oxenfree & night in the woods

games for aftermaths

I took a big trip at the start of 2019, which required close to 60 hours of time spent on planes over the course of two weeks.

I was excited but a little nervous about this trip, about the time and the distance involved. I was nervous I would get bored, or cranky, or sick, or somehow behave badly in front of the people I was going with, whom it was important to me to be my best self around.

I’ve tended to do most of my traveling — most of my big decision-making, really — alone. I’m used to eating when I’m hungry and napping when I’m tired and talking out loud to nobody for whole days, until I’ve recharged enough to resume human interaction. I’m used to planning, to making long lists and knowing exactly where I’ll be at the beginning and end of each day. It’s not a way of living I’d necessarily recommend, but it’s the best way I know to circumvent my anxiety, to cauterize myself against catastrophizing every unexpected thing that comes my way.

For this trip, though, I couldn’t really plan. Instead, I bought a lot of embarrassing things for the plane (including a “foot hammock” that I’ve still never actually used, which is good because my boyfriend said he would not sit next to me if I did) and updated a couple of overdue vaccines (love ‘em!). I also downloaded a pair of games — Oxenfree and Night in the Woods — to which I credit my sanity during those 60-odd hours of flying.

The games have a lot in common. Both are relatively short and highly narrative, where you don’t really “play” so much as read a ton of (very well-written) dialogue and make occasional choices on how to interact; they’re almost like participatory novels or movies. They’re both about heightened periods of time, with you as the protagonist at a kind of crossroads, emerging from a dark period and deciding who you want to be and where to go next. They’re also both SPOOKY.

I played Oxenfree on my phone. It suits the format well, and also cost $5 instead of I think $20 on Switch. (I had just paid for a big vacation; I was in no place to splurge.)

You are Alex, a girl who’s about to graduate from high school and whose older brother has recently died. You’re visiting a nearby island with a group that includes your new stepbrother, your best friend, his crush, and your dead brother’s girlfriend. The situation is…..obviously fraught!

As the story unfolds and it becomes clear that All Is Not As It Seems on this island, you play largely by choosing who to talk to and how to proceed. Arguably, the biggest choice you make throughout is how to conduct yourself. You can be withholding, telling everyone you’re fine when you’re not and ignoring the kind gestures of your new stepbrother; you can be combative and sarcastic, snapping back at anyone who reaches out; you can be open and honest, to the point of making all the others deeply uncomfortable. The way the text appears onscreen contributes to this sense of urgency and immediacy — each time there’s a chance for you to respond to someone, your options appear floating above your head, and if you don’t choose quickly enough, they often vanish entirely.

Oxenfree is an object lesson in how to manage and metabolize grief, and it’s also a pretty gnarly ghost story. It’s not scary enough to deter even the wussiest gamers (hi!) but there are certainly moments worth playing with the lights on, or at least with seven travel companions in the airplane seats beside you.

Night in the Woods, which I played on Switch and did shell out the $20 for, is less noticeably emotional and eerie, but packs a deceptive punch on both fronts. Here, you are Mae, a cat (never explained; your best friends include an alligator and a bear) who’s just dropped out of college and returned to her hometown. She sleeps in her parents’ attic, wanders aimlessly through town, and dreams uneasy nightmares on a flat and frustrating loop. There is a spot of murder and a lot of an addicting mini-game that’s basically a knock-off of Guitar Hero.

No matter how you choose to play the game, Mae is kind of a dick. She’s petulant and moody, and even though you’re also presented with dialogue options as in Oxenfree, there are plenty of occasions where everything you can possibly say is mean or cowardly or ignorant, and there’s no way to just say nothing. It so perfectly mimics the sensation of being drunk, of being angry, of being scared of what’s coming next so you lash out with claws bared. Oxenfree, for its part, captures how it feels to weigh each interaction, calculating to find what will protect you, or bolster you, or just get everyone to leave you alone.

These games, above all, are about coping when something goes all wrong, and picking up the pieces after the fact. The characters couldn’t prevent what’s already happened to them; all they (you) can do now is figure out how to navigate from there, and allow the people (alligators) around them to help.

Lately, for maybe the first time since I’ve been cognizant, I haven’t wondered about how to be or where I should go next, and it’s not because I know. I had a very hard 2018 on many fronts, and spent a lot of my allotted worrying-about-the-future man-hours on shorter time frames than usual — what would the following week hold, or even the following day, and how could I be sure I’d get through it? I didn’t have the room to plan out the broader contours of my life, to think about how a choice might echo over the course of months or years.

Now that I’m on the other side (I think! who knows!!) of those particular difficulties, my future-scope still feels stuck. I’m still largely focused on days and weeks, ferreting out what brings me happiness now, how I can feel useful or satisfied today rather than planning for what’s to come. A not-insignificant part of me worries about this — does it mean I’ve become unambitious? Short-sighted? For all that I’ve always hated my anxiety, it’s also been a powerful and familiar guide. I feel a little like my map has lost a good deal of its markings. It’s not so bad, really; the question is how to adjust, and even that feels muted.

Of course, I know I’ll be back there, in that space of uncertainty, in that pit of depression or mourning, in those sharp feverish moments of only being able to say the wrong thing. And while I don’t think games like these can save us from such inevitabilities (although they are, for what it’s worth, the first ones I’ve ever played that have made me want to write a game of my own), I think they can make us consider them at arm’s length, or at least as much length as you can scrape up in a basic economy airline seat.

The trip was perfect. It was because it wasn’t — some plans swerved sideways, some nerves were frayed, some naps went untaken. But the joy and the beauty drastically outweighed those moments. They felt like proof positive that I could go with the flow, that I could survive 16 hours in a middle seat, that I could find ways to recharge even among a large, loving group of people. It reoriented, however slightly, the story I tell about myself.

Oxenfree and Night in the Woods pair well with: A recent graduation, a recent breakup, a recent loss. Also: the new National album, but not like, concurrently, because you should definitely play both games with sound.

What I’m crafting right now: A ton of very simple hats, for a book I’m working on about how to knit a very simple hat.