Oxenfree, the debut title from indie developers Night School Studios, is a supernatural teen thriller that has been making positive waves since its release this past January. Holding a strong 82% on Metacritic, players and professional critics alike are falling in love with its well-written characters, art design, and suspenseful narrative. I had an opportunity to speak again with co-founder Sean Krankel post release about their publisher and potential expansion into other mediums.
Though it’s fairly early for Night School and Oxenfree, Sean Krankel and crew were already planning much bigger things for Alex, her friends, and the island. “That was something that’s been in the works for quite a few months and we were trying to figure out exactly how to make it work,” Sean says about the budding relationship with Skybound Entertainment. “I had even been initially talking to Skybound before starting this company about working with or even for them because of their interesting approach to taking creative IPs like The Walking Dead and a lot of other stuff and finding ways to bring it into games and other media.”
You may not be familiar with Skybound Entertainment by name, but you’re likely well acquainted with at least The Walking Dead. Skybound is the home of Robert Kirkman’s creator owned works. To be frank, he’s behind some of the best writing in the comic industry from Invincible, Outcast, and more. When Sean joined forces with a few others to create Night School Studios, the talks with Skybound were paused for the time being. The debut of Oxenfree’s trailer, which was spotted by Robert Kirkman, rekindled the conversation quickly. Skybound is moving into more forms of media such as their recent film AIR starring Norman Reedus of The Walking Dead TV series and Djimon Hounsou of Guardians of the Galaxy, so naturally gaming was on their radar. Sean says Kirkman took note of their unique approach to narrative in Oxenfree and how Skybound made moves as a publisher made them a perfect fit.
“It’s a really interesting relationship. We’d talked to other publishers before [like bigger game publishers] and their definitely not fulfilling that role. Usually a bigger publisher will look to partially fund the game, take a big chunk of it and market the game,” he says. “The game was pretty much funded and done and what we were really looking for is ways to get places that we couldn’t otherwise on our own, or even looking at film and other avenues like merchandise. We intended for Oxenfree to be flexible enough to be in those places and no game publisher was able to find a way to do that. Skybound is exactly that. These guys really want to build this into a film franchise and into these other things.”
Film? Live Action? Animated?
“So we’ve talked about both and even talked about ‘what is the right story?’ It is so early that it’s hard to figure that out. As a team right now, we have a hard time separating what makes Oxenfree special. Is it very specifically Alex and her friends and the story they go through or is it kind of more Edwards Island’s story living on its own? We have a lot of stuff that didn’t even make it into the game like things that happened 10 years prior and weird little side stories; Stuff that’s not being made up after the fact. They’re part of the lore, we just ended up not finding ways to get it into the game.”
Sean says a film like ParaNorman comes to mind when thinking of an animated Oxenfree, but he doesn’t count out live action as it’s still quite early in the discussion stages. Either way, Oxenfree certainly presents some intriguing moments that could translate to the big screen. One that comes to mind is a time-loop sequence that Alex, the main character, has to figure her way out of. “Is that so bugged out that people won’t even get it? Or is it interesting and new for a film,” he wonders. “I think those time loop portions could be cool and unsettling. It’s not just a gameplay thing; it’s totally interwoven into the fiction of that world.”
Film is a newer venture for Skybound, but there’s no doubting their comic book and graphic novel pedigree. Of course, those medium have been considered as well. “That’s something that, even prior to Skybound, we thought it made perfect sense. Adam, the co-founder and my cousin, did a pretty big graphic novel called Duncan the Wonderdog,” he recounts. “The name sounds silly but it’s a pretty serious, big, super intense graphic novel. How would the world work if animals could talk? You have all these social constructs that are raised up like cows that are waiting to get slaughtered or animals in a zoo. He’s a really awesome artist so I could see him doing an Oxenfree comic. You’ll see by the end of the game that it’s hard to do a serialized comic where we’re following Alex constantly. Maybe a graphic novel. But you could totally have a comic based on [Edwards Island].”
Well who would you cast?
“We’ve talked about it a couple times on the fly. We don’t really have any specific people in mind.”
It’s life or death and you must cast someone for Alex.
“I don’t even know! The girl that played Rey in Star Wars is the first that comes to mind only in the sense that she’s super smart and not sexualized. I think someone that evokes those qualities would be great. One of the early people that we always referenced was Lindsay from Freaks and Geeks but she’s a grown ass woman and that wouldn’t work.”
What about Chloe Moretz?
“Oooo yea. Totally yes. She has a lot of those qualities.”
With Night School Studios currently the only game in town (heh), would the partnership with Skybound shift some of the comic licenses into their concept pool? Oxenfree’s narrative style would certainly lend to the idea. “There’s definitely potential for that. We haven’t talked about that in specific detail yet but what we have discussed is how we can make this a really good long term relationship,” Sean says. “It could be 1) we take one of their properties and do something really cool with it in the game space or option 2 could be that, whatever our next original thing is could be a good fit for them too. Either way it feels good because those conversations are happening, it’s just super early.”
Oxenfree’s positive reception naturally gets people talking about what other platforms it can be brought to (currently only on PC and Xbox One), but the team is still focused on the current build. If you’re still on the fence, you may want to know that you’re not just a slightly interactive spectator in this tale. “It’s sort of modular in the way that it works. There are like 5 big distinct [endings] and one layer underneath that, depending on how your relationships worked out with people, that will impact it too. So if I were to give a number, and this number will be very misleading, there’s probably like 30 or 40 actual endings but there’s only 4 or 5 very drastic differences.”
That “layer” beneath is heavily dependent on the relationships between all the characters. You control Alex, but her influence spreads well beyond her own relationship with the other characters. Little thought bubbles with character portraits pop up at certain moments, signifying that the character’s perception of whomever appears in that thought bubble has shifted. Sean breaks this mechanic down a bit further, “You can heavily influence how two characters come together or not toward the end of the game. Or you can influence if the whole group hates you. Different variants on things like that kinda add up to the end. There’s big stuff on how the problems get resolved on the island and smaller stuff on the specific relationships with the friends.”
Oxenfree doesn’t have a daunting price of admission, available for $17.99 on Steam and $19.99 on Xbox Live. Check it out and see what could possibly hit a movie theater near you in the future. Look out for our review in the coming days as well.