I just finished Oxenfree, and… yes. I don’t know if I would’ve even started the game if I’d known that Night School also developed Afterparty, a game I bounced off hard when I tried it last year. I’m glad I stuck with Oxenfree, though, even if my takeaway mostly ended up being an extended rumination on the importance of good voice direction.
Given the game’s perspective – side-on and for the most part showing the characters from far away – there’s a natural distance in the way the devs present their story. Which, visually, works fine for me. What ends up being a problem, though, is that this same distance is present in the voice acting as well. The story is character-driven, the writing intimate and funny enough to make me care about and relate to the teen cast. The script feels like it wants me to invest in the increasingly harrowing situation these people find themselves in; the aforementioned visual distance perhaps intended to take some of the edges off the horror (as well as keep the dev time and costs down, animation wise).
If the decision also to keep the edges out of the voice acting – which, even in the most stressful parts of the story, feels quite measured and detached – was motivated by that same desire to keep the horror to a manageable level, I can sort of understand it. Even so, to me, the end result comes across either as an error in judgment or, even worse, indifferent voice direction. The performances are all competent and of a piece, but in this case, the steadiness and uniformity actively take away from the impact of the story. Casting adults as adolescents is a practice as old as theatre, but it doesn’t work if the director is unable to lead them into that teenage state of heightened emotion (whether restrained or unleashed). The characters will just end up sounding like adults. Also, when the story is full of incredibly stressful situations that seem to have these teens fully freaking out and distressed in the script, but the actors rarely convey anything beyond irritation or befuddlement on the emotional scale, it saps the overall impact in a way that ultimately (to me) makes Oxenfree much less than it could have been.
I have no way of knowing whether the choices made in the recording studio were the result of a conscious decision on the part of the devs, or if their voice director was inexperienced, not keyed enough in to the story, or what. Either way, it’s just about the perfect example of the impact voice direction can have on a game, for better or, in this case, worse.