Earthbound is the traditional touchstone for a certain genre of nostalgia. It looks back to a specific kind of suburban life; one where sticks become swords and magic wands, and kids fight off aliens or wild beasts with them. Similarly, when designing the first Zelda game, Miyamoto drew from his own backyard adventures to communicate a sense of wonder at the scope of the world and the excitement of saving it.
Lately, we’ve seen some games building on that model—from the fantastical questing of Crossing Souls to the magical realism of Beeswing—revisiting childhood, but also telling stories about a slightly older group of kids. Yes, teenagers. The drama of adolescents is one of fumbling with maturity during what is probably our most substantial period of transition. Psychoanalyst and author Louise J. Kaplan wrote that “adolescence represents an inner emotional upheaval, a struggle between the eternal human wish to cling to the past and the equally powerful wish to get on with the future.” It’s this conflict embodied by the teenager that makes for a compelling story.
Revealed at GDC this week, Oxenfree tells a tale in this vein. It’s about a group of teens who stay overnight on a possibly haunted island as part of a local tradition. Like Night in the Woods (in which teenagers stay overnight in a possibly haunted forest as part of a local tradition), Oxenfree is an adventure game that focuses on the relationships between its characters. Here, the player controls Alex, whose new stepbrother tags along to the overnight island party for local high school seniors.
After the dares and the drinking is out of the way, it’s not long until the group accidentally opens a ghostly rift using a camping radio. The trailer communicates the imminent danger inherent to this act with sudden, degenerated VHS-style glitches—recalling a time when people actually used VHS tapes, and perhaps hinting to the period in which the game is set. But this supernatural twist is the act that spurs our teenage cast towards change, pressing them to mature, even if they don’t want to. What’s further interesting, with this being a videogame, is that it gives us the chance to get involved and relive our teenage years—helping Alex and her friends transition from child to adult with the decisions we make for them.
Night School, the studio behind Oxenfree, is made up of former Disney and Telltale team members. The voice actors also have previous roles in Telltale’s The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us adventure game series. On top of that, the music in the game is by scntfc, who worked on Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP and Rogue Legacy. So, thankfully, this is a team experienced in telling a gripping interactive story, and the trailer seems to prove that they know how to make it look and sound exquisite.