Between the Haunted and the Weird: The Horrific Ontology of Videogames

Oxenfree is a 2016 game by Night School Studios, a point-and-click story-focused adventure game pseudo-throwback similar to something like Kentucky Route Zero (that is to say: mechanically and tonally it mimics adventure games of the days of yore but for the most part jettisons obtuse puzzling). It concerns a group of teens who go to an island in the Pacific Northwest for a night of unsupervised drinking and fun, and we all know how that sort of thing turns out for fictional teens. At the time of its release it was compared to the similar but much bigger project, Until Dawn, which also deals with the “teens in a remote area encounter bad stuff” subgenre of horror, but this is misleading. Whereas Until Dawn‘s primary reference points are the slasher films from which this typical premise is derived, Oxenfree‘s thematic antecedent is most clearly the 2001 film Donnie Darko, a deeply existential teen time travel thriller.

Generically, then, Oxenfree is poised between science fiction and horror in a way that I think meaningfully impacts how it conveys is narrative through the medium of the videogame itself. Be warned that from this point forward, I’m going to discuss specific elements and details of Oxenfree‘s story, so if you haven’t played it and care about that sort of thing being spoiled, consider yourself warned.

Oxenfree is a ghost story, of a sort.  Edwards Island, the location of the game, is a lonely tourist trap and former military base where groundbreaking research on radio and communication was carried out during and after the Second World War.  Our protagonist and player character, Alex, travels to the island with her friend Ren, her new stepbrother Jonas, Ren’s crush Nona, and Clarissa, the bitter ex-girlfriend of Alex’s deceased older brother Michael.  This entire situation is quite understandably tense and awkward to begin with, but of course, it gets worse.

The island is notorious among local youth for the anomalies that can be heard over the radio from certain locations — things that range from numbers stations to what seems to be sourceless electronic voice phenomena.  While exploring a cave by the beach, Alex accidentally contacts something — manifesting primarily as hovering, flashing triangles and angry static — that separates the group and unleashes a lot of weird bullshit on the island in the form of uncanny recurrences and timeloops (that, from the player’s perspective, are indicated by the screen’s distortion a la a badly tracking analog tape).

So on the one hand yes, Oxenfree is a ghost story — the thing Alex has contacted turns out to be the collective consciousness of a submarine crew that was sunk by friendly fire off the island’s coast after the war.  But it is also a softly science fiction-inflected time travel story — the crew are called “ghosts” but in-game exposition suggests that they did not so much “die” as get shunted out of our “dimension” (ie, the normal space-time continuum) by the accidental detonation of the experimental nuclear reactor on their submarine.  Unmoored from the most basic laws of physics and temporality, the crew of the submarine have lost all notion of individual identity and claim to have watched the entire history of the world play out to its “demise” multiple times in multiple ways, and now long for nothing more than to find their way back into linear time by possessing Alex and her friends and living the existence they feel they have been denied.

For decades the crew has been contained in their dimensional warp, but Alex lets them out with the radio she brought to hear the island’s anomalies — “you tuned into our signal” they tell her.  And I want to think for a moment about the significance of the use of the radio here, and in particular what the game accomplishes by way of placing midcentury radio technology front and center in its supernatural shenanigans.

Media theorist and philosopher Eugene Thacker has outlined a taxonomy of what he calls “dead media,” “haunted media,” and “weird media.”  Dead media, he explains, are media where “the object is no longer in use, but the form of the object remains active” (“Dark Media — An Abbreviated Typology” 129).  The example he gives here is the Victorian-era magic lantern, a device which projected still images onto the surfaces of walls and was a common attraction in certain theaters.  We no longer use magic lanterns, but the basic operative principle still exists in the form of modern projectors.

“Haunted media,” meanwhile, are when a technology “is still in use, but in a non-normative way,” Thacker’s primary example here is “the complex interplay between the photographic camera and spirit photography in the late nineteenth century” (129).  Specifically, haunted media are noted in their “disjunction … between a contemporary artifact and its connection to adjacent fields such as religion and spirituality” (129), becoming almost darkly divine in their properties.

What haunted media do allow for, in imaginary and narrative terms, is the communication between two distinct ontological realms, this world and that one, the supernatural and the natural.  However, the other potential Thacker outlines is what he calls “weird media,” in which the “human sensorium can be augmented, transformed, or in some instances, ‘see’ more than a human subject is prepared to see” by way of some media object (132).  One example here is H.P. Lovecraft’s story “From Beyond,” where a scientist perfects a devices that allows human beings to see the various horrible creatures that exist alongside us, but outside our realm of sense perception, and which also (of course) drives people mad.

Unlike haunted media, which open up a portal between that world and this one, in weird media “mediation only results in an absolute impasse, in the strange non-knowledge of the impossibility of mediation, in the way that all communication collapses” (133).  In other words, weird media show us something, but something fundamentally flawed in its communicative result: we see something just doesn’t make sense, it is there and yet refuses to cohere into anything like purpose or meaning, and the result (as witnessed by Lovecraft’s characteristically fated protagonist) is the concomitant dissolution of all meaning.

The point I would make, first of all, is that these types of media are not necessarily distinct.  For instance, “spirit photography” existed more or less simultaneously with the beginnings of photography, with trick images appearing basically right out of the gate, rather than waiting for the medium to “die.”  In other words, a medium does not have to be dead, or close to dead, to be haunted; often they are born that way.  However, a medium’s proximity to death does seem to make it useful for stories of dark media — think here of the videotape in Ringu/The Ring, which appeared relatively close to the end of the lifespan of the VHS.

At the same time, the distinction between a haunted and a weird medium is not always terribly clear.  Thacker divides them based on a selection of narratives and, basically, how those narratives play out: is the end result communication or madness?  These distinctions, however, cannot always be made — and Oxenfree is exemplary in this regard.

Radio is not an entirely dead technology, of course, but it is certainly outmoded in the way the game presents it — weighted with the context of its development during the war, an idiosyncratic feature of the island and its particular history, etc.  At first we might say that the radio in Oxenfree is haunted, as it does what Thacker says haunted media do: it opens a portal, it brings this world and that world together, and so on.  And yet communicating with the other side is not easy, and for much of the game it’s not clear what Alex and her friends are dealing with or what it wants.

Furthermore, at various points in the game Alex becomes stuck in time loops, and must synchronize the music tracks playing on a series of ghostly Magnetophons in order to return to her proper temporality.  Just as the dead (?) submarine crew live on as garbled voices on the radio, so too are the lives of Alex and her friends mysteriously tied to the functioning of old military-issue tape players.  That is to say, they are themselves mediated by the island’s weird technology, sometimes skipping back into the past (where Alex can make decisions regarding her deceased brother that, it seems, are different than the ones she might have made before) or forward into the future where they witness deaths and suicides that never actually manifest in the straightforward plot of the game.

So while these media are a conduit for the dead past, they are also conduits for the present and a kind of undead future, possible futures, and possible pasts.  Any glance at a forum or subreddit dedicated to the game will show you they are filled with theorycrafters attempting to parse out the game’s timelines into something stable and coherent, something that can be charted in a sensible order that all adds up to a “point.”

This project is troubled by a few things about the game.  First, there are multiple endings, none of which are presented as particularly good or bad (and hence, “true” or “untrue,” since games so historically tie these judgments).  Alex’s relationships with her friends may strengthen or degrade, one of them may be sacrificed to the ghostly crew in order to placate them, her brother Michael may even be brought back to life through her interference with the timeline.  The game doesn’t pass judgment on you for any of these endings in the trite way we’ve come to expect of the medium: sacrificing Clarissa is not ideal, for instance, but given the absolute bugfuck nature of what’s going on it plays out as a kind of tragic necessity.  Similarly, bringing Michael back to life doesn’t result in some condemning “don’t play with the forces of causality!” message, it just… kind of happens.  At worst it rings hollow narratively just because we’re so used to seeing the condemnation of this sort of thing in other stories.  And similarly, if everyone survives and remains friends, well…

The game ends with Alex narrating “what happened next” for everyone like any good teen movie.  As I said, outside of being erased from existence, none of the end results for anyone are particularly “bad,” some are just sadder than others.  But in the final few seconds of her narration, the screen distorts again, and Alex resumes talking about how though she’s not looking forward going to Edwards Island, it may be a fun night.

No matter what you do, the game begins again.  Except, of course, if it doesn’t… completing the game unlocks a so-called “New Game+” option, where you are treated to a bonus opening scene of Ren, Jonas, and Alex hanging out waiting for their ride.  Alex uses her radio during this scene and receives a message from herself, warning her not to go to the island; if you choose to listen to her warning, the gang stays in for the night and the game ends, its entire plot summarily averted.

Now here’s the thing: at no point in the game you play can you make Alex deliver the message she receives in this bonus scene.  EDIT:  Zaratustra on twitter pointed out that if you complete the New Game+ as if it were a normal game, ignoring the warning, you actually do get the choice to deliver this message to a past Alex — that is, you can save an Alex you have not played from looping through everything.  You save someone, but not yourself.  You render everything you have just done meaningless (because it will never have happened) but also direly important (because it had to happen in order for it not to happen).

And this is how the game, to get to my point finally, collapses the haunted into the weird, because it’s not clear what is communicating here, and what or why it is even communicating.  The game recedes indefinitely into itself in a way that is not left for us to explore.  The addition of time travel (or, perhaps, the movement between distinct timelines, much like the submarine crew blasted outside of all continuity) means that what sometimes (in Thacker’s terms) operates as haunted media (communication between two ontological orders) also sometimes devolves into weird media (the transference of madness inducing nonsense, a kind of excess of information that makes coherence impossible).

In the end, there is a sense in Oxenfree that things are overmediated, too complexly bound up in each other, done and redone and undone, until all meaningful difference is lost in a sea of noise like the analog static the game deceptively renders on my digital monitor.  For at its most basic level, Oxenfree is a videogame that is making itself known to us as a videogame, as a site of weird media, or overmediation.

As I said, some media are haunted at their inception.  In Oxenfree this is especially true, encrusted as it is with the signifiers of analog media it has supposedly surpassed and rendered “dead” (and yet, what is my wi-fi connection but a sort of afterlife of the radio technologies developed by the island’s engineers?).  But more to the point, Oxenfree is suggesting that games as a medium are both haunted and weird, constantly warping between these two poles as they connect disparate orders of communication or devolve into madness-inducing nonsense.

I have written before about how haunting can serve as a vocabulary for how players experience gameplay.  Gameplay is always already underwritten by expectations mediated to the player by prior games, and by prior playthroughs of the same game.  In its turn to the weird, Oxenfree makes this point quite literal: at various points in the story, Alex is confronted by a ghostly version of herself in a mirror.  It speaks to her, giving her advice that seemingly makes no sense (for instance, telling her to advise Michael to break up with Clarissa, despite the fact that Michael is already dead).

This is the weird: communication that runs into the limit of intelligibility.  However, as the game progresses, it becomes clear Alex’s reflection is giving her advice about specific moments that take place later in the game.  In the climax of the game, Alex finds herself “on the other side” with the dead submarine crew, and in a series of vignettes is transported to shadow versions of various locations from the game where she provides advice to herself  — now on the other side of the mirror.  Communication between the natural and supernatural, between one timeline and another: what was weird becomes haunting.

But this is what is truly remarkable: you do not have to listen to the advice your reflection gives you, nor do you later have to give advice to your reflection that jives with (or departs from) your own actions in the game.  It is up to the player to decide how trustworthy their reflection is, and in the end, to decide how they might have done things the same or differently.

In fact, what happens is this: the game searches your friends list (through Steam or whatever service) to find people you know who have already played Oxenfree.  When you see Alex’s reflection early in the game, this person’s username appears above it in bright green text in a visual evocative of an MMO.  The dialog choices made at the end of the game by your friend (in my case, an Alex who was hilariously named “Chopper Dave”) are presented to you, and at the end of the game, your dialog choices are sent along to the next person in your social circle to play the game (so if you ever see an Alex named “Richard Plantagenet” — hi).

What Oxenfree quite literally enacts here is the haunting of gameplay: your experience of it always already bears the uncanny impression of a prior playthrough that was not yours, an attempt to communicate or give advice about how you should play the game.  But this communique is fraught by all manner of weird problems: first, you have no idea what is happening, and second, you might not listen.  Thus the haunting of gameplay again collapses into weird gameplay: not communication between or across playthroughs but the potential simultaneous existence of mutually exclusive in-game “realities” connected by their very refusal to resemble one another.

Oxenfree, then, is an apt demonstration for the horrific ontology of videogames.  Not only does Alex’s endless looping through the various endings suggest the idea of replay, the game itself metatextually and mechanically links these ideas, forcing us into an uncomfortable conceptual space that narratively challenges the ways by which we defend everything from the importance of individual identity to the very possibility of meaning-making.

Are we — the mass of players — meant to stand in for the lost crew who hope to find something like “life” in possessing these kids?  And what does it mean that the game in practice so intransigently deflects what the ghosts say they want: stability, continuity, identity, linear growth.  “Oxenfree” is, after all, a cry to end a game, to signal to the players that the game has finished.  But in Oxenfree no such ending is forthcoming, and we are left to confront how one can make meaning and find happiness in a weird, haunted, overmediated world.

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