Interview: 'Oxenfree' Developer Discusses New Kind Of Video Game Storytelling


With storytelling becoming more important in video games, many developers have started to experiment with a better way of incorporating game mechanics with story.

However, Night School Studio's Oxenfree takes it to the next level: by making storytelling part of the game mechanic itself.

In Oxenfree, there are no cut scenes that occur after dialogue and there isn't gameplay that takes you out of the story. In this game, which embraces communication, everything is gameplay, but everything is also story.

Tech Times spoke with Sean Krankel, who with his cousin, Adam Hines, created Night School Studio in 2014.

Oxenfree tells the story of a teenage girl, Alex, whose brother died from circumstances that Alex blames herself for. Also, her mother just remarried and she has to meet her stepbrother for the first time: this leads to the two running off to a beach party on a decommissioned military island. There, things get a little supernatural.

At its heart, though, Oxenfree is a game about communication.

"The idea for the story and the idea for the mechanics kind of came at the same time, but they were separate," said Krankel. "The first thing we wanted to do is make a game where communication is really sort of a key mechanic, but that people have more freedom than they do with all the other narrative-focused games. At its core, we wanted to never have a cut scene in the game, where you could walk and move freely and communicate with your friends, and even communicate with other beings and other kind of strange things."

However, Krankel mentions that films such as Stand By Me combined with TV shows such as Freaks and Geeks also played a part in Oxenfree's story, at least from the perspective of teen drama/adventure. The idea was to create something with supernatural elements, but still have a sense of fun.

"I also wanted to do something, at the same time, that was kind of scary and supernatural, but not really horror," said Krankel. "Like most games, I think, really handle scary stuff in a pretty dreadful, over-the-top violent way. For us, we wanted to something a little bit more — I know it sounds lame — but Spielberg-ian, and sort of give it a sense of wonder and have it, for awhile, just be actually interacting with these supernatural creatures where it's almost a little bit fun, and hopefully, gives you butterflies in your stomach before it gets pretty crazy."

Of course, that means that Oxenfree focuses on story, but handles it in a unique way.

"Video games, in general, have already been an interesting challenge because of the order in which people creatively attack where story should go within a game," said Krankel. "So most of the time, people will go, 'OK, we want to make a game that is a first-person shooter or an adventure game or whatever' and they'll have a core set of gameplay mechanics that are interesting and fun to interact with. And then the story kind of gets bolted on to the side, and it's used as a vessel to kind of push you through the mechanics."

Although Krankel enjoys video games that do that, he decided that Oxenfree needed to separate itself from the herd by becoming more interactive and combining game mechanics and story in a new way.

"I think it's mostly like a question of when in your production process do you decide that story is important," he said. "And for us, we're like, that's the actual mechanic: it's not a supporting thing, it is the mechanic of how you interact with our game."

One element that separates Oxenfree from any game to come before it is that much of it happens as players are walking and talking to each other: although it seems a relatively easy concept, it's never been done before.

"The thing that we thought was a challenge that needed to be attacked in the gaming industry was dislodging this idea of 'I'm playing this game, but now I'm going to go play some story parts and I'm just going to set the controller down,' " said Krankel. "In real life, I can walk down the street and chew gum and have a conversation. so why not have a game function that way?"

Of course, the decision to create a game as fluid as that with no delineation between gameplay and dialogue proved tricky at times.

"It was a massive challenge because it changes the way you design levels, it changes the way that characters have to behave — it means there's a lot more depth in their AI, in terms of how they react to you and how they move and all the custom animations that they have," said Krankel. "It provided a lot of new challenges that were a pain in the butt when we were making it, but now we're really proud of how different it is from any other story game."

Being different, though, sets Oxenfree apart from other games, and eventually it even got the attention of Robert Kirkman and David Alpert's Skybound Entertainment, which partnered with Night School on bringing the game to other media.

"When Skybound came along, it was like everything we were looking for to expand the world of Oxenfree and the IP," said Krankel. "Because they can just help us in areas where we otherwise couldn't. On the game front, it's really interesting and fun because they're taking a step back. They're really going, 'let's shine a spotlight on Night School, the creators of this thing,' and they're helping us market it and getting the word out and getting into things like Comic Con, Walking Dead print ads, things that we just naturally wouldn't otherwise do."

However, the partnership with Skybound brought another opportunity: a film based on Oxenfree is currently in the works.

"That's the big reason why the Skybound partnership came to be," said Krankel. "When we started Night School, we wanted every game that we create to be flexible enough to exist in a lot of other media. So we very intentionally made the story of Oxenfree something that could go to a film or even a graphic novel or something else. I didn't know we'd actually be able to pull that off with our first project, but that's definitely in development with Skybound right now. We're just figuring out what the right story to tell is."

Oxenfree is available now on the Xbox One and PC.

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