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? Continue reading
In this horror game, a group of teenagers who kind of hate each other travel to a secluded environment with no mobile reception and only one safe passage in or out (because that’s always a foolproof plan for fun). Tension is high because they’re mourning the loss of the sibling(s) of one member of the group, and people are blaming each other for their death. Two characters kind of have a thing going on and the player has the opportunity to get them together or keep them apart. Spooky things start happening, the group gets split up, and what began as a sweet fun high school romp becomes a quest to survive the night and get safely home. Is it indie ghost story Oxenfree I’m describing, or my Problematic Fave Until Dawn?
These are actually two wildly different pieces of media, but on reflection they had enough similarities that I felt a compare-and-contrast could be interesting, if only because of the first thing they have in common: supposedly I don’t even like spooky fiction, weak soul that I am, yet I loved both of these games and find myself still thinking about them enough to write another thousand-or-so words months and even years after first picking them up. The second thing these two have in common is that it feels kind of incorrect to call either of them “horror games”: Until Dawn is more of an interactive horror movie, complete with a fully-loaded arsenal of stock characters and predictable tropes from horror cinema around which it builds its existence; and Oxenfree is more of a ghost story in the traditional sense. It’s this atmospheric shift that makes comparing them so interesting, since they both manage to be fantastically engaging and frightening despite the very different ways they build their worlds and attempt to scare the pants off you. Continue reading
[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… Continue reading