IRL: Real World Lessons in Weird World Games

I was really committed to bonding with my friend Ren over the weekend. I’d been so focused on building my relationship with my new step-brother Jonas and trying to mend fences with Clarissa, that I felt I was neglecting my best friend. So as we arrived at the bonfire, I thought, I’m going to make this weekend all about Ren. But over the course of the next few hours, he really got on my nerves. Maybe we were growing apart, maybe we were never as close as I had been led to believe. Maybe it was just the sound of his voice. Whatever the reason, in spite of all my best intentions, I started behaving rather cruelly towards him. Again. I couldn’t help it.

Oxenfree, Night School Studio’s stellar 2016 release, continues to surprise me after several playthroughs. It’s a simple, stylish conversation simulator that places you in the role of Alex, a high-school girl coming off a pretty serious rough patch. Throughout the game, you have to navigate a small group of friends and frenemies, helping Alex pick up the pieces of the recent past while also dealing with the dangers of her current situation. Multiple possible outcomes and a brilliant narrative device (that I won’t spoil here) make repeated playthroughs feel like a natural extension of the game. And every time I step into Alex’s shoes, I find I learn a little bit about myself.

Art is a mirror we hold up to the world. Video games can be works of art. They are, at times, the result of a creator distilling real world experience and bottling a focused, metaphorical representation of something they feel is important, sharing it for all of us to drink in. There are plenty of games that can teach us about ourselves, but I want to focus on three of my favourites, examples that manage to straddle the divide between real world problems and some of the strangest things in a medium full of strange things: Catherine, Night in the Woods, and Oxenfree.

Catherine, developed by Atlus and released for PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2011, is the oldest of the three. It is backward compatible on the Xbox One as well, so it is still accessible for the current hardware generation. The game places you in the role of Vincent, a twenty-something staring into the maw of the rest of his life. His long-time girlfriend Katherine is starting to ask the hard questions: Marriage? Children? What’s next? Roughly half of each level, or ‘Day,’ of the game takes place in Vincent’s local bar, Stray Sheep, discussing these concerns with his friends, the bartender, the waitress, and other bar regulars. At the outset of the game, there has also been a series of mysterious deaths, men who have, with no apparent cause, died in their sleep. It’s all over the news.

This concerns Vincent, because Vincent has been having strange and terrifying dreams. In these nightmares, Vincent sports nothing but his boxers, a pillow, and fresh pair of ram’s horns crowning his brow. The dream space is populated by sheep who address Vincent as a sheep and also seem to think that it is they who are the only human around. The sheep, and Vincent, are forced to climb increasingly elaborate towers of blocks while the bottom layers of the tower fall away. They are told by a disembodied voice that if they fall in the dream, they will die in real life. These nightmare levels make up the other half of each ‘Day’ in the game Catherine, and their fast-paced puzzle action platforming is difficult and addictive. We’ll get back to the difficulty in a moment. At the end of each section of the tower, Vincent is allowed to recuperate with the other sheep, discuss strategy, and finally, is quizzed by the disembodied voice. You know, easy things, like: Does life begin or end with marriage? or You have to kiss one, which do you choose – a disgusting alien creature or a beautiful corpse?

These questions and their binary choices start to seem easy compared to the text messages you’ll have to compose while you sit with your friends in the bar. As the game progressed, I found myself looking more and more forward to the social segment of each level. You talk to people, play with your phone, have drinks… it’s all so normal, yet well written and well voiced. Much like Alex in Oxenfree, I found Vincent teaching me things about myself. Mind you, and minor early game spoiler here, Vincent is going to cheat on Katherine with another woman. This one named Catherine. As a player, you can’t save him from this. But as you walk him through how he deals with this mistake – or maybe your Vincent doesn’t think he’s made a mistake at all – you, as the player, will find yourself contemplating your existence.

If there is a problem with the game Catherine, it lies in its accessibility. The story feels natural and is well acted. It was more than intriguing enough to pull me along. But the puzzle segments ramp up the difficulty pretty early on. I’m not the type to ever play a game on Easy Mode, but after a few frustrated false starts with Catherine, I caved. And even on Easy, I found myself spending upwards of an hour failing over and over again at certain sections. It’s one thing to make a couple dozen boss-runs in Dark Souls, but repeatedly trying to push blocks correctly didn’t give me the same joy. Although, I have to admit, finally completing some of Catherine’s later levels gave me a huge rush, much like tackling Ornstein & Smough.

Night in the Woods was developed by Infinite Fall, and published by Finji. It released in February of 2017 and is available on PS4, PC, and Mac. The game handles ‘real world problems’ to a fault, which I’ll get to in a bit. You play as Mae Borowski. She’s a cat. Her best friends are a deer named Gregg, his boyfriend Angus, who appears to be a bear, and an alligator named Bea. The entire game is populated by stylishly drawn anthropomorphic animals. Keep that in mind while I describe the plot.

Mae is a depressive, possibly delusional, twenty year old who has just returned to her hometown after dropping out early in her sophomore year of university. She does not want to discuss why. The town is economically declining. Mae hears people talking about how all of the mining jobs have disappeared. The local grocery store, Food Donkey, has been put out of business by the super-store chain Ham Panther. Mae’s father has been forced to take a job there as a butcher. All the other jobs in town are disappearing. Oh, and her family might be having problems with a poorly structured mortgage on their home. Does this sound ‘real world’ to you yet?

As Mae goes about her days, she visits her old high school friends at their respective jobs. Gregg is at the convenient store, Snack Falcon. Bea is struggling to keep her family’s hardware store running. Angus works at the video store, barely keeping open by way of its adult video clientele. And day by day, the player, through the eyes of Mae, learns a little bit more about the decline of this small town and the lives of its inhabitants.

I’ll come right out and say it. This game is a bummer. It’s compelling, and beautiful, and wonderfully written; but like other difficult works of art, it’s a complete downer. When Bea lashed out at Mae for being so cavalier about dropping out of school – she shouts, “I would have killed for that chance, Mae!” – it just crushed me. Maybe I brought a little too much of my own experience to that moment, but I think there is a moment catered to everyone at some point in the game. It’s just that honest of a narrative. One of the devices of the gameplay is that everyone you can encounter is always at their same respective places in town, each and every day. This reinforces the notion that everyone is stuck in a rut. It also means that Mae essentially has to run the same route through town each day if she wants to converse with them all. Wake up, talk to Mom in the kitchen, go see Selma next door, visit the homeless guy by the church, visit Mom at work, go see Bea, and so on… It’s a testament to the writing that this repetition doesn’t get stale, the conversations are all unique. Each day ends with a different light mini-game, most of them are easy, some are very hard (I’m looking at you band practice), but progress is never locked behind successful completion.

There were moments when I wanted my Mae to behave a little better. Sometimes neither of the binary dialogue choices seemed appropriate. Other times, Mae would suddenly be committing a crime or an act of vandalism that I wasn’t expecting, and I could have avoided, but once it was in process there was no taking back the choice. I’m not sure if this is a flaw or a really insightful representation of the impulsive mind of a twenty year old.

If you can look past, or just enjoy, the cutesy art style, and can stomach some of the gut punches the story delivers, Night in the Woods is a great example of a game holding a mirror up to life in 2017. I highly recommend it.

Oxenfree does not push back on the player quite so hard. Simple and intuitive, it has even been ported to iOS and Android, and most recently, the Nintendo Switch.

There are some similarities between Alex, the protagonist of the game, and Mae from Night in the Woods. They are both somewhat sullen girls struggling to escape adolescence. But Oxenfree allows the player more agency in defining Alex than the previous game does with Mae. With every subsequent playthrough, I found myself trying to cast her differently. Whether that meant changing which characters I stayed loyal to, committing to being either completely sincere or completely sarcastic, trying to keep everyone happy or trying to alienate them all… It was always enjoyable, and I could mostly find a dialogue option to fit my decided archetype. There are so many branches in the script that I don’t know how many runs it would take to exhaust them all. There are some big ones that can dramatically change the way the game ends. I want to tell you so much, but I don’t want to spoil a thing.

The characters here are very much grounded in real life. Alex is on an island with her best friend Ren, her new stepbrother Jonas, classic mean-girl Clarissa, and the quiet and reserved Nona. There are a few other characters, but that’s spoiler territory. The kids have all gathered for a bonfire at the end of the school year. I can’t say enough about the quality of the writing and the voice acting. The art of the game is very minimal. The player’s interface with the game equally so. The entire experience is shouldered by the scriptwriting and the cast. (The background music deserves special mention as well.) The cast of Oxenfree live and breathe like real people. They react to Alex both in ways the player can predict, and in ways that are surprising but real. Just like everyone you know in real life.

This depth of character is important to Oxenfree, because it adds to the tension when the supernatural shit hits the fan. This is very much a video game. The kids are up against some very dangerous forces and very bad things are going to happen to them. The strength of the performances give the player a reason to care. Bad things happen to characters in most video games, but in most video games, there’s a skill check, or a level to gain, or some sweet loot to plunder. In Oxenfree, the only skill test is some very light puzzling, and the only reward is the next line of dialogue. That’s saying something, because it just works. Oxenfree keeps the player coming back just for the sake of what’s next.

The recent release on Nintendo Switch gives me a reason to dive in again. Maybe I’ll even manage to be nice to Ren this time.

 

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