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I don’t love Oxenfree, but I can’t stop playing it

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One of my biggest disappointments ever is also one of my most-played games ever

oxenfree review screen 3 Night School Studios

I don’t put much stock in numbers, but I’m often reminded of the one that we gave to Oxenfree, a game that’s become a cult classic since its release in early 2016. It was one of the first reviews I wrote for Polygon; I was honored to be the one to write about this pretty teenage sci-fi game.

I scored Oxenfree a seven, which isn’t bad by our scale. But it’s one of the lowest review scores the game has received to date. I stand by it: Oxenfree is not a game I enjoyed. Yet it’s one of the only story-based games that I have returned to. I’ve played Oxenfree three times, and I’ll likely keep playing it.

I’m drawn to Oxenfree for its ambition. The game continues to be celebrated for its beautiful art and animation, but most influential of all is Oxenfree’s dialogue system, a sprawling and omnipresent series of choices. The teen cast, headed up by player character Alex, snarks freely and often; the exact tenor of that snark is decided by which word balloon you choose. You can even stay quiet.

oxenfree dialogue w watermark Night School Studios

It’s a fascinating system improved by the teenage cast’s sincerity. Life is Strange, is enjoyable despite its often ridiculed dialogue, but Oxenfree does a better job of exploring how teenagers actually talk, or at least how we expect them to. Alex is guarded and defensive in a way that feels honest.

I keep coming back to Oxenfree to tinker with the conversations, try out different directions and piece together a new experience. The platforming and puzzles feel like a punishment, but the game continues to grab me despite those shortcomings. There’s something I find so endearing about its confidence, even right out of the gate.

Oxenfree isn’t a fun game, and I don’t even think it’s that good. But it does enough right that it feels like I’m standing on the very edge of a breakthrough, and I keep hoping the game will take the final steps to greatness every time I return to it. It hasn’t so far, but maybe next time.