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.
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?
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.