I remember when it used to be no big deal to drive six hours to New England. Or make a twelve-hour trek to Maine. Heck, sometimes I didn’t mind letting my foot off the gas just so the trip would last. These long drives never felt lonely. The friends I traveled with made it all worthwhile: folks I assumed that would be with me forever.
Oxenfree taps into this idea of traveling with good company. You spend a lot of time walking slowly, but I never felt bored or lonesome. In fact, the conversations made me want to walk even slower — just so I could savor everybody’s input before moving on.
Before long, I felt intimately connected to all of Oxenfree’s characters despite only seeing them through this distant long-shot view. Ren and Jonas made me feel like I had a lot to catch up on even after they just explained things on the ferry ride onto the island, but their ongoing conversation made me feel like I was instantly a critical part of their worlds. I knew more about Ren and Jonas than I knew about myself. I only figured out that I’m a girl named Alex, a high school junior with turquoise hair. And Jonas, Ren, and I were meeting other high school classmates at an ex-military base island after dark.
We caught up with Nona and Clarissa after we walked and talked across the island. After catching up, we played a game of Truth or Slap (no Dare) on the beach. We learned how Ren felt about Nona — and what Clarissa seemed to think of everybody. As is often the case when playing goofy teenage games, the conversation turned awkward. This resulted in Ren, Jonas and I going for a walk to a cave. The cave reacted to my radio. If I tuned to just the right station, weird lights and voices emanated. It got weird and spooked us out a little bit. Then Jonas ran off into the cave. I followed. We soon found ourselves waking up in a field, trying to make sense of what just happened. We needed more time to sort out what was going on, but in the midst of that mania, I realized Alex and Jonas’ need to talk about their weird situation as newfound step siblings. Fortunately, we had a long walk ahead of us.
This experience reminded me of a specific trip to Maine in my early 20s. My buddy Adam invited our buddy Karen and I to stay with him in his tiny camper in the middle of nowhere. We barely fit in the thing, and certainly not comfortably. But after leaving a party to head back to the camper, Adam’s junker car overheated, leaving us stranded in the woods. He peed on it it to try to cool it off, which (surprise) didn’t fix the problem. Soon a cop came by and said, “Dammit, Adam! Haven’t I told you to stop driving this thing? Your license, insurance, and registration are all expired!” The cop ticketed Adam and called us a tow truck. We crammed the three of us into the tow truck’s cab with the massive sweaty driver. Then we rode back to Adam’s camper. Adam despaired. He told us how he’d gotten thousands of dollars in debt and fines before this, got kicked out of college, and long since stopped believing in God. That may have been one of the crappiest car rides in Adam’s life, but this was the most honest and meaningful conversation I had ever had with him.
Oxenfree only gives you a few verbs like, tune your radio, pick one of three responses to conversation, open a door, pick up a letter, or the most powerful verb in the game: walk. In other games, walking only gets you to point A and B. But here, walking unlocks conversations with those you journey with. And the potential of those journeying conversations seems to be deeper and more meaningful friendships.
You get to hug everybody at the end of the game, before you go on to your final challenge. This meant a lot to me, and I’m still trying to understand why. There’s something sad about a hug: the close embrace that signifies a bond that must now be tested by distance. Hugs also say, “We’ve travelled together and now we mean more to each other.”
I grew to care about Ren, Jonas, Clarissa, and Nona. I wanted to see who they became years down the road, and I didn’t want to lose touch. But Oxenfree reminded me that these travelling friendships always come with the risk of drifting apart.