Seeking Perfection: The OXENFREE Dilemma
I recently earned the last achievements for OXENFREE
. Because the game requires multiple playthroughs, I had "beaten" the game previously, but now it is done. I've been thinking about how to rate the game for a while, at least since I beat it the first time. But I've held off because I wasn't done--and I do like to get the full completion before rating a game. OXENFREE is the kind of game that shows why, but also shows the flaws in that system at the same time.
All ye, all ye!
OXENFREE is probably the best game I have played in years. The game is 5-star quality and probably deserves that rating. The last time I gave a game 5-stars was Tales from the Borderlands
back in 2015! I had a hard time with that decision too, and that resulted in another blog. Xpovos' blog post - Comedy vs. Tragedy
I was ultimately "lenient" with some technical flaws in the game because I felt that it had done something special enough to warrant the rating. OXENFREE has done even more and been more special. And yet, the flaws that exist, are larger as well.
All games have flaws. If the game is so simple as to be technically flawless, then the flaw is that it isn't very sophisticated in an age where we want and play games that chew up 20-100 hours of our time for a single game experience quite happily. As far as I know, no one has ever experienced a technical flaw in Energy Cycle
yet the game holds a 2-star rating here (1.5 from me, so I agree). So saying that OXENFREE has flaws should surprise no one. The questions are always, how big are the flaws, how much do they impact the game and our enjoyment of it, and how do I feel about it in a subjective sense.
I see OXENFREE as having two major flaws which subdivide into some slightly smaller flaws, some of which are hard to discuss in a spoiler-free way, so as I keep this spoiler-free, please bear with my analogies.
Flaw #1: Despite an amazing story that is extremely consistent and enjoyable, since the game expects repeated play and encourages it through achievements and other in-game elements, there needs to be additional focus on ensuring consistency. In your first play through you do not know the characters, you get to know them as you play. On your second playthrough, particularly if delayed in real time, you know the characters, but perhaps imperfectly. We mis-remember things. We see things in a new light. By the third playthrough, small details begin to appear that seem out of place. Either not completely in keeping with the character as developed by the story, or more commonly, just a very slight misplacement of words indicating a difference in choices. For example, you may make a choice in your third play through, but the game won't respect it because the characters respond with dialogue suitable for the other choices. Part of this is just the standard adventure game problem of attempting to give players choice but being incapable of managing the explosion of possibilities permitted by the branching paths. The paths have to recombine to keep the game manageable, and OXENFREE is no different from any other game in that regard. There is a set path you will follow, your choices matter more than in a TellTale game, but far less than the game leads you to think. This becomes a flaw for OXENFREE in particular because of everything else. The game is amazing at in most cases following through on the sensations that your choices are meaningful such that when they are suddenly not it is extremely jarring. OXENFREE sufers from it's own quality.
The dialogue tree is sufficiently complex to make for an amazing gaming experience, but the more complexity, the more chances for a logical error to slip through.
Flaw #2: OXENFREE is extremely atmospheric. The game oozes with personality. It drips with intensity. It is as if the adventure game world of flavors, as expressed by sweet, salty TellTale and sour/bitter Life is Strange suddenly got introduced to umami
. It is nearly as hard to describe the joy of playing OXENFREE and being immersed in the atmosphere as it might be to define umami. Part of this is subjective. OXENFREE has a stronger hold on me atmospherically that it might for most other people because the psychological levers being pulled are very much my levers. But even if you are nothing like me, you are quite likely to notice the atmosphere and feel it, even if not as potently. The flaw here is that the atmosphere is in part generated by the pacing of the game. OXENFREE is not high on action. It is a slow walk around an island. And that strolling speed is fantastic for your first playthrough as you swim in the atmosphere and drink in the environment. It's torture for repeated plays, though. While there is variation in each playthrough because of the issues above, it's not sufficient to truly keep you engaged. It often comes out of nowhere. The paths are identical, then suddenly, your new playthrough has an extra blind alley of story that you didn't expect. So it is good that you can't mash buttons to skip dialogue--you'd miss that story otherwise. But if you can't skip, you're stuck listening to the same pieces over and over again. This is annoying, but it's not the worst. To help ensure that the dialogue gets said, it is spoken even as you walk, at full speed, from one end of the map to the next. The maps are designed to ensure that the entire conversation can play without interruption in most cases even if you are trying to blitz it. You simply cannot walk faster and the paths are twisted intentionally to slow you down.
Let's make sure our maps are full of switchbacks to make sure we have plenty of time for our voice actor's dialog files to play out.
That matters most when the game starts to have technical glitches, as I experienced in my second playthrough, particularly. Notably in many cases choosing the wrong dialogue path will break the game on the Xbox One. I've read sufficient cases in my research on how to fix the problem to know that it's just something about the way the game plays on the console. This could be patched, and it should be; but right now it hasn't been and the development team seems to think the problem is something else when they talk about the issues that cause these game breaking glitches. If this happens to you, simply go with the silent route for that dialogue choice. That never breaks the game. It seems to happen most often when attempting for the "Firestarter" playthrough where you are mean to everyone and take the "bad" path, which is frustrating, having to let the "bad" choice go by in case that makes a difference in the final tally for the achievement. Worse, when this glitch strikes, you have no option but to quit and reload the save, which means replaying the entire sequence in that map section, including all of the dialogue and walking all over again. I nearly missed a collectible because of this. I replayed one map so frequently that when it finally worked I forgot that I hadn't picked up the collectible that trip. Fortunately I was able to get it before the point of no return, but that meant even more backtracking and walking around too-long paths for very little benefit.
These are fairly serious flaws that significantly detracted from my enjoyment of replaying
the game. That might not matter for most games where replaying is not expected or encouraged, but as I said previously, OXENFREE expects and demands replay. These flaws are also both on the technical side and on the game design side. Which is not to say I know how to fix the game design piece. It may not be possible to make OXENFREE better than it is (other than fixing the technical issues). And that is a shame because it is so incredibly good. It is a game that deserves to be replayed and where you get more out of it from replaying it. Asking for multiple playthroughs isn't the problem. Figuring out how to make them work without punishing the gamer is.
This brings me back to my rating concerns. Xpovos' blog post - Ratings
OXENFREE is in many ways a 5-star game. I can honestly say that I feel it is an "[a]mazing game. Everyone should play this." I whole-heartedly endorse the idea of recommending the game to anyone, regardless of their opinion of adventure games. There are reasons not to play, such as an unwillingness to deal with the psychological thriller nature of the game, but stating that the game isn't good enough is not possible. A quick note on that thriller nature. I spoke about it before (Xpovos' blog post - Phobias in Games and Media
) but if you didn't read that and choose not to click through, be aware that OXENFREE is also the scariest game I have played, perhaps ever. I am not a fan of games that scare me--that's not what I want in my gaming, but in spite of that, I loved OXENFREE because it did it so well. So you may not want to be scared, but I still recommend you try it anyway, because I think you, too, will love being scared by OXENFREE.
But there still are those serious technical flaws to consider, in fact if you watch the video I streamed in the Phobia blog you can watch a similar flaw happen--in my first playthrough! I got to a point where the game was just completely unresponsive, I was stuck, unable to move or advance the game. That's not 5-star game quality. And neither is the punishment of the gamer to waste my time wandering a map for a third (or more) time just because the story pacing needed that space in the first playthrough. Those kinds of issues are much more appropriate for my 4-star rating. "Very good game. Some significant flaws. Appealing, particularly to genre fans." I can't imagine any fan of Adventure games won't enjoy this game. Meanwhile the atmosphere that I loved was a turnoff to several people I recommended the game to. Everything about that reads "4-stars."
Giving OXENFREE effectively 8/10 would not be out of line with the norm, and is even a bit higher than average. But is that a fair rating given my experience?
I'm torn. I want to include OXENFREE with my very small grouping of 5-star games, to award it that highest praise I can. But I just can't convince myself that despite my love of the game that it has earned it. And that is the problem of chasing perfection. OXENFREE is a great game, but it isn't perfect and in its attempts to be amazing it may have ended up being less good than it could have been if they had been less ambitious. If they had taken out the time they used to put in Easter eggs and tightened the ports, or done more play-testing and spotted the technical issues related to choosing the "bad" dialogue the base game could have been so much more. But then again, if they did that, would the game, though more polished, feel as delightfully skin-crawling? I don't know. And as of this moment, I still haven't decided how I'm going to go for the final rating.
Posted by Xpovos
on 04 May 18 at 18:43
| Last edited on 04 May 18 at 18:44 | There are 12 comments
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