Sean Krankel and Adam Hines have been making “stupid movies” together since they were five years old. Cousins and creators from well-know developers — Krankel formerly of Disney, Hines from Telltale — the two left their jobs and formed a company called Night School Studio. They’re working on a new game, the kind they’ve wanted to make for years.
It’s called Oxenfree — an adventure game Krankel describes as Freaks and Geeks meets Poltergeist, with a little bit of Stand By Me and The Goonies mixed in.
At first blush, Oxenfree sounds like your typical modern, coming-of-age teen drama. Alex is a senior in high school whose parents have divorced; her mother is remarrying. A year ago, her brother was killed in a car accident on the way to pick her up, for which she carries a great deal of guilt. While she’s working through her problems, she’s also getting used to having a new family member in the form of her step-brother, Jonas.
Krankel compares Alex to Freaks and Geeks’ lovable misfit heroine, Lindsay.
“Think of Lindsay, where she was testing her boundaries,” he said. “Somebody who is smart and … was trying to find a sense of self at the time that we all do. She’s sort of that character.”
Oxenfree opens the night Alex meets Jonas for the first time. Krankel likens Jonas to River Phoenix in Stand By Me. He’s seen “some crazy stuff.” He seems to come from the wrong side of the tracks, Krankel said, but he’s a good person with a big heart.
When the game begins, Alex and Jonas are venturing to Edwards Island for the annual senior trip. It’s a decommissioned military base off the coast in the Pacific Northwest, where kids ditch the tourist attractions and party late into the night. After drinking and gabbing around a campfire, the kids decide to explore an urban legend about the island’s caves. They take a radio with them, and things start to get a little … weird.
“There was an ‘event’ that took place in the ’40s,” Krankel said. “That event is related to a nuclear submarine accident, a test nuclear sub. And that event has set in motion some of the stuff that you end up seeing.”
That “stuff” refers to elements of a supernatural variety. Alex and her friends aren’t exactly the Scooby Doo gang, Krankel explains, but they will find themselves tangling with ghosts. Although the team initially thought about alien antagonists, they decided it was too open-ended; everyone has their own idea of what aliens look like. Ghosts, however, are sort of universal in their ambiguity.
“this is not a game about punching shit and shooting shit.”
“I don’t think there’s a really defined version of ghosts,” he said. “The way you interact with ghosts and you’ve seen ghosts in media is not super well-defined, and this is not a game about punching shit and shooting shit.
“So, it’s a good way to deal with something creepy and have a sense of mortality, but not have to actually worry about what happens if these two square off … The goal was whenever those ghosts do manifest or appear in the world, they should feel almost like [a] radio station, halfway in-between.”
The radios Alex and her friends carry will play a big part in Oxenfree. Think of them like a metal-detector, but for the supernatural; they pick up on weird signals and help you interact with the other side.
Although Krankel and Hines wouldn’t get too far into the roles the ghosts will play just yet, they were able to shed more light on how the game’s cast works together. A big part of Oxenfree is its choice-driven dialogue, which appears as iMessage-like speech bubbles. These conversations happen in real-time, too. There are no dedicated cutscenes, but instead players can walk and talk their way around the island. If you stop, your friends will prod you to continue.
“It’s literally talk, talk, talk, interact, radio,” Krankel said. “That’s the game. That’s how you play the game. It turns out that’s way harder than we thought it would be. We were like, ‘Why is nobody doing this?’ Because it’s freaking hard.”
“think of them as smart, funny people.”
As for the cast itself, the characters are friends in the same sense of the characters from The Breakfast Club, Krankel said. They know each other, but they “don’t quite fit” as a group. Still, the game will be full of little moments that bond them together or establish them as individuals.
“It was important to us to have a bit of time before shit hits the fan that you can just hang out with your friends [in-game],” Hines said. “You can just relax, play games and just get to know the characters without, ‘Ghosts are coming to eat my soul.’ That was kind of a big deal for us.”
Speaking about writing the characters, Hines explained that the idea is to make them feel like friends hanging out and speaking naturally, not like characters on a sitcom.
“The trick, if there’s any trick to it, that I’ve been doing is just not to think of them as teenagers,” Hines said. “Just think of them as smart, funny people. They can be teenagers. They can be old people. It just doesn’t matter. And just trying to just follow what you naturally think the characters would say, and not try to outsmart yourself, like, ‘This has to be funnier. More of a quip or more of whatever that is.'”
Night School Studio is planning to release on Mac and Windows PC, and “likely one console.” The developer hopes to have a playable version of the game to bring to E3 this year. Despite the heavy supernatural elements, Krankel wants to reinforce that Oxenfree is the story of this teenage girl and her friends.
“Even if we wiped away the ghost, there’s an entire story between those kids and their interpersonal relationships,” he said. “By the end of the game, you can very drastically change not only what happens with your character, but the lives of all those other characters.”