Do you remember what it was like to be a young teen? When you snuck out with friends for the first time, or skipped school, or decided not to do your homework? When you went to a party and got so trashed you fell over yourself? Rebellious youth was something ephemeral, but you were sure these moments would last forever: the nights studded with stars and everything smelling like summer.
Oxenfree is the debut release from evocative indie developer Night School Studio. Released back in January 2016, it taps into the mischief and magic and all the messy romanticism associated with being a teenager. It’s fun, it’s silly, it’s colourful and odd. These qualities imbue every corner of Oxenfree, from the Saturday-morning- cartoon art style (à la Scooby-Doo) to the rounds of quippy dialogue.
When the game begins, we’re introduced to a host of delightful, and quixotic characters. There’s the free-spirited but troubled Alex, her moody new stepbrother Jonas, zany best friend Ren, complicated Clarissa and artsy Nona. The gang arrive on Edwards Island for a party on the beach, but in typical high school horror fashion, soon discover it’s haunted by the crew of a sunken war submarine. Cue time loops, missing friends and a supernatural power struggle.
The original release of Oxenfree, in short, is a gem. But like a lot of narrative-driven games, it’s hard to think of another reason to dive back in once you’ve finished it. Night School seemed to predict this: the dev released a new mode called Oxenfree New Game+, which becomes automatically available once you’ve completed Oxenfree for the first time. This isn’t just a sweet touch for fans: it actually feels necessary. Because despite saving the teens at the end of the game, and seeing them off the island, time rewinds to the very beginning just before the credits hit. It’s an unnerving finish to a game that already feels like a drunken daydream.
We wonder: has Alex been stuck in a time loop this entire time, and for how long? In New Game+, you play the game again but with flashbacks to your original playthrough. Alex will remember conversations and places, despite thinking they’ve never happened. It’s a great way to replay the game, with new dialogue choices and items placed teasingly throughout.
From the moment the game starts, you feel like you’ve been thrown into a time portal. The Night School logo appears on a grey, misty background as Alex, Ren and Jonas make their way to Edwards Island, except this time the picture shudders like an old VHS that’s been played too many times. Ren starts talking about sugar cookies as he did before, but now you can prompt Alex to interrupt him and say, “This is so familiar. I don’t know. I feel like you’ve said all this before.”
These moments prickle Alex throughout the game: the niggling, unnerving sense of conversations and moments having already taken place. It’s so intense it makes Alex sick. Like us, the ghosts know exactly what’s going on, and hint at this in every interaction. “Oh, it’s you again,” they say to Alex when she first opens the time rift in the cave, implying that Alex may have been coming back for years. It’s a frightening thought for a cast of characters you’ve grown to love.
Aside from the added narrative texture, New Game+ is a richer experience than its predecessor. It’s a great excuse to revisit Edwards Island, a gorgeous honeycomb of forests and beaches with delicately coloured backgrounds and buildings that break open like Easter eggs. The colour palette is breathtaking: trees bloom in faded watercolours, caverns glisten in frosty blues and aquamarines, and throughout the night tiny stars appear in the blue like pinpricks of ice.
For a game that could feel frivolous (it’s cartoonish and slim), New Game+ is oddly profound. You soon come to realise that the ghosts that define this game aren’t just literal ones, but ones of childhood. An important revelation shows us that Alex lost her brother the year before, a brother who was also her best friend. Like the ghosts, Alex is lost in time: stuck in the moment when Michael died, and unable to let go. At one point the ghosts tell her, “Our time was not finished. It was taken from us”. In a way, so was Alex’s childhood. She’ll never again have the innocence that cloaked her before Michael’s death.
Does Alex ever get off the island? It’s a question that’s never answered, even in New Game+. But if there’s one thing Night School shows us, it’s that there’s power in youth. Time isn’t on her side, but Alex never stops fighting. A trait of our own youths we’d perhaps forgotten, but one worth recalling.
This article originally appeared in Xbox: The Official Magazine. For more great Xbox coverage, you can subscribe here.