So I was originally going to do a review of Oxenfree but realized I more wanted to talk about storytelling and how interactive media (video games) are not being utilized well as a medium. Oxenfree is a supernatural horror story about a group of teens trapped on an island overnight that is haunted by ghosts. The game itself is somewhere in between a walking simulator and a point and click adventure game. You do not really scavenge for items or solve puzzles in this game, but you do get dialogue options and choices (few not a lot) so it has more going on in it than a traditional walking simulator.
So before I go on with my criticisms, I first have to praise the actual dialogue mechanic in the game. During conversations, your character (Alex) will have one of three choices to say. The thing is, the conversation does not stop for you to stop and think about what you want to say. The other characters keep talking, and once you make your decision you interrupt whoever else was speaking. That character may continue their sentence using a continuer such as “yeah”, “but”, “like I was saying”, etc. This creates the most realistic conversations I have ever seen in any media. Next time you’re at a coffee shop, eavesdrop on a conversation and see how often people interrupt one another. We do not wait for nice breaks to say our piece, we interject and interrupt and talk over one another. This is a staunch difference than how characters talk in movies, tv, and video games where there are clear breaks for each character to say their lines. Conversations do not have clean edges in real life. These conversations were a bit jarring at first but I quickly realized how these interruptions and talking over made the game more life-like.
Story Spoilers after this point for Oxenfree, Her Story, and Life is Strange.
So the dialogue mechanic is great, so why do I think Oxenfree story was not good? Because there is no reason it could not have been told as a movie. Pretty much the only choice you have in the game is to be nice or mean to your friends, and possible sacrifice one to the ghosts that are haunting you. That’s it. The story plays out the same regardless of what you do.
Now if you read my Her Story post you know I loved that game. That was a great use of the medium as you the player created that story of discovery. You the player were being pulled in by what you were viewing and projecting your feelings on the playable character. The barriers between the player and the game are utilized as mechanics so that the player can further project themselves into the playable character.
Oxenfree does not do this. Alex’s personality is shown through her pre-determined dialogue which is brief. You get a sort of idea of who she is and how she acts. The thing is, you can make dialogue choices based on the hints to her personality, or how you would respond, or just randomly because why not? For example, Alex and another character, Clarissa, have a frigid relationship from the start of the game. You can either be nice or mean to Clarissa throughout the game. But why bother? Nothing about the main goal, escape the island, or the relationship changes if your nice to Clarissa. I was so nice to her and she was still snippy and mean to me. You can get two characters to date but it does not change anything. I didn’t even try to get them together or knew that was not a possibility until the game was over and showed me that there were other possibilities. The only time I felt a choice mattered is when I had the option to sacrifice someone to escape. Choosing to rescue one character before another makes that character dislike you, but I didn’t feel like it mattered. So what if he dislikes me, his dialogue may be different but the events of the game still play out the same.
Now I was not expecting some sort of complex decision tree or relationship meter or anything. But, stories that are told through interactive media should utilize the media to its advantage. The goal should be to create the same feelings in the player that the playable character is experiencing. The way to do this is through the games mechanics. I already talked about how Her Story did this, but That Dragon, Cancer also does this. I have not played it but please listen to this podcast where the creator explains how he tried to utilize interactive media to tell the story of his son.
So how could Oxenfree make me be scared and worried about me and the other characters? Give the other characters purpose! They were nothing more than dolls that did nothing while I ran around saving everyone and figuring out what was going on. You told me Ren is my best friend, but he sure did not act like it during the game. He eats a pot brownie after the ghosts show up and you go missing from the group. What kind of friend does that?
Life is Strange does this very well because of the rewind mechanic and a clear indicator that a decision you made will have effects. Being able to make a dialogue choice, get an idea of how it will play out and the rewinding time to change your decision until you decide which you like makes me care about other characters. There are multiple conflicts in the game besides the main mystery and what you do in those conflicts will affect how characters will or won’t help you with the main mystery. Also, because you get so much information by rewinding and re-responding the characters are not flat characters but seem more real. They gain depth and intrigue. Even though the ending is not dependent on anything but the last choice in the game, each player’s experience was different than another player’s. The beginning and the end are pretty much the same for everyone, but the middle was a unique journey for each player. This is the only game I have viewed multiple Let’s Plays of by different people because they played the game in very different ways and created very different experiences.
So how do we tell a good story in a video game? Realize mechanics are part of the story-telling not something to differentiate a video game from a movie. The mechanics of the game should convey feelings to the player that the playable character is experiencing. Be able to show depth to your characters as they will appear on screen and have a greater impact on the player than they would in a movie to a viewer. The player will linger around them and try to learn about them so give them depth. And most importantly, always remember the player will project themselves into the game overlaying the protagonist. This is a story experienced by the player, not a story about the main character that was viewed by the player. Unlike traditional media, the player is not limited to being a viewer but becomes a part of the media.
Okay I swear I wrote the initial drafts of this post before Gamemaker’s Toolkit’s video on the language of video games. If you want to see someone better explain a lot of what I was trying to say check out his video here.