pursuit of their realities.

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The ending to it all was not as sad as I thought it would be, but the individual stories left a deep mark on me. After I finished this short game, the haunting, minimal soundtrack kept on harping on familiarities that I didn’t want to dig up. Somewhere I longed for my family, my own bunch of loonies with their own fallacies and their own perceptions.

This is where Edith Finch succeeds in telling a story, and being an art. It makes you think : of all possibilities that could have been, and whether we maketh our destinies or our destinies maketh us. At one point I contemplated on whether I should write it all down and get it off my chest, but this in its current state is absolutely worth experiencing.

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What remains of Edith Finch ends up telling us whatever remains of us and people we care for, in a way I have never seen told before through the world of gamepads and keystrokes.

Best Game of 2017, yet.