Understanding Oxenfree’s story
The first time I completed the video game Oxenfree, I spent some time afterwards wondering if I had missed something. I had just spent like 4 or 5 hours on it, and I still had no idea what the game was really about. I mean, of course I knew it was the story of a girl who, having let scary red-eyed ghosts enter our world by accident, had managed to send them back to their own dimension, but nothing else of what I had played seemed to make any sense. I was so frustrated then that I immediately tried a New Game+. It made even less sense. So I went for a third playthrough, and then a fourth. I’m still not convinced I got everything right, but at least, I now feel confident enough to try and write a theory about the hidden meaning of Oxenfree‘s story.
To be fair, there’s a very simple way to see it, and all it takes is to consider that the weirdness happening on the island (characters killing themselves and then being suddenly alive again, time-loops, time travels, etc) is just a big hallucination caused by the ghosts in order to oblige the kids to stay on the island, so that they can slowly « soak » their bodies, and eventually snatch them. I mean, it’s not like the game itself had anything else to tell, right? The dialogues basically tell the story of dismayed kids trying to close a supernatural portal, while the secret documents you can pick on your path explain how the ghosts became what they are.
And… that’s it?
Are the Sunken ghosts the real bad guys?
I must confess, I hate theories that rely on the mere idea that everything the characters come through is just a dream or a hallucination, mainly because these theories work every time and generally only serve to conceal the real stakes. But let’s go back to Oxenfree. The other reason why I can’t be contented with the easy level 1 theory is that for it to work, you need the ghosts to be able to… well, to do pretty much anything they want. Or, at the very least, to have the power to lead everybody down the garden (or the beach) path. The problem is, there’s at least one major parameter of the picture we know they have zero influence on: time.
It makes sense, since their problem is precisely that they were kicked out of space and time as the consequence of an unfortunate nuclear accident. The tear Alex reopened decades after Adler created it allows them to communicate with the livings, which may give them the somewhat comforting illusion of being part of the world again. However, they remain victims, just like the kids. Sure, the Sunken have lost their minds (hey, I’m pretty sure anyone would have too in their situation) and can even take possession of the kids’ minds for a short span of time, but in fact, most of their dialogues are either straightforward distress signals (think, for instance, of their anxious « is. leave. possible »: it’s definitely a question) or as mere signs of despair and surrender (« nothing changes in this world »).
The ghosts talk a lot in this game, but nothing in what they say (or in the little they actually do) ever suggests that they have either the power or the will to do the characters harm (at least, as far as the main timeline of the game is concerned). They may be spending a lot of time saying how much they’d like to keep Clarissa with them, but if they were as powerful as they are threatening, they would just drag her into their hellish world (like they eventually do in the end of the game) and get rid of the others before they realize they have the ability to close the tear. If they fail to possess the characters in a way that serves their own purposes, then it’s more than likely that they’re way less powerful than the characters think they are.
A « leaking time » theory
So, here’s an idea: the Sunken may be innocent overall, buuut… what about the evil triangles they come from? I’m not accusing the Illuminati or anything, but consider this: we know that the portals open onto dimensions where time has the shape of a gigantic time-loop… so, what if this specific shape of time had « infected » the character’s own linear time, turning the space-time framework of the game into some inextricable mess with various « time bugs »?
In my opinion, that would explain a lot of things, like the mini time loops which keep trapping the characters in some places of the island, or the fact that every playthrough you complete eventually ends by rewinding to the beginning of the story. In clear, my theory is that when Alex opened the tear for the first time, she doomed herself and her friends to live the night on the island again and again just like the ghosts have to see the universe be born and die forever, which they try to explain to her, telling her she’s just « one in an infinite shot ». And the rub is that there’s no satisfactory way to end a time loop. Alex can send an SOS to another version of herself to keep her from reaching the island, but the Alex who sent it will be stuck in it all the same. In this way, the doomed Alex is trapped forever on the island no matter what she does, just like the ghosts are trapped in the void.
But wait, what about the « visions » of the death of the characters? Ren, Clarissa, and even at some point, Nona: why do we see them die while, in the end, they always are successful in boarding the return ferry (except for Clarissa, but it has nothing to do with the fall that should have killed her)? And if they actually died in other timelines, then what’s different in the timeline where they remain alive? And why would the ghosts even be leading people to death rather than just « soaking » ALL their 5 bodies (instead of just 1…), in the first place?
It’s not clearly explained, but my opinion is that the ghosts obliged them to commit suicide in one of the infinite loops of the night, not out of sheer evilness, but rather because, in spite of their assumed resignation, they still have the will to fight fate, to « escape the script » like they say, and stop playing the parts they were assigned.
The frightening truth behind video games
Wait, what? « escape the script »? Like, as if they were characters in a video game…? And what if that was the hidden meaning of Oxenfree?
Of course, you could say that, in a way, every story is about characters being what they are in a specific setting. But usually, characters are not written so as to think of themselves as characters: they just live their lives, and since they look human (in many cases anyway), we naturally assume that they think of themselves as humans. What makes Oxenfree especially interesting is that the ghosts are characters designed so as to be able to think themselves not as humans (which they haven’t been anymore for a long time), but merely as characters trapped in a scenario that is meant to be played over and over again as many times as the player desires. The said scenario would be the « easy theory » I spoke of earlier, the one where kids save the day by defeating the ghosts and manage to escape the island in the following morning. After all, if the ghosts really see the universe going on like a neverending timeloop, then they already know how the evening will end before the characters even come to the island… So why even try to change fate, if not out of despair?
At this point, you may think this theory is just a lot of weightless talking. But now, I’ll ask you to genuinely consider the possibility that WE, players, are also characters trapped in a huge scenario that would cover all the time between the birth of the universe and its end. And then, imagine this game being played through over and over by some deity/player in charge of unraveling the humans/characters’ destinies. Now, guess what? Mankind didn’t wait for the concept of playthrough to appear in order to envisage this: there’s an ancient theory called « eternal return » stating that everything in the universe is a giant, finite loop that keeps happening in the same way forever. In other words, according to this theory, free will doesn’t exist, since no matter what happens, each of the versions of ourselves will end up doing the exact same thing every time the cosmic loop repeats itself. Or, put in another way, you think you are free to decide, when all you do is in fact just unconsciously following instructions, and there’s nothing you can do to escape that. Just like a fictional character can’t escape its script…
Bonus: analyzing the title
Want some more food for thought? Well then, check out what Wikipedia has to say about the meaning of « oxenfree », with a very special attention paid to the part I formatted in bold:
« Olly olly oxen free » is a catchphrase used in children’s games such as hide and seek, capture the flag, and kick the can to indicate that players who are hiding can come out into the open without losing the game, that the position of the sides in a game has changed (as in which side is in the field or which side is at bat or « up » in baseball or kickball), or, alternatively, that the game is entirely over.
My theory here is that the title of the game literally means that it’s time for the player to stop both pretending he/she is controlling a character (the computer does almost all the work, especially in a linear game like this one) and thinking it makes him/her superior to the characters (if we are controlled by some divine player, then we, too, are characters). My point is that the title sounds like it invites us to « come out into the open » in the same field as the characters (the game) and to stop hiding behind the comfort of the certainty that « it’s all a game », so that we genuinely sympathize with digital creatures despite knowing they are fictional.
Still, like I said, it’s just a theory. I may have missed possible counter arguments, so if you spot them, feel (oxen)free to post them in the com sections below. (And also, I’d be really grateful if you could help me to improve my English by suggesting corrections)