The debut game from new indie studio Night School, Oxenfree – out now for PC and Xbox One – is one of 2016's first games wholly worthy of your attention, particularly if you've a taste for the supernatural. While the gameplay is reminiscent of a classic LucasArts point-and-click adventure, and the characters' interactions a smorgasbord of love-it-or-loathe-it teen-speak, the atmosphere is almost exclusively one of dread and tension.
The story begins with five teenagers on a beach on an otherwise deserted island, a place once home to an active military installation and small mining operation. (And more, but spoilers.) One, Alex, the character you control, has brought with her a primitive portable radio – mainly because another of the five, Ren, has heard that it's possible to detect strange messages through such a device within an otherwise unremarkable cave. Sure enough, tuning the radio around the cave's mouth triggers a reaction – deeper inside, a portal to another plane of existence, and while not everything on that other side poses a risk to our not-so-famous five, at least one malevolent spirit begins to torment the island's seemingly unwanted guests.
Oxenfree isn't set up to have the player "fail" – in the mould of The Walking Dead and Life Is Strange, its focus is on story, one with several potential endings. Whatever your decisions and actions, you'll always reach one of them. I've played it through once, and was surprised at just how quickly the conclusion was upon me. Not because the game is short – it's around five or six hours, start to finish, I guess (I wasn't timing myself) – but because of the way the narrative jumped from a place with many questions to a wrap-up final reel that didn't quite satisfy. But when I play it again – and I will – I'll take a different approach, handle my friends and kinda-foes in new ways, and see where that takes me. I've no doubt it'll help me piece together the mystery at the centre of this island.
What every player will see, though, is the effect of the island's afterlife residents on its visitors. I asked Barri Ghai, the founder and lead investigator of the UK's Ghostfinder Paranormal Society, for his thoughts on how Night School has realised its scenes of communication through radio, and how his experiences compare to the game's scenes of possession.
"Paranormal investigators use a variety of techniques to attempt communication with the spirit world," he tells me, when I mention Alex's two-way conversations via her radio. "One of these techniques is actually called the spirit box, or spirit radio, and is part of a more general study into something called ITC, Instrumental TransCommunication. This is the use of electronic equipment for the purposes of making audio or video contact with spirits. With modern day equipment, recordings of spirits and ghosts can be captured in sound and image. ITC methods employ electronic devices such as radios, televisions, computers, audio recorders, telephones, ghost boxes and more in an attempt to communicate directly with spirits and ghosts."
So Night School's chattering analogue receiver checks out when it comes to what goes on in the "real world" of ghost hunting. Usually, though, it's not a means to have a friendly chat, as investigators use the technology to document messages from the other side, not directly engage with them. "Electronic devices that can receive video and/or audio are commonly used to try to receive and record spirit messages from beyond the grave," Barri says. "Such communications may be in the form of images or video, but in most cases they are captured on audio recordings called EVPs, Electronic Voice Phenomena."
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There's history to science taking an interest in supernatural phenomenon, too, as Barri explains. "Thomas A. Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, said, 'Life can't make life. Life is. It is not made.' He apparently felt strongly that we are part of something much greater than our perceived selves, something eternal, something everlasting. He knew that if life after death were ever to be proven, it would take science to actually prove it.
"A couple times, Edison indicated that he at least had ideas about creating a device that would be able to detect whatever it is that may survive after the body ceases to be animate. Not certain of what could be recorded, it would appear that he did make attempts to resolve whether or not the human personality survived beyond death. He had an idea that an apparatus could be designed that could magnify the remaining evidence of what many call the soul. He envisioned that, eventually, survival of the human personality would be proven."
Across the story of Oxenfree, Alex has the opportunity to be in as many as seven Polaroid-style photographs. One of these quite clearly shows a presence that didn't appear there on the screen behind her. I'm not about to spoil what form this spirit takes, but I did want to ask Barri about the kinds of ghosts he's encountered – if they stuck to the same loose kind of form, or could vary wildly. Turns out that the latter is closest to the truth.
"Ghost sightings vary massively, and descriptions of spirit forms from around the world change with cultural and religious beliefs. People from all walks of life, ages and backgrounds claim to have seen ghosts for hundreds of years, and descriptions have included animal forms, opaque mists, female banshees, black shadows with red glowing eyes and even real-looking solid human forms.
"From my own personal experiences, ghosts manifest themselves as translucent, representations of their once physical being. I have also encountered faceless black shadow people, and anomalous light forms. During one investigation at the infamous Hellfire Caves in West Wycombe, England I witnessed a smoke-like apparition form in front of my very eyes. The mass had no discernible features, or human form, but had an intelligent energy to it."
I can't help myself, sorry: something that Barri describes there is very much present in Oxenfree. You'll just have to play the game yourself to discover what, though. I feel I'm safe to say that certain characters become possessed – I mean, it's a ghost story, with a bunch of kids just gawping around the place, ready to become vessels for lord-knows-what. The first time one of Alex's companions snaps into a very different demeanour, it's an effective jump scare – and Oxenfree has a few more up its sleeves, too. It's not quite a Silent Hill-like horror, though, as the shocks are always balanced by humour, mostly from the mouth of Alex (assuming you choose to play her as fairly nonchalant to the events unfolding around her, as I did). Possession, on the other hand, is always to be taken seriously.
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"Possession by spirits is a very complicated and subjective area of paranormal study," Barri says. "The possessed is in most cases is not actually aware that they're serving as a conduit for another presence or demon. In most cases that I have read about, possession occurs insidiously and has been attributed to attempts by a person, or persons, to attempt communication with the spirit world via spirit boards, known more commonly as the Ouija board."
There are no Ouija boards in Oxenfree (at least, not that I've found) – just a girl and a radio and tape machines and weird anomalies and reflections that talk back and ohgodwhatwasthat. It might be that you get a happy ending on your maiden playthrough; but in doing so you most likely won't have uncovered everything that this game's makers have hidden away, collectible letters and a great number of crackling messages spitting through the static. Even when there's no obvious threat on screen, twisting the radio dial can produce some truly disquieting noise, beastly roars and garbled words. It's the sort of setting Barri would no doubt have a ball in. Me, I think I'll stick to video games for my ghostly kicks, as experiencing what Alex does for real would leave me ready for the quiet life on a psychiatric wing somewhere.
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