Life is Strange, Night in the Woods, and Oxenfree form sort of a holy triangle of “young woman returns to a place from her childhood, has a complicated growing-up adventure, and has to fight a frightening supernatural force” game stories. They have common ground not just in their themes but in their wonderfully gothic small-town settings, all three of which serve as fantastic landscapes not just for the player to explore, but to heighten the tension and atmosphere and make the characters’ journey more vivid. Each protagonist is in a liminal time of their lives, caught between childhood and adulthood—Alex of Oxenfree and Max of Life is Strange being in their final year of high school, Mae of Night in the Woods being in her early twenties—and what better way to reflect this unsettling in-between-ness than placing these characters in an equally unsettling setting, where the past and the future symbolically collide alongside night terrors that are decidedly more literal?
A lot of love and work has gone into creating three-dimensional settings for these stories, places with history, complexities, and an effective dark undercurrent… almost making Arcadia Bay, Possum Springs, and Edwards Island main characters in their own right alongside the heroes navigating them. So what makes these settings work? What exactly makes them so spooky? And what makes them such good arenas for these stories about the terrors of growing up to take place?
Each of these places exudes a spooky air, so let’s look at how that’s achieved. Obviously, these small towns are all isolated, autumnal and cold, a bit decrepit, and full of the kind of small-town culture that can be suffocating if you don’t fit in. But these towns are spooky on a more personal level, too. Fear, most often, comes from juxtaposition—a weird and discomfiting mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. James Twitchell defines that “Horror results from the brutal irreconciliation of opposites, a jerking displacement of understood visual signs that shocks our nervous system”. This “displacement of understood visual signs” is why, for example, horror movies have such a great love for creepy things associated with childhood: we’re used to small children, their toys, and their nursery rhymes being linked to innocence, cuteness, and harmlessness, which is why the images of demonic little girls, haunted dolls, and slowed-down off-key lullabies are so spooky. It’s just not meant to be that way, and this is where the heebie-jeebies set in.
Much as I loathe to quote Freud, he did give us a very handy word for this type of fear, calling it “the uncanny”. An uncanny feeling is that discomfort with the familiar made unfamiliar (this is also where we get The Uncanny Valley from, which is all about that weirdness that comes from a face being familiar but not quite familiar enough). It’s more “creepy” than “horrific” as a feeling and as a mode of storytelling. For example, Barbara Creed says a slasher movie, while scary, is not uncanny, because “in the excess of blood and gore there is nothing that transforms from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Everything is unfamiliar. Excess is the enemy of the uncanny.”
Creed also insists that “the uncanny sensation must be produced by the text itself, through the methods it adopts to uncover the uncanny”, so this is yet another case where how the story is told is even more important than what actually goes down in the story. Anything can be made to be spooky, in fact the big draw of “uncanny” fear is that its source should be normal, but isn’t. We can’t reconcile our expectations of a certain thing with what’s happening to it before our eyes, and so we get the creeps.
Their nature as “familiar, yet unfamiliar” is the biggest factor that makes these quaint little towns so spooky. Arcadia Bay, Possum Springs, and Edwards Island are all places that the stories’ protagonists know from childhood, but gone awry both naturally and supernaturally. Again, perspective matters most here: Max and Mae grew up in their respective towns before moving away, and Alex has many memories of school trips and holidays to the island. These are places associated with these characters’ youths, with more innocent and happy days where they had less responsibility and, in all three cases, before they had experienced grief.
All three protagonists are suddenly faced with death in their teen years: Max with the death of Chloe’s father, Mae with the death of Bea’s mother, and Alex with the death of her older brother. These deaths marked a pivotal point in all three characters’ lives and relationships with other people, complicating Max and Chloe’s friendship (especially once Max moves away and contact drops off between them) and fracturing Mae and Bea’s (highlighted by the drunken Mae needing to be reminded that Bea’s mother died) and creating tension between Alex and her brother’s girlfriend, who blames Alex for his death. It’s a pivotal moment that impacts their lives and acts as a fracture point between “innocence” and “maturity”. And it impacts their relationship with their homes, too–now they’re full of ghosts.
Basically, these places of childhood innocence can no longer be viewed that way, both for their being tainted by the very grown-up business of loss and grief, and because within the story these characters are returning to these places and looking at them as young adults. Two versions/visions of these towns come to exist, and they are difficult to reconcile. Everything looks different through the lens of memory, and coming home to these places to view them through the harsh light of maturity is incredibly jarring, creating that juxtaposition that gives us the uncanny feeling. And that’s even before the spooky stuff starts happening…
Life is Strange is the odd duck here, since that game begins with Max’s vision of the tornado destroying the town and gets to the whole time-rewinding business relatively quickly. Both Night in the Woods and Oxenfree spend a great deal of time setting up an uncanny, off-kilter atmosphere before the supernatural element explicitly rears its head; leading to the wonderfully gothic quality of Night in the Woods that I’ve talked about before, where you’re not even really sure there is something supernatural going on until near the end of the story. Does this place feel weird because it’s literally haunted, or just because it’s haunting to the point-of-view character? Something feels distinctly off about Edwards Island, but until the incident with the radio you (and Alex) can’t be sure if there’s really anything to worry about. I mean, it’s a secluded island full of closed-up shops and one empty mansion, at night, where the protagonist is surrounded by the memory of her brother dying. It’s only natural that something should feel weird. Right?
It turns out that there is something legitimately spooky afoot, but the atmosphere of melancholy and menace is so tied up in the player-character’s personal experience with the place that for a while it’s difficult to tell. These towns are uncanny two ways: the familiar town made unfamiliar by the presence of ghosts/time weirdness/cosmic horror, and the familiar town made unfamiliar by the protagonist viewing this childhood place through grown-up eyes.
Oxenfree and Night in the Woods are much more overtly spooky than Life is Strange is, but the uncanny sense still lingers in Arcadia Bay. The unsettling natural phenomena like the double moons and the swarming birds are one thing, but at the same time Max is forced to juxtapose her childhood memories of this quaint little town with the increasingly dark vision of it that she’s introduced to when she returns. There’s sexual violence, there’s drugs, there’s gunfire, there’s homelessness… and there’s Jefferson, whose betrayal provides a death-blow to the last remaining shreds of Max’s childish naïveté. And Chloe, once a familiar anchor of childhood, is the most unfamiliar sight of all, now sporting blue hair and a taste for anarchy and seeming so tragically mature. Max has grown up and this happy place has become broken and horrifying. Or was it always that way, and she’s just only now noticing?
It’s the same with the other two: Possum Springs has been dying for years (to the point where the town elders have been making sacrifices to an underground god to try and keep it afloat) and Edwards Island has always been haunted by the tragedy of the blown-up submarine (even if not everyone was aware of the literal ghosts). Though these hauntings have been taking place for their entire lives, Mae and Alex just didn’t have the tools or mindset to pick up on it until they returned as adults, and so their childhood “everything is fine” vision creates memories that are ultimately untrue. That’s what adulthood is, I guess: realising that nostalgia and innocence put a filter over things, and having to move forward with that realisation. And, in this case, deal with some supernatural nonsense too.
Though really, the conflicts are one and the same, and the setting serves as a reflection of the character in more ways than they initially realise: Alex is haunted by grief for her brother, just as Edwards Island is haunted by vengeful ghosts; Max is faced with an oncoming storm of responsibility and new adult knowledge that threatens to destroy her childhood innocence, much like how her childhood home is literally being faced by an oncoming storm that threatens to destroy it; and Mae is clinging to an image of the less-complicated past, much like the town elders who are feeding a cosmic entity in the hopes of restoring Possum Springs to its former nostalgic glory.
In the end, Alex saves herself and her friends from the ghostly time loop by letting her brother go, Max can (in what I’ve already opined is the more thematically satisfying ending) accept that her childhood is over and move forward into the future, and Mae acknowledges that things are crappy but resolves to fight on and protect what’s dear to her rather than falling into a pit of despair. Their development, which leads to their final actions, directly impacts the setting, just as the setting directly impacted their journey up to that point: Arcadia Bay is destroyed, the cult is sealed beneath the earth, and the ghosts are banished (depending on your ending, of course).
These places will never be the same again, nor will these three protagonists (unless you’re Alex, stuck in an endless time-loop with no growth and no closure in sight… but let’s look at the ending where she manages to escape, for clarity and because the alternative is too horrible). But that’s all part of growing up, which is what makes these uncanny childhood homes such an effective setting for a coming-of-age story. Growing up means seeing double: in one eye, your memories of the past, in the other, the harsher adult reality. Adolescence is frightening, strange, and filled with the sort of hovering uncertainty that defines ghost stories and stories of small town cosmic horror. Supernatural they may be, but they go together pretty naturally.