Night School's first title matches attractive art to creepy sounds and a story that sees a coming-of-age adventure take a turn for the terrifying.
Be fair, a lot of new video games look and play a lot like what you've seen before. Some gun sights and enemies to shoot at. A size-five synthetic-leather sphere and 22 sweaty men running about a field that feet occasionally clip through. Nostalgic pixel art and difficulty spikes so treacherous you can lose a limb just by pressing the A button too slowly. Which isn't to say that the familiar can't be fascinating, but isn't it great to spy a forthcoming game on the horizon that legitimately feels new?
Oxenfree is one such title, coming to PC and Xbox One in January 2016. The elevator pitch alone is intriguing, somewhere between a midnight multiplex screening and an episode of Eerie, Indiana: "A supernatural teen thriller about a group of friends who unwittingly open a ghostly rift." The game follows a group of young adults as they spend a night on an island that was once home to a military installation, and now a local urban legend. Venturing into the island's caves, they discover strange radio waves while tuning a handheld receiver. Which is where things go from weird to, quite possibly, terrifying.
That disclaimer's in there for a couple of reasons. One, I've not yet played Oxenfree, but can't wait to, as everything I've seen of it looks fantastic. Two, the game's art style – think Double Fine producing a Saturday morning cartoon – doesn't necessarily resonate with blood-chilling potential. It does feel, however, entirely in keeping with this game's makers' background. Oxenfree's studio, the Los Angeles-based Night School, was founded in 2014 by a couple of cousins whose past experience can be seen right there, on the screen.
"My co-founder Adam Hines was the lead writer on The Wolf Among Us and Tales from the Borderlands at Telltale," Night School's Sean Krankel tells me. "Before that, he wrote a massive graphic novel called Duncan the Wonder Dog. I started as a production coordinator on Disney Pixar movies, produced and designed a few games in the Crash Bandicoot franchise, directed an alternate reality game for the Focus Features' movie 9, and most recently was at Disney as design director on Where's My Water. I got laid off last year and it was the kick in the ass I needed to finally start the studio, so I brought with some trusted artist, designer, and developer folks from Disney."
Sean and Adam had never worked together, professionally, prior to establishing Night School, but they'd long discussed the possibility of working together on something significant. As kids, they shot "weird VHS movies", and drew their own comics. "Last year we had an 'a-ha' moment chatting about interacting with narrative in ways that vary from how other developers are handling it," Sean says. "The idea of building Night School was born at the same time as Oxenfree's design concept, but we didn't have the story hammered out until a few months later."
For the game's synopsis to take playable shape requires certain mechanics to be in place. Oxenfree's narrative interactions are vaguely in the Telltale model – when responding, you are given a number of options to choose from. And there's a lot of talking in Oxenfree, which meant that Sean and Adam needed to turn to some established acting talents.
"The casting process was pretty exhaustive, as these characters go through some pretty crazy stuff over the course of the night, and depending on how players interact with them, need to have a wide ranging set of performances. We ended up finding a mix of game and TV actors, and the cast feels really natural to us. Our two leads, Erin Yvette and Gavin Hammon, are both Telltale vets with roles in most of the Telltale games, and Britanni Johnson played Angel in Borderlands. The rest of the cast are local LA actors on the rise."
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The radios that the characters carry with them are absolutely vital to proceedings, too – it's through these contraptions that the game connects the world beyond our own, where Oxenfree's spirits lurk, to that of these playable protagonists. Sean tells me that the sound side of the game was sorted before almost anything else.
"The first person we brought on after the core team was in place was SCNTFC. His real, less-cool name is Andy. Andy had done music for Sword & Sworcery and Galak-Z before this, as well as designing the Xbox dashboard soundscape. He's just this ridiculously talented musician with a real passion for games and film. I pitched the game to him as needing a score that's 'John Carpenter meets Boards of Canada by way of Philip Glass', and crossed my fingers that that description wasn't batshit crazy, and within a few days he delivered a track that was exactly what we were looking for.
"All of the sounds in the game are authentic – he bought a bunch of real 1940s military radios and tape players, broadcast himself and captured it on a HAM radio, then put it on a reel-to-reel and stretched out the tapes. The dude is nuts, and it adds so much to the entire experience."
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SCNTFC's "nuts" approach to shaping the creepy sounds of Oxenfree has paid dividends, looking at corners of the games press that have played the game. It has "an atmosphere of dread tenser than most generic gore-fests", wrote Polygon in a December-published hands-on preview. Sure, the characters look kinda cute, but you just know things are going to go badly for them.
"The art direction was inspired pretty heavily by the film Song of the Sea, and the classic adventure game Another World," Sean says. "We wanted it to feel 2D and 3D at the same time, with a dark feature animation quality. It was important to us that the world felt analogue, inviting, and nostalgic, so when the shit hits the fan and things get dangerous, it's even more jarring." Which leads us neatly to the story, and its inspirations, which Sean happily explains.
"Every aspect of the story, be it spooky or friendly, came from our early design decisions. The first thing we tackled was movement and communication being intertwined, which led us to a game where you spend time with a small cast living out relatable scenarios.
'Oxenfree', official teaser #2
"So, we had a group of people in the middle of a coming-of-age story, but wanted to set that against something dangerous. We kept scratching at the idea of communication being key to every aspect of the design, and realised that the supernatural world was underutilised in games and perfect for communication mechanics.
"We loved how movies like Poltergeist use the breakdown of communication as something scary, but also really playful. That ultimately led to our supernatural beings, but we needed a way to directly interact with them. Radios are such familiar yet weirdly magical devices, and provided a deep well of gameplay mechanics, and in our game you use them to explore, talk, carve open portals, and more."
While Oxenfree will launch on PC and Xbox One, users of other systems should keep their fingers crossed for further platform announcements, as that's very much the plan at Night School: "We want as many people as possible to play the game, so that's probably in the cards," says Sean. It seems to me like there's palpable anticipation for this properly new indie release – at least, I'm very eager to get my thumbs wrapped around it.
"Everyone is heads-down right now wrapping the project up, so it's amazing knowing that people are feeling it," Sean concludes. "Especially because nobody has seen where the story goes. If people are digging the little bits they've seen, I am pretty sure they are going to go bonkers when they play the full game."
Oxenfree is released for PC and Xbox One on January 15th 2016. Find more information and pre-order links at the game's official website.
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