(Spoilers for the video game Oxenfree ahead)
As a veteran of Bioware, Telltale Games and numerous RPGs, I’m the type of person who enjoys games that pride themselves on choices. Though I don’t necessarily shy away from fixed plotlines and even simple story beats (Breath of the Wild is one of my favorite games of all time, after all) games with multiplicity in them always make my experience feel more personal, and open up more satisfying and dynamic interactions with others who play them.
It is because of that that the moment I finished my first playthrough of Oxenfree, I immediately googled different endings to check out what others players had gotten (I personally don’t replay games that often unless there’s several romanceable options) and was astonished at realizing you could actually save Michael, the main character’s deceased brother, in some of the game’s alternate endings.
I entered the game with no spoilers and no outside knowledge of the story, which is recommendable but not essential — a big part of my enjoyment came from simply reacting to the real-time dialogue sequences and the horror moments, not from dramatic twists — and as such my experience was ultimately unique to my perspective of the game.
Michael is introduced early on, whether you mention him to others or not. Our main character, Alex, is goaded into admitting her brother died a few years ago by the girl who used to be his girlfriend. You can choose not to say anything to your new stepbrother (the game’s kickstarter event is you bringing him to a social event planned a while before) but the game lets you, the player, know almost as soon as the whole cast is assembled. He’s not a small character in the game, which is surprising considering he’s well, dead, and he plays an enormous role in Alex’s journey and anxieties.
Alex’s best friend, Ren, makes a remark in the opening sequence — “You’re getting a new sister, huh?” — to your stepbrother, Jonas. If you choose to react more aggressively to this prompt, Alex can tell him: “That’s not how it works. You don’t get a new sister like it’s a puppy.” It’s not particularly hard detective work to figure out Alex snapping at Ren is her own thoughts about Michael and Jonas. The death of her brother is still extremely fresh in her mind, and here comes her mom, marrying again and getting a new brother in the package, just like a puppy. In fact, the concept of ‘is Jonas Michael’s replacement, or is he something else to Alex?’ is one of the major emotional conflicts in the plot, and goes beyond subtext in some of its endings.
The Alex I played, my version, was very clearly trying to be nice to Jonas. From my own personal history, I know what it’s like to have a sibling snap at you and act like you’re extra luggage someone forgot to take off the car, and I related a lot more to Jonas than I did to Alex, with her eccentric blue hair, loving older sibling figure and close best friend. Jonas is an outsider in Alex’s world, for the time they spend on Edward’s island. He is surrounded by her friends, in a place she knows, trying to fit himself into the mold her brother has left — his younger sister, his girlfriend, his role.
Even though it was hard for me to empathize with Alex, her love for Michael was very well written. The quips he throws at her, the subtle idealization of an older brother by the younger sibling who adores them, the resentment when they spend time when their significant other, the feeling of being left behind if they decide to leave…
The plot of Oxenfree is about trying to figure out what’s wrong in this haunted island and escaping with as many of your friends alive as possible. Or, at least, that’s what it is on the outside. Internally, Oxenfree is a lot less about escaping the island, than it is escaping time itself. More specifically, escaping the time before Michael died. You are constantly caught in time loops only you can remember, seeing your friends die or get possessed before your eyes, while you struggle trying to tune in an old radio that deafens you with static.
There is a very blatant sense of wanting to infuse the player with powerlessness — while you can move around during these pseudo cutscenes, nothing you do will have any effect. All timed events are always around ten seconds long, so quick you barely have time to think, just move, move move because your friends are in danger and you’ve gotta do something.
Alex needs to escape the time loops, needs to put old souls that keep haunting the island, to let herself be free. Her journey is about learning to stop being angry at the past, to let fury drown just as much as the spirits who chase them did. The obvious opposite to her is Clarissa, who’s been so angry and bitter about Michael’s death that she cannot resist the ghosts, who acts as a puppet for their own selfish ends, and who you can even sacrifice, if you so choose.
For me, the message was obvious — Alex needs to start to forgive Michael for the fact that he died, and accept new family into her life, without replacing what Michael was for her. Jonas is the character who’s with you for the most part, if you choose to chase him into the cave, and he grows closer to Alex, almost creeping up on her curt manner and hidden vulnerability. He bickers with her best friend, he smokes, he’s not the most academically smart kid, and he seems kind of a loner. Michael, who was a top student and extremely perceptive and popular, is as different to Jonas as night and day. They can both fit into Alex’s heart, and she can love Jonas as her brother just as much as she did Michael.
So it was such a shock once, upon googlings, I found out the game gives you the option to revive Michael, and have him replace Jonas in every picture and sequence during the game.
It seemed so…backhanded. So contrary to the game’s emotional core, so gimmicky that it felt like it had to be fake, or a mod. But it wasn’t. Oxenfree allows you to let Alex have her brother back, and just completely erase Jonas from her memory. It allows the player the opportunity to stay in the past, forever. There’s also, if you’re skilled and attentive enough, an ending where you get to keep both.
Loss is…complex. It’s something every single person deals with differently, and which touches us in the weakest chinks in our armors, our Achilles’ heels. I have suffered many losses in my life, sadly, and all of them played out in stark contrast to each other. Some are life-changing, some are so easy to forget that you’re reminded starkly half-way through a sentence, some you never acknowledge. So although it seemed, to me, like a slap in the face of Oxenfree’s entire message to have the option to replace Jonas with Michael, it might not feel that way for everyone. Grief and mourning are processes with several stages, steps in a long, infinite staircase of coping.
Maybe I’m just on a step that those players weren’t. Maybe that other ending can be a momentary comfort, to someone. Maybe Night School Studio didn’t even think this hard about it. Maybe.
It’s made me think, at least.