[Ahoy mateys, spoilers abound!]
The Dead Big Brother trope is the logical opposite of the Dead Little Sister—where a DLS often kicks off manpain of some variety it also symbolises a death of innocence, as these characters are very rarely to blame for their death and their adorable, pure spectre haunts the protagonist for the rest of the story. A DBB more often symbolises a death of stability, the loss of a protective anchor that makes the world without it scary, unpredictable, and raw. This is definitely the case for the heroine of Oxenfree, Alex, whose older brother drowned some time before the game’s story begins, leaving a gaping emotional gap in her—and others’—lives. It’s awful. Alas, if only we could go back in time and stop that fatal accident from happening…
There are two elements in Oxenfree that take away the permanence of death, both as freaky and fun as the other: time loops and ghosts. Ghosts, obviously, form a neat metaphor for the lingering presence of grief in whatever form they come, whether it’s horrifying or heartbreaking. It’s a bit of both here, but… mostly the former, because these spirits—the crew of a submarine sunken accidentally by friendly fire—are intent on coming back to the land of the living by anchoring themselves in the bodies of Alex’s friends. Which is terrible and terrifying, but given that their lives were unfairly ripped away from them and they were sucked into a radiation void or whatever, you can kind of understand their reasons for wanting a second chance.
Maggie Adler, a radio operator and code maker whose letters fill Alex (and you the player) in on the full tragic backstory, spent the last of her days wishing for a second chance too—she blames herself for the sinking of the submarine, first and foremost, but in the process of trying to communicate with the ghosts and fix it, her best friend (possible lover?) got sucked into the void and was never seen or heard of again. Layers of regret and grief loop around Maggie’s story, just as regret and grief loop around the ghosts themselves… and just as regret and grief loop around Alex, who feels in many ways responsible for both waking up the ghosts and for her brother Michael’s death. This is the implication, anyway—Clarissa accuses her because Alex took him out swimming as a goodbye celebration before he left for college, where he drowned. Alex can react to this blame any way the player pleases, but there’s no denying that she would feel at least partially that it was her fault if what Clarissa says is true.
And the thing is… you can fix it. The time loops that zap you throughout the game eventually get so wild that they send Alex back to the previous year, when Michael is still alive, and you have the opportunity to sway him with chosen dialogue. You can convince him to either stay with or dump Clarissa, and in the end, whether to stay at home or follow his dreams and go travel and study elsewhere. You can jerk time itself around so much that you can reset the timeline and get an ending where Michael is leaving the island on the boat with you, and has apparently been there the whole time, because he never died. You can “save” him by meddling with the past! I mean, Alex still has all her traumatic memories and would have had them fundamentally change her as a person, but she can just soldier on in this “good” timeline, right? Like Max Caulfield after she fixes things so the entirety of Life is Strange never happened.
Saving Michael becomes a moral dilemma. When I played with WB, not knowing the consequences WB encouraged him to follow his dreams, citing that it was cruel to try and hold someone back and make them stay in an environment they clearly aren’t comfortable in for your own selfish reasons. But is it selfish, to crush his ambitions if it stops him from dying? That’s something Alex, and you the player, have to figure out for yourself. As Michael himself says, at pivotal moments in life you have to choose what to take and what to leave behind.
Breaking the time loop that Alex is stuck in (which gives the game some incredible replay value if I do say so myself) is only possible if you send word through to the past and make sure Alex and her friends never go to the haunted island and enter the time loop in the first place. This in itself might not be a perfect ending since you being able to contact a past version of yourself possibly means time itself is still awry, but if I start getting into the scientific intricacies of that my brain is going to take a holiday from my skull. The main point is, to get what is mostly known as the “good end”, i.e. the one where the events of the game never happen and nobody gets the chance to be eaten by ghosts… well, the events of the game can’t happen, which means none of the time travel required to save Michael can happen. To save your friends and live out a happy life, you have to choose to leave him behind.
The Alex that puts out the call to her past/alternate self knows this, and effectively the message of the story becomes that you have to move forward to save yourself. You have to accept that Michael is dead and instead of looping back to redo the past, you have to deal with the present you have and work towards making the future better. I really like that Alex’s most important relationship in the game is with her new stepbrother Jonas—it’s a new friendship, a new sibling bond, not replacing Michael so much as starting to fill the emotional void he’s left behind, and letting Alex grow the courage to embrace that and let new people into her broken heart.
The drowning motif draws a comparison between the ghosts and Michael (and indeed the time loops themselves leave characters feeling like they’re “drowning in their own head” so there’s definitely a repeated symbolism going on there): both were lost to the sea, and the ghosts are clamouring to come back and Alex is clamouring to bring Michael back, but in the end the dead must be left buried for life to go on. You can mess about with possession and time travel all you want, but in the end human grief must just be felt, experienced, and accepted. There will always be regrets and things we want to change, but in the end this becomes a story about not letting the ghosts win, both literally and metaphorically.