This year marks the fifth anniversary of Oxenfree, the inaugural game from developer Night School Studio, which would go onto develop another indie title, Afterparty. Oxenfree came at the beginning of a wave of popular, highly visible indie games. The game was so popular that it was tapped for a film in a major franchise agreement with Walking Dead studio Skybound Entertainment — a deal that never quite materialized.
Digital Trends sat down with the co-founders of Night School, Sean Krankel and Adam Hines, to talk about its legacy so far, how the indie landscape has changed in the five years since its release, and how plans to adapt the teen drama into a movie have now turned into developing a TV show.
Digital Trends: Oxenfree is a teen drama wrapped up with a supernatural thriller. How did your team work out the delicate balance it nails between these two ideas?
Adam Hines: How we always described it is it’s a coming-of-age drama where you get to choose how you come of age, which doesn’t mention at all the actual supernatural creepiness stuff that’s always there. We wanted the time portals and loops really to be there mostly to accentuate and emphasize the interpersonal relationships and problems that these kids have. They mostly are there to give the player some urgency and some level of metaphysical importance to what could just be teens complaining about very common everyday stuff.
Sean Krankel: We thought that if the scenes that we did early in the game could feel weighty even in their utterly benign way, by the time the supernatural elements show up and really rear their head, we are attached to these characters in a way that it only amplifies the supernatural stuff to make it feel bigger. We looked at Poltergeist a lot for the kind of playful interaction, too, with these these ghostly characters. It was all about amplifying these interpersonal relationships and using the supernatural to do that, as opposed to it just being a game about kids getting possessed.
How has the reception of Oxenfree fed into the development of your subsequent games?
Krankel: Immediately after shipping Oxenfree, it was hard to parse out what was working and what wasn’t, because we were still finding an audience and figuring out what are the things that people were attached to. The two main things that we’ve latched on to are having characters that have, generally speaking, very relatable backgrounds so that the player can embody them fairly easily. The other one was the naturalistic dialogue system. We definitely want to continue to build on that.
We wanted the time portals and loops really to be there mostly to accentuate and emphasize the interpersonal relationships and problems that these kids have.
All of that said, I don’t think we want to just be the studio that consistently puts out games with dialogue bubbles over people’s heads. So that is going to continue to shift. And we want to keep adapting that.
So Night School Studios might see a dramatic change in the types of games its making?
Krankel: Those are the discussions that we have daily. There’s this big mix between our eyes getting bigger than our stomach and adding features that are just arbitrarily there to make our game bigger and more robust, but in turn might almost peel away from the purity of what the experience should be. So I think what we’ll try to do is not just go, “how do we make it bigger or different?” but rather, “how do we continue to allow the player to have agency inside of a story in a way that isn’t just dialogue?”
The next stuff that we want to continue to work on is to push at all of those pieces. That might manifest in the art. That might manifest in world design. That might mean adding new navigational mechanics, things like that. We’re pretty open to all that. We don’t want to be the studio that just feeds the same mechanics with a new story through it.
Around the time Oxenfree was announced, Night School Studios made a deal with Skybound to make ancillary media like behind-the-scenes content and comics, which was all going to culminate in [an Oxenfree] film with [The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman]. That never manifested. Do you have any updates on that project, and in retrospect, do you feel like this massive deal with Skybound was a little like putting the cart before the horse?
Krankel: It ended up being much less this grandiose feeling than maybe it should have for us at that moment in time. Before we even signed that deal, we had already had a pretty good relationship with Skybound. They were in the very early phases of trying to build out their own game portfolio, and the deal revolved around marketing, and in that regard, it was actually extremely effective on both fronts. They got to have in their portfolio a game that was not The Walking Dead. It was born from an original IP, as opposed to a translation of some other existing media.
The reason why a lot of it didn’t come to fruition wasn’t because of Skybound. It was because the bigger Hollywood studio system is so messy and requires so many steps of getting something pushed through. You have to have it packaged up with this producer and this writer and this director and have financing and have it fit the slate of either Universal or Lionsgate or wherever else that I think Skybound tried their damnedest. They really wanted to make it happen and they were getting hit at various spots along the way.
We don’t want to be the studio that just feeds the same mechanics with a new story through it.
Hines: At the time, we were such a small studio — we were four or five people when most of the Skybound stuff was being worked through. We could just feel that kind of push and pull within the studio of diverting our focus away from what we should be really focusing on, which is making the next great game. So I think that just also made it hard to really push things up and over the hill at that time.
Krankel: All of that said, the very good news is it actually now is packaged up with another group and it is very likely going to move forward, but as a series. Not a lot to announce yet, but in the middle of last year we started working on that. It’s an adaptation of the game, but that would be a whole new set of variables at play. So we’re excited. Even with our second game, Afterparty — there’s a lot of things happening with Afterparty behind-the-scenes, too. But Hollywood is slow and difficult.
Timeline-wise, things need to happen pretty soonish with the next phase of it. It is actually with a production partner, but the ball is in their court for when and how they want to announce it.
Oxenfree felt like it just scratched the surface of not only the lives of its characters, but the supernatural lore. Are there any plans to explore the world of Oxenfree in future games?
Krankel: By the time the supernatural element really gets into full swing in Oxenfree, there’s not a lot of time till the end of the game where we get to explore some of that lore. In the years since releasing it, we’ve asked ourselves, “what makes Oxenfree special?” Is our protagonist Alex the main important thing and, if we were to ever return to that game, would it all be about Alex? Is it the location — the island in which the game is set? Or is it the world’s rules and science fiction underbelly? We’ve also thought about it like The Twilight Zone — a potential anthology series with this common theme running through it.
We don’t think that you should do a follow-up unless there’s a reason for it to exist, but we’re always looking for ways to to make sure that the sequel can and should exist, and so when and if we land on that, we are not allergic to making a sequel.
Oxenfree is packaged up with another group and it is very likely going to move forward, but as a series.
Oxenfree came at the beginning of what feels like a wave of really visible, popular indie titles that are actually competitive in the AAA gaming space. How do you view the game’s legacy fitting in with this vibrant indie market that has flourished in the years since?
Hines: It’s been great seeing that kind of change and having just a much bigger toolbox. These open source engines giving a lot of people big lifts to be able to start being super-creative and making their own stuff. Teams don’t have to be 20 or 30 people. You can make a really amazing game with two people or even just one person. Now, we have to actually make really good, unique stuff because we are competing against everything else.
We could sense that that change was starting when we set out to make Oxenfree. It was both kind of terrifying and funny to see, as we made the game, so many games being announced that were touching on the same themes and some of the same mechanics that we were starting to build, to the point of there were two or three games starring a dyed-blue-haired young woman dealing with family issues. We really wondered how we were going to stick out.
So it’s been great to see people discover the game, or rediscover it, and get sucked into that world. There’s not a ton of depth to the amount of systems. We basically went all-in on one system that’s walking and talking and just being able to simultaneously do those two things and really tried to make that as polished and as cool and as unexpected as we possibly could. We love seeing our audience appreciate that. It’s been really humbling.
Krankel: Having so much competition in the space can be kind of scary. But our approach hasn’t changed — that we’ve got to kind of grab you emotionally first. That’s an evergreen concept. I don’t think that’s ever going to go away. So, we look to other indie devs just as much as we look to Pixar to inspire how we approach our kind of creative process.
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