[Trigger warning: discussions of death, grief, and assisted suicide.]
I’m a sap for indie games with great art direction. I think lots of people are, which makes me feel less like a sap, so I’m grateful for that. Whenever I see a new game with quirky characters, skillful storytelling, and weird game mechanics, I’m there faster than you can say “RPG Maker” and about knee-deep in developer blog entries and fan theories. Life Is Strange and Oxenfree are two of my favorites, and when the credits rolled for each, there was a realization that these games truly did leave their mark on me, which was cause for surprise. One day, I understood why.
What I really want to look at is time manipulation and control as a means for reconciling the impact that grief has. Stay with me—I hope I deliver on that. Lots of spoilers for Life Is Strange and Oxenfree follow. Both are very good games, so I recommend checking them out first before reading!
Time rewinds in Oxenfree are a strange side effect of alternate dimensional beings taking possession over your body. As described by Alex, the player-controlled protagonist, your soul or essence is “exhaled somewhere else” and not influenced by what the character wants or needs. For Alex, she is placed in instances where her brother Michael is alive. (Michael died before the events of the game and his death deeply impacts Alex and Michael’s girlfriend Clarissa.) Alex is assertive, witty, and self-deprecating, and depending on player choices, can be companionable or cold to her new step-brother Jonas. Clarissa is acerbic and distant, choosing to sit, drink, and smoke on the beach rather than socialize with Alex, Ren, and Jonas.
Time rewinds happen at the whim of supernatural beings—expressed quite clearly as creatures who are using their time powers to create alternate demises for one character. Detached from the perils of Edwards Island, the time rewinds in Oxenfree are safe, calm, and peaceful. The color scheme of Oxenfree’s gorgeous art style switches to warm yellows and golden oranges, conjuring up a homey feeling, that this past is real and this present is not.
Clarissa’s haughty personality is revealed to be the result of the loss of her boyfriend. Past!Clarissa is hopeful and warm-hearted, trying hard to hit it off with the little sister. Alex’s interactions with past!Clarissa and Michael are naturalistic and believable, and the dialogue system of Oxenfree provides a subtle twist on the choice narrative. Despite having just three options to offer in conversation, the speech bubbles will fade away as the conversation progresses between the other characters. It adds tension and urgency—that Alex must make the most of the serendipitous side effect that gives her Michael back whilst battling possession. These instances are intensely emotive, and when Alex is moved into her own time and reality again, the disconnect is loathsome.
Life Is Strange is thusly discrete compared to Oxenfree despite all the similarities. Max gains the power to rewind time as a result of her initial effort to prevent Chloe’s death. As a teenager, this power becomes incredibly advantageous, allowing Max to stop her friend from being bullied, impress members of the school staff, free a trapped bird in a house, and other small things that can be discovered by exploring the delightfully artistic setting of Arcadia Bay. It becomes clear that Max’s first tampering with time alters the course of the present for the worse, and Max must continuously fix problems generated from this tipping of the scales in her favor, coming face-to-face with the cost of power and its abuse.
In an effort to right a metaphysical wrong, she uses an old Polaroid of her and Chloe to revisit the day that Chloe’s father William dies. This loss has a profoundly adverse effect on Chloe’s maturation—she becomes abrasive and reckless, angry at the world for dealing her this hand. In this time rewind, the past feels simpler, safe. The present is dark and uncertain, yet the paused video game on the TV and Chloe and her father playfully interacting reflects a yearning that most young adults experience—a desire for life to be as complicated as picking which park to play in that day.
Max’s time powers still apply in her younger body, giving the player plenty of extra chances to solve the puzzle of saving William’s life before he walks into the ‘light,’ acting as the boundaries of the level. Life Is Strange has clunky, awkward dialogue and pauses the action when it’s Max’s turn to speak, which removes immersion, but its predominate choice of close ups on the characters’ faces glosses over this and heightens the emotional impact of the decisions.
Max saves William from the car accident, but this universe requires balance. Chloe is involved in the tragic car accident within this alternate timeline, becoming a quadriplegic with a failing respiratory system and asking Max to end her life. Whatever happens, Max makes the decision to use the Polaroid again to revisit that time, and consciously chooses not to save William so that—however terrible things are in this present—Chloe is alive.
These two games consider the opportunity to turn back time in the hope that it changes the fate of lost loved ones. One of Oxenfree’s final scenes is particularly poignant. In a hazy, incomplete representation of Alex and Michael’s home, the siblings have a conversation about Michael’s plans for the future. The fragmentary floors of the house and paler colors fading in at the edges suggest it could be a memory. He confides in Alex and asks her opinion on his options, an uncharacteristic moment of hesitance for an otherwise chilled and confident older brother.
As Alex advises and the siblings spark off of each other, familiar lines distort the picture more and more. Pathos stabs at the player when Michael rattles off a “just in case package” for his little sister, offering suggestions about drinking at college, about boys, and about extracurricular ventures all while the picture warps precariously. Michael and Alex just about get to say “I love you” as the static swells, and the moment is over.
Oxenfree teaches to cherish those memories with a person who has passed on. Revisiting those moments gives hope for progression and affirmation. It may seem obvious, but Alex and Clarissa actively suppress their memories of Michael and become withdrawn (Alex) or angered (Clarissa) when another character brings him up. Being able to reflect on these times with peace of mind not only helps heal the void left in one’s self, but is a therapeutic emotional connection to others as well.
Max must remain inactive when rewinding time to William’s accident for the second time in order to ‘correct’ the future. William and Chloe’s voices are muffled, distant. Max burns her only connection to this moment. William walks away into the light. The second rewind is agonizing—the banal dialogue between father and daughter turned tragic, yet this is the way things are meant to be. The timeline of Arcadia Bay has one path and any attempt to change it is a momentary diversion before it resumes its natural course. Max laments the devastation that William’s death will cause, but the alternate timeline is not better. Loss is a terrible fact of life, but attempting to fight what will always be delays the inevitable sorrow. It is better to accept that life has unexpected twists and grieve openly, supported by friends and family.
I think I can confidently say that Life Is Strange and Oxenfree positively assisted my grieving process. Perhaps they are still assisting it, as I know I am not quite there yet. So I guess in some way this is a ‘thank you’ letter to DONTNOD and Night School. In another way, this could be a reaching out to others who are going through the same thing. Thirdly, and so it seems lastly, it could be just an article about two video games that use time travel. Anyhow, I hope it helps. You’re not alone out there. You’re stronger than you think.