For a game that explores the notion of time – haunted by both metaphorical and very literal spirits of the past, it is perhaps fitting that Oxenfree lived on for so long after its initial release, across numerous platforms.
Originally released for the Xbox One and PC, Oxenfree found new life on each subsequent platform it was released on – finding its niche as a coming of age cult classic, thanks in no small part to its distinctive art style and its inventive ‘walk-and-talk’ dialogue mechanic.
The idea for Oxenfree predates the studio itself – as Night School Studio co-founder Sean Krankel explains, Oxenfree was born through after-work phone conversations with his cousin, Adam Hines.
“I was working at Disney at the time,” says Krankel, “and Adam had just started working at Telltale. The two of us had wanted to make something together for years, but we didn’t know what it would be. So just one night on the phone, we started tossing around the idea of: ‘what about a Telltale-esque game with branching narrative that has consequences, but where the gameplay and movement through the world are never interrupted by cutscenes?’ So we’d brainstorm once a week or so just chatting about like, how could that work? What would that type of game look like? And how can we do it with a small team?”
These cathartic, post-work phone calls transitioned into real-world ambitions once Krankel was laid off from his job at Disney.
“Disney laid off like, 70 per cent of the Disney mobile staff after a bunch of games didn’t succeed,” adds Krankel. “Once I’d been laid off, it rapidly became a ‘shit or get off the pot’ moment. So I started to recruit a few folks I thought would be good for a very small team.”
Krankel isn’t joking about the “small team” part there. Not including contractors, Oxenfree was developed by a team of four. Sean and Adam alongside lead engineer Bryant Cannon, lead artist Heather Gross and featuring music from composer Andrew Rohrmann.
Despite the small team, initial progress on the game went very quickly, with many of the game’s mechanics coming together in a few short months.
“Even before coming up with the full narrative for Oxenfree,” Krankel continues, “the mechanics started to make sense. We would toss around this shorthand of like, what if you had Limbo, but you could talk? So in the beginning, that was what we started prototyping.”
“During those three months of me not having a job, I ended up raising enough money from some folks that I had worked with in the marketing world, to get together about five people to make a game for 18 months. And in that really short window, we built a very simple prototype of a character walking with three dialogue choices pop up over their head, and that resonated really well.”
With that barebone prototype in place, Night School Studio was free to start filling in the blanks of Oxenfree’s narrative – something that ultimately came to form the heart of the game’s experience.
In fact, the limitations of a newly-formed studio’s first title helped the team to focus on the exact kind of story they wanted to tell.
“That’s when the story really started to come together. We thought, what is a good story that we could tell that doesn’t feel like a result of its limitations, but instead feels like a very natural piece of this type of design?”
“So we had this isolated environment, doing something that felt fairly scary – but built more around building tension and not jumpscares or weapons. Those narrative constraints helped us hone in on this kind of teen adventure vibe. This was a couple years before this 80s revival, Stranger Things stuff. But we really loved that kind of thing, and wanted to build a story that felt kind of Spielbergian. Something which has been done to death in movies but not really in games. So we thought that was a fascinating thing to do: something that felt really familiar in other media, but to do it in games.”
“What made some of the pre-work go so well was that the story and the design are so intertwined, that we didn’t just come up with a story first and then cram it through a design that might not manifest it well.”
That’s not to say Oxenfree was born fully-formed, of course. The ambitions of a newly-minted studio weighed against the severe time constraints, team size and budget meant that many aspects of the game had to be scaled back, or cut entirely.
“I think in the very early days,” says Krankel, “there were aspects of it that were ambitious just for the sake of ambition, so it’s probably a good job we cut those things.We actually thought that Alex and the cast might even have powers, like an X-Men kind of thing. That included the ability to create reflections of yourself that you can communicate with, or to control time. With some of these ideas we realised, this isn’t really serving the story. We should just throw this thing out, because it sounds cool on paper, but it’s lame once we start building it.”
“It comes back to the question, ‘does this make the experience better for the player?’ I think the constraints of time and a small team made a leaner game.”
Focusing on improving the player’s experience is a sensible choice, but easier said than done – as the team learned throughout development.
“We severely underestimated what it would take to make the intent of the game come through with a way that felt polished and grabbed people” says Krankel. “Our first prototype was very effective in showing that yes, you can have agency over your movement through the world and your story choices. Even just with some scratch audio and a simple grey box environment. It already felt promising.”
“But then halfway through development, we realised that a lot of the game was frighteningly bad. Either we had stuff that didn’t feel scary, or it just felt like shit because the camera is so far away from the cast and we don’t have the benefit of the language of cinema with cuts and close ups and all these other things.”
Of course, Oxenfree is a dialogue-heavy game – as you’d expect from a title inspired by Telltale Games. Its central walk-and-talk mechanic allows players to fully express themselves in conversations. They can interrupt the other characters and talk over them, they can stay quiet, or they can even walk away from the conversation.
Branching conversation trees require a lot of extra writing and voice-over work as it is. Add in the option to silently storm away from all conversations like an impolite lunatic adds in a whole host of new problems.
“The rewrite process was pretty difficult,” says Krankel. “The script itself was already a massive spaghetti of dialogue – somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1,500 pages, and that’s not linear. So when you start playtesting, you realise this player doesn’t know where they’re going, or they walked away from a scene without the key plot point in their head. You have to find ways to sandwich in new dialogue that will work well with that, which often means a total rewrite of the scene.
“With the walk-and-talk mechanic, it was a thing where we said, if we’re going to go all in on this idea, then we have to fulfil it completely. It’s not complex for the sake of being complex, but it should behave the way the player wants.”
“That meant a lot of extra work on the interrupts, because then there has to be a line for almost any moment where we can have these shorter snippets of a character you interrupted saying, “So like I was saying…’ before going back into their dialogue. And it has to be appropriate to the tone or to the moment, so if you’re in an argument there’s a different way to handle that.”
“At the same time we wanted not saying anything at all to be a valid choice for the player as well. So the entire game needs to react to if you want to be mute through the whole thing and characters need to communicate with you appropriately. Telling a great story is already hard enough, but then on top of that, making the player have actual agency inside of that story and make the choices matter is a whole other layer.”
Getting the dialogue to flow naturally, and reflect its teenage coming of age setting was certainly a challenge – but one Night School Studio more than rose to. While the game has many intriguing qualities, such as its realistic portrayal of awkward teenage relationships mixed with gripping horror themes, it’s perhaps best known for the engaging dialogue, and the freedom it allows players to create Alex in their own image.
This success in characterisation has attracted a devoted cult fanbase, inspiring countless fan art and cosplays. So it’s surprising that, at the time of release, the game struggled to find its audience.
“In hindsight, it’s clear that with a game like Oxenfree, we had to be ready for the long haul to tweak how we messaged it,” says Krankel. “We needed to see what people were responding positively to, and what didn’t matter. It took a while for Oxenfree to really take off – it was about four or five months until we were comfortable with where it was headed. It was a mix of livestreamers picking it up, because it’s a very streamer-friendly, as well as getting it out on as many platforms as possible.”
“By the end of the first year we were really happy, but at month one I was scared out of my mind. It was not selling that well, and the reviews were not matching what the expectations were internally. So yeah, I thought we were going to go out of business for the first couple of months for sure, if not the first six months.”
While having streamers pick up your game can purely be a matter of luck – getting Oxenfree out on as many platforms as possible certainly helped Night School Studio. After its initial launch on Xbox and PC in 2016, the game was later ported to PS4 later the same year, and to Switch and mobile platforms in 2017.
“Steam has certainly been the lion’s share in terms of sales,” notes Krankel. “It really helps to have this ongoing dialogue with your audience, which was helped to create this very long tail for Oxenfree. But Switch and iOS proved to be surprising success stories. iOS is actually probably the most consistent, even to this day, it still moves a fair amount of units every weekend. As for the Switch, I don’t know if it’s just because we hit the right time there, or if it was long enough after release that fans wanted to double dip on it. It’s a great form factor for it – the bridge between iOS and the console experiences. The Switch is probably my favourite place to play it now.”
Despite not seeing that seemingly crucial initial success on release day, Night School Studio were able to recalibrate their messaging to allow Oxenfree to live on and find success long past its initial release – and all in the studio’s first title. It’s the kind of underdog success story that coming of age fiction thrives on. So what advice then, does Krankel have for budding game developers seeking to follow his example?
“That’s tough,” says Krankel. “Make sure that you want to do it. Because there’s going to be a lot of stress, a lot of fear, a lot of terror. But ultimately, if you have an idea that you really believe in, that can speak for itself, either in prototype state or even in paper state, if it really can hold water and withstand people shooting holes in it – then you have something special there. Beyond that, just make sure you have the most manageable scope possible. Keep the team as small as possible and make the leanest version of that idea first because the less people you have, and the faster you get it out, the more likely it is to be an actual success.”
“Finally, find other partners in the industry that you can trust, because there’s a lot of people out there who’ve done this before. We wouldn’t have made it through those first couple of years without being able to lreach out to other indies and get advice. So I think this heroic concept of working out of your garage and doing it all by yourself is less and less likely: it’s more about having a good network of people out there. Fortunately, a lot of people in the games industry are really nice and want to share their knowledge. They don’t want to see other developers step in the same mess that they’ve made themselves. So feel free to reach out to people because they’ll be more than willing to give invaluable advice.”