“Player agency” has become one of those terms that we probably throw around too much, to the point that it’s starting to lose any real meaning. It understandable, though. We, as scribes of gaming history, are trying to elevate the thing we love, a thing that’s been maligned and misunderstood for the entirety of its existence. Games, still, have something to prove, and we feel like we’re the ones that have to constantly defend them, since, for some reason, they have to comparable to other forms of art and media.
You run into that problem a lot whenever someone refers to video game stories and how, by and large, terrible they are. This is the signal for someone to drop the “agency” bomb and it becomes this big hand-wringing session for everyone involved. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have those conversations. I’d like to think that I’ve more than proven how much I care about those aspects of design and how far I still think we have to go, but I also don’t like that I feel the need to explain why games like Oxenfree are important, as if letting them simply exist isn’t enough.
Oxenfree is all about agency, about choice, about shaping the world around you and often even a world you left behind. In a post-Telltale world, it may not seem like much, but there’s a simple elegance at work that those games still seem to lack. You don’t make decisions hoping that a character will “remember that”. You, as Alex, the teen girl thrust into a crazy situation, just try to do your best. You try to be honest and supportive, not to pull a series of offscreen levers to trigger an intended effect, but because you feel like she’s a good person.
Is the story of Oxenfree better than your favorite movie or TV show? Probably not, though I don’t think it needs to. At four hours, the narrative spends enough time leaving you wondering but doesn’t continue to obscure the mystery for too long whilst also giving you enough time to learn about the relatively small cast. By the end of the game, I felt like I had a grasp on everyone, outside of one character that I simply chose to not spend any time with. At a end, I had a twinge of regret, wondering what I could have learned about her if I bothered. But that opportunity passed, never to come again. She would always just be an acquaintance.
And that’s the part that we ignore the most in these conversations. Absolutely nothing is stopping me from restarting the game and making different choices, but… I can’t. My story has been told. The way to make choices matter isn’t simply a case of presenting us with as many as possible, it’s about making us care about the ones that we do have to make, creating the illusion that we can’t go back, even if that barrier only exists in our minds. The agency problem isn’t fixed when we have an infinite number of decisions, it’s when we, like in real life, are willing to live with the bad ones.
Is it perfect? No. Like any story about teenagers, the ones in Oxenfree are all a little too witty, a little too cool under pressure. In a story about ghosts and time dilation, they tend to take everything in stride a little too often, even when staring danger in the face. If you can forgive that, Oxenfree is one of the best cases for how narratives should be approached and how consequence can amount to something more than a gimmick. The fact that I have so little faith in this being done like more frequently is a sign of how far we still have left to go, and why the hang-wringing will likely not cease for a long time.
Part of me hopes that Oxenfree was created less out of a hope that someone would write a headline about its approach to design and more because they simply wanted someone to say “you should play this. It’s a good story.”
You should play Oxenfree. It’s a good story.