When Sean Krankel and Adam Hines, co-founders of Glendale-based video game studio Night School, began inviting players to test their debut title, Oxenfree, there was one question that arose again and again: “Can I play as one of the guys?” Hines recalls several players asking at the start of the game — and each time the answer was no. In Oxenfree, you are Alex. She is your Link, your Mario. She is the character who serves as your avatar on a quest to a mysterious island. She is also a teal-haired teenage girl. She and the other characters — her new stepbrother and some school friends — all harbor secrets and tragic memories that come to light as they try to figure out what the heck is going on inside a creepy, desolate place with a military past.
Krankel points out that the gender-swapping questions always came from male players. “Girls sit down and play it,” he says. For female players, a teen-girl protagonist can come as a relief after years of taking on the dude-hero role by default. Male players had to warm up to the idea, though. “I don’t think a lot of people, when they started playing it, had a clear understanding of the type of game that it was,” Krankel says. “They were looking at a skin as opposed to a human.”
Fortunately, the players’ hesitations didn’t linger for long. “After 10 minutes, they would get into the rhythm and the flow,” Hines says.
Krankel and Hines are cousins who, despite a six-year age difference, collaborated on creative projects together as children in suburban Chicago. They made a horror movie, a game-review show and a couple of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle flicks with a camcorder and a Walkman. While both eventually landed in Los Angeles and went to work in the game industry, sometimes at the same companies at the same time, this is their first professional collaboration.
They didn’t set out to make a game driven by a female character. Their first goal was to make a narrative-style game where players had the freedom to move and interact in a choose-your-own-adventure sort of way. They began by deciding on a location (“vaguely Pacific Northwest,” as Hines describes it). The story came later and was inspired in part by movies like Stand by Me and The Goonies. They wanted to make a coming-of-age adventure with a twist: “You can choose how you want to come of age,” Hines specifies.
“Most games that have choice involve big mortal choices of who is going to die right now or who is going to get shot or whatever,” Krankel says. “Why don’t games have choices that feel more familiar, like what was it like the first time somebody tried to kiss you, or the first time somebody offered you a cigarette or a drink, or the first time that you tried to impress a friend?”
With this in mind, they found inspiration in the short-lived and beloved television series Freaks and Geeks and its protagonist, Lindsay Weir. “Specifically, that character of Lindsay was somebody that everybody, male or female, could relate to, that moment of becoming someone new,” Krankel explains.
Alex developed from there. “It wasn’t a choice of ‘let’s cram a girl lead into this game,’?” Krankel says. Hines adds, “After two weeks, this was the only way the story could be told, with this specific character.”
That’s what makes Oxenfree such an engaging game. On my first visit to Night School HQ, I lost track of time while playing it. As Alex, I could make decisions about this fictional life, and those choices made an impact on how other characters would respond to me. I searched the island looking for the strange secrets it held but also anxiously awaited more of Alex’s story to be revealed. Oxenfree plays out more like a book than a video game. Krankel mentions that the team hopes this game will appeal to fans of books such as The Hunger Games and Internet-based tales like Creepypasta, in addition to the indie video game crowd. That could happen. Night School recently joined forces with Skybound Entertainment, the firm led by The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, to help bring Alex’s story to various media platforms, including film.
Oxenfree has been in the works for less than a year and a half, a short time considering the scope of the game and the size of the group behind it: an in-house team of six people, a sound designer in Seattle and a few contractors. They first showcased a playable version last fall at IndieCade in Culver City. Despite very little time spent promoting the game, it has already earned accolades, including being named a finalist for the Excellence in Visual Art award at this year’s Independent Games Festival in San Francisco.
The game’s lead artist, Heather Gross, is originally from the Seattle area and used some of her own recollections to help visualize the setting. Krankel and Hines also attended a Goonies 30th-anniversary event in Astoria, Oregon, for research and the team went on a trip to El Capitan Canyon near Santa Barbara for more visual inspiration. “It’s like glamping,” Krankel says with a laugh. “We weren’t camping, we were just in a cabin in a nice place.”
The game’s protagonist may have developed by happenstance, but the team at Night School is proud of the fact that they have a well-rounded and complex female character at the center of their game. Krankel in particular says he’s “thrilled” to have his wife and daughter play something where the female lead isn’t a “sassy, gun-toting” hot chick. Alex, he says, is “just a cool, interesting person.”