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.

Sinners Welcome! The Saints Row Retrospective, Part 2: Saints Row

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Saints Row Retrospective Introduction here, Saints Row 2 hereSaints Row The Third here.

We’re moving forward with our Saints Row Retrospective project, finally getting into real games. Who needs that foo-foo introduction crap anyway? This is where it’s really at! Here’s where we get into the meat of it, where we really find out what Saints Row is all about!

So here we are, talking about Saints Row, the first game in the Saints Row series. Go figure. Saints Row establishes a lot of what the following games pick up on and run with. And by “establishes” I mean “rips off from GTA” of course. I give it a lot of guff for that, but really, lots of games were ripping of Grand Theft Auto by the time this came out and Saints Row did it better than one might expect. Its definitely built off of the mechanics and style GTA III started, but the developers really added their own bits to it and made something unique. On-foot combat was made into something useable. The irreverent tone was expanded upon even as most crime games, GTA included, ditched the jokes for the drama masks. The city you were terrorizing had much more for you to do in between missions. Saints Row added enough to the formula that discounting it as just a GTA clone is doing it a disservice. It’d be more accurate to simply call it “mostly a GTA clone.”

Saints Row is a sandbox game where you are responsible for inflicting as much chaos, destruction, and straight up weirdness on the city of Stilwater as possible. Your nameless, customized character, known only as “Playa,” is an enforcer for the Third Street Saints, and as enforcer, your goals are to end gang warfare in Stilwater by murdering each and every member of the other three gangs in the city. Along the way, you’ll commit no small number of major and minor crimes, mostly through missions and non-storyline activities. It’s a sandbox game. Those things are made for messing stuff up. You’ve got pretty typical driving and third-person dual stick shooter controls. They put them together in a way that’s not quite great, but it functions well enough to make thousands of bangers dead. The plot’s fairly straightforward. There’s only a few twists, and they’re mostly towards the end. But you’re not playing for the plot anyways. The game doesn’t expect you to. All it expects you to do is destroy, and it dedicates itself to setting up just what you need for that.

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