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Is Oxenfree the First Great Indie Game of 2016?

Is Oxenfree the First Great Indie Game of 2016?

A visit to Night School Studio has put my faith back in indie games.

Founded in 2014 by cousins Sean Krankel and Adam Hines, the studios’ focus is on the intersection of story and interactivity. Their first game, Oxenfree will release on Xbox One and PC January 15th.

I met the team back in December at their studio located in the city of Glendale, a few miles outside of LA. Located in a tiny loft space, the district is a spot for other creative ventures, but I was solely interested in meeting the team behind a game that sought to merge fun gameplay with character interaction.

Currently, we have two types of adventure games when it comes to indies: There’s the traditional Metroid-inspired clones where, as you progress, other areas are unlocked or made accessible by newly acquired skills or upgrades. (Think Guacamelee.) They can be wholly immersive by their gameplay alone, but by and large the story elements are almost exclusively told via found recordings and/or items that can be read. The other side of the spectrum is what Telltale Games has made their bread and butter: Everything is centered around dialog options made by the player. But the downside to a good tale is that walking around or taking down an NPC is usually kind of clunky as the game’s engine is built on the player navigating conversation trees than an actual game world.

OF walking

Image credit: Night School Studio

Oxenfree as in “olly olly oxen free”, takes the best elements of both. Adam Hines, the writer & creative director, was the lead writer on Tales from the Borderlands so he knows a thing or two about the best ways to engage gamers with only conversation. (He’s also the award winning cartoonist of “Duncan the Wonder Dog”.) So when he and cousin Sean Krankel decided to develop their own title, Adam had plenty of experience with that part of the game. What Sean was able to bring was 18 years in the game industry working for big companies like Disney and Universal. (Read: solid gameplay and strong visuals.) Nearly two years later, Oxenfree, a project that started in an apartment, has now has grown into immense team of… seven!

I got the feeling after meeting Adam, Sean and their dedicated team that they wouldn’t have it any other way. To be at the center of this tiny, but state-of-the-art office space is to see the creative process of making an indie game sprawled out on desks and walls. From the storyboards that detail this side-scroller world to the gorgeous hand drawn paintings of specific moments, it’s easy to be torn between wanting to interrupt their work flow to just ask them about the process of making Oxenfree versus sitting down on their comfy couch to actually play the game.

The range of games being played in their spare time range from Sean playing Fallout 4 to Adam being addicted to Bloodborne. Eventually, after talking their ears off about Rise of the Tomb Raider I noticed a Nintendo 64 with plenty of cartridges hooked up to their big HDTV. Although tempted to do a quick 4 player session of Wave Race, I knew it was time for me to play Oxenfree‘s first two hours.

Oxenfree is a side-scroller focused on a group of teens who hangout one late night on Edwards Island to drink, chill, and toss rocks on the shore. There’s a mean girl, a probably too sensitive dude, and most importantly, no parents. As the player walks around dialog bubbles pop up, which can be quickly selected by hitting X,Y, or B on the Xbox controller. This simple tweak, not stopping to have a talk, but being encouraged to explore at the same time, is intuitive since most of us do this in real life. What we don’t do in real life is investigate a strange signal from an old timey radio. Things got weird fast as I tuned into a station that might not exist. Communication is the key here in the way players will interact with the other characters, and that strange signal…

The look of game is beautiful in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself. That’s a credit to art director Heather Gross. The level design, which is as easy to navigate as it is seductive, is by Spencer Stuard and Kevin Riach. The mad programmer behind the scenes is Bryant Cannon. And the composer of the cool 80s synth score is Andy “SCNTFC” Rohrmann. These five talented individuals along with Sean and Adam are Night School Studio.

“Our aim with Oxenfree was to make a playable coming of age story,” said Sean, “where the player chooses how the hero comes of age, set against a supernatural backdrop.” My aim will be to get back to Edwards Island ASAP on Jan 15th.

Feature image credit: Night School Studio

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