Wrapped in a spectral thriller that’s equally minimal as it is beautiful in its art direction, Oxenfree is Night School Studio’s attempt at an engaging story of growth. Players control teenage girl Alex who brings her step brother Jonas to what turns into a horrific series of events once a rift opens. I had a chance to speak with Sean Krankel, co-founder of Night School Studio, and he gave us the low down on Oxenfree, it’s inspirations, and what brought the Night School crew together.
Early on, Oxenfree takes our main character and her companions to a forbidden beach that has quite a morbid history. “The island that Alex and friends are spending the night on is a decommissioned military base,” Sean shares. “During the 1940s, the Pacific Northwest was dotted with various radar stations and submarine patrol routes, all protecting US shores from potential attackers.” The past carries its own bloody history, but events then will permeate into the present in Oxenfree as well. “At one point a Japanese submarine made it to the Oregon coast and fired a rocket that made impact with a little league baseball field. So, without giving too much away, the supernatural elements that the player is experiencing tie directly to earlier times, voices from a previous reality.”
With great influence from the 80s, Night School is shooting for a unique coming of age story. “Our team are big fans of ‘coming of age’ films and books in general. There are so many concepts and scenarios that evoke a sense of nostalgia and relatability in [that genre],” says Sean. “An early question we asked ourselves when starting the studio was, ‘what if we could make a coming of age story, but where the player controls how they come of age?’ The ball really started rolling from there. Even though it’s well-worn and beloved territory for linear media, games have barely scratched the surface on how to tell a coming of age tale.”
“We spent awhile looking at other narrative-driven games where the player has agency over the story, and thought about ways that we could improve on their interfaces,” Sean explains. “If talking is the core mechanic of the game, how can we streamline the talking process?” At a glance, controlling this tale seems like it’ll be just as interesting as the supernatural happens peppered throughout. Teaser trailers show means of input that aren’t immediately easy to grasp to the untrained eye, but fit flush into the games design. “First, we can stop taking player control away and forcing the player into a cut scene. Next, we can put the dialogue choices as close to the player character as possible, so their dialogue choices really feel like an extension of their avatar. Those two design goals really drove a lot of our creative choices; everything from camera placement to the art direction to the pacing of the game.”
While the design ambitions allude to the pedigree of the individual members, Oxenfree is the first game from the Night School Studio collective. Sean co-founded the studio with his cousin Adam Hines and they assembled a team with experiences spanning from TellTale Games to Disney. “[Adam and I] always shared a lot of the same influences and sensibilities, and we’ve found ourselves frighteningly on the same creative wavelength from the day we decided to start the company,” Sean reflects. “The game’s core narrative, thematic, and gameplay concepts were something we knew we wanted to explore well before Night School opened its doors and, once the rest of the team joined, the vision really solidified. This game wouldn’t be nearly what it is without the rest of the development team, who I’ve previously worked with in various incarnations back in the Disney days.”
Night School is a small group currently, including lead artist Heather Gross and engineer Bryant Cannon in addition to Sean and Adam, but they have reached out to a few others. “Andy (who goes by the name SCNTFC) lives up in Seattle and is our composer and sound designer. He’s been a key part of the game’s tone from the very early days. We’ve [also] recently expanded the team with some awesome contract designers and animators who all work off site,” Sean explains.
Oxenfree’s premise and art direction is captivating for sure, but what’s the story behind the name? “Our team knows it from some kids’ games that pre-date us…but I guess that phrase comes from an old German saying, ‘alle alle auch auch sind frei’, which loosely translates to ‘everyone, everyone is free’. The other story we’ve heard is that it’s an old English term, ‘all ye all ye outs in free’, essentially saying ‘it’s safe to come in’. We aren’t sure, but ALL of those definitions tie into our characters and the beings they’ve tapped into.”
“The beings, without getting too specific, are those voices you’ve seen in trailers and gameplay clips so far. I can’t say much more than that, but there are definitely other characters in the world with our party goers, and they have their own agenda. So the ‘oxenfree’ name is thematically tied to hidden things revealing themselves.”
Seems like we all will have to unravel the mystery of Oxenfree ourselves in January on PC and Xbox One.