Oxenfree: A Case Study of Theming

Themes in fiction. They’re one of those things that are easy for the authors to work in, easy for the readers to detect, and they make everyone feel smarter for their inclusion. Themes are great. Just latch onto one idea, bring it up in your story a few times in a few different ways, and bam, you have an easy way of making your story go just a bit below the surface level.

Ok, so maybe it’s a little more complicated than that, but not by all that much! Given that themes are all in the eye of the reader, it can be easy to just work some themes in there accidentally. Hell, I’d been finding themes in the Saints Row series, and you know, if they had the sort of creative minds to be deliberately carrying a solid idea through than maybe they’d be able to write an ending that doesn’t suck without overriding it the next game. Moreover, themes are fun! Try finding some consistent ideas in the next story you go through, and see for yourself!

Oftentimes you see a theme, at least one implemented deliberately, the work will have something to say about it. Not always. And really, the works that don’t impose anything on their themes aren’t necessarily any worse than those that do. But what you rarely see is a work that does make a conclusion about its theme, and fits it into the greater work, but that conclusion comes entirely from the consumer. That’s a way of handling a theme that is largely unique to videogames, and even then, it’s something you’ll see rather rarely. So when Oxenfree freakin’ rocked it, I felt compelled to take a moment to recognize it.

Now, you might notice Oxenfree was released relatively recently. So I’m going to be talking about a modern game here. On Lost to the Aether. That never happens. It’s like Christmas and your birthday all put together. And we’ll be talking about some plot stuff. But I’ll do my best to keep it spoiler light. For the most part.

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So, Oxenfree has a theme of guilt and blame. It’s not like a major thing in the game, so don’t expect it to be hammering you over the head with it, but it’s a concept they return to every now and again, enough for it to gain some mental real estate. It does some minor exploring of the concept. Or rather, it guides you through it. Sometimes, stuff happens. Bad stuff. People are unwittingly involved in the bad stuff happening. Whose fault is it?

For example, in the beginning of the game, you meet your dead brother’s ex-girlfriend. She blames you for his death. You get no other information as to the circumstances. How do you react to that?

You track down your stepbrother investigating some creepy stuff. You find something strange, he wants to push it further. You end up unknowingly doing a thing because of it that triggers the inciting incident. Who’s to blame there? You for actually doing it? Your stepbrother for putting you in that situation? Nobody, because seriously, who would expect that thing to be holding evil?

Even the backstory event that set things up happened because people were forced to act with insufficient information and there ended up being some grave consequences for it. Is it the executor’s fault for doing so? The person who held the limited information for putting it in the hands of those who had to act? Nobody’s, because everyone did the best they could with what they had? One background character spends her entire life blaming herself for it and trying to deal with it. Should she have done so?

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At every stage, the story poses the questions, then lets you put in the answer. What does the narrative have to say about this concept? Entirely up to you. And that alone ends up doing some interesting things with its treatment of the theme. It turns the story from your garden variety plot to something with elements of a thought experiment. It forces you to be more introspective about the plot, to reflect and conclude on happenings there. And that is a way of storytelling that is so uniquely videogames.

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4 responses to “Oxenfree: A Case Study of Theming

  1. Very interesting! The idea of having such moral ambiguity as an integral part of the story is fascinating (hopefully the ambiguity wasn’t because you were avoiding spoilers!) You’re right that it doesn’t take much for theming to work well. Touching upon it a few times is enough to send the message and when done well absolutely guides the player through the story.

    That reminds me of Gone Home… when I got to the end, I was amazed that I – notorious for getting lost in large games that don’t provide maps (and some that do) – had found my way through the entire story in the precise way I was supposed to *without* ever feeling like I was actively being led or that the central theme was getting smashed over my head. Not quite the same moral ambiguity as in your example, but similar idea in regard to well-conceived idea of theming.

    The one thing I always have liked about games was that in almost all of them, there are still gaps that the player can fill in, in order for the experience to feel personal and meaningful to *you*. I suppose you can say that for any media, that you can almost always dig into another layer, but video games seem to have many more opportunities to interpret an experience in a way unique to you.

    • Nah, I think the ambiguity comes through in game as well. You get some more detail to those situations (well, most of the time) than what I gave here, but it’s big on the whole “imagination makes things bigger” theory, and it leaves a lot for the mind. Like with the whole brother situation. I never found out how he died and why his girlfriend blamed me for it. In particular, you do know that nobody’s acting with any real ill intent, so you can’t solve the blame question with that, but people are doing things and bad consequences are happening because of them, and the question lies in what you should think of that.

      Yeah, you know, Gone Home was really beautiful in that. Sure, they had the locked doors, and there was a clearly recommended path to follow, but for the fact that your were only exploring one home, the game felt very open, and it never felt like the developers were taking you by the hand and showing you through all the exhibits the way other games do.

      That’s one of the reasons games are often my preferred medium as well. When I’m playing it feels like I’m putting little pieces of myself in there, and it makes the stories, even when they’re dumb, feel that much more intimate.

  2. It’s nice hearing about a game where the narrative is ambiguous about who, if anyone, is to blame for a horrific turn of events rather than taking the Modern Warfare 2 approach of blaming the player just because they’re there. It’s pretty difficult to balance ambiguity in video game storytelling I’ve found; you have to have a solid foundation on which fans can use to build their theories while resisting the urge to write in a heavy-handed manner at any point. Go too far in one direction and you end up with a game that comes across as a bunch of random events pasted together. Go too far in the other direction and you end up with a game whose author seems to clam up at inconvenient times. It’s difficult, but when it works, it really enhances the experience; that’s one of the things I enjoyed about Shadow of the Colossus.

    • That’s true, you do have to take a careful hand with ambiguity. I wonder if this game’s use of it works so well because of how small it is. If they made this more of a major theme, it could have fallen apart. Or if it was a longer, more expansive game, it may not have held up.

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