Oxenfree – How Games Deal With Grief
The mind is an island of memories begging to be explored. Often those memories reveal truths about ourselves we may not be comfortable in evaluating, but it is important to, nonetheless. With games, storytellers are offered the ability to place players directly into the shoes of characters they have created, if only to then ask them, to put faith in their audience to help that character to find some sort of closure.
*Mild spoilers for Oxenfree and Silent Hill 2 follow.
Oxenfree may seem like a simple coming-of-age horror story primarily, but it delves into something as rich and complex as any great novel. Alex and her ‘friends’ travel to Edwards Island for their annual beach party, only to find hung-up remorse and a taste of the supernatural. This is all of course just setup to convey the more insightful meanderings of its mid-youthful cast, a liminal playground full of wondrous sights held back by a two-dimensional perspective.
Paths wind around bends and through valleys, often taking the longest route from Point A to B. From a design perspective, this works for a multitude of reasons: to allow time for dialogue interactions; to hide a number of secrets to collect, which all point towards a more ‘proper’ endgame; to provide aesthetic variance, giving an organic asymmetry to the wild, forestry setting.
But most importantly is how the wandering visualizes the internal struggles of finding one’s way. It literalizes the concept of getting lost within one’s mind in a way only a video game can truly accomplish. In Oxenfree, it’s not only the player’s own mind, but that of Alex as she grapples with her brother’s death, which in turn emphasizes a universal authenticity all in itself.
Grief in its simplest terms requires memories. Memories are formed through time and relationships subsequently built throughout that period of time. Grief then can only be manifested and expanded over time. As more and more memories are created and stored within a person’s head, the relationship they depict grows stronger and more meaningful, as they simultaneously develop an understanding of that other individual.
Grief ignites the moment tragedy strikes, when a mental bomb is dropped erasing any future memories to be developed. All that is left, all that will forever be, are the memories which have already been tucked away in the corners of the subconscious mind. And so they grasp and clutch at them instinctively. The more memories, the tighter they cling.
But time is also the conduit for closure. Time heals wounds because it allows room for reconstruction and deliberation and new experiences to endure. In Oxenfree, time frustratingly repeats in loops to account for Alex’s bereavement. Seeing Michael again, in what ultimately amount to flashbacks, provides a necessary means of receiving closure. Alex (AKA the player) is given no choice in changing the past, only living the most out of it with the fatal knowledge her present self has.
It is not a chance to save Michael’s Life, and thus subsequently erase all the pain and guilt Alex claimed from the loss of her dear family; but a moment to reflect upon the fleeting essence of any moment, and a reminder to appreciate those closest to you at every possible chance.
Silent Hill 2 takes a similar approach to storytelling, but it is a far more grim depiction of seeking closure. Mary’s death is entirely her husband’s fault. What may seem a simply sexually-frustrated act of murder by James becomes empathetic through context. Mary was in pain, and part of the game’s arc reveals a redemptive, merciful side to his decision. As a result, he is punishing himself every step of the way through the titular town.
James loves his wife, that much is certain. Her decaying state parallels the diseased mindset of the protagonist, itself a developing result of her own sickness; the grieving process already beginning before her time has even expired.
Make no mistake, James is a monster, but certainly an understandable one. The rotting beings which stalk the streets emphasize the internal demons he is constantly struggling to defeat, bridging the player’s perspective to a man in regretful denial. SIlent Hill is his personal hellscape where James feels he belongs, and he’s returned to accept his punishment, whether conscious of it or not.
The difference between the dissections of grief in Oxenfree and Silent Hill 2 is a moral divide. Alex is not responsible for her brother’s death; she did not force Michael to drown nor would she ever have wanted to. It was a circumstance she had no control over, nor could ever imagine coming. It’s a circumstance which mirrors Michael’s announcement that he was moving away from her to go to school, an instance in which she was also losing him.
James is responsible for Mary’s death. Her cancerous state does not reflect his act, but selfishly motivates it. Both games center around a protagonist who is mentally punishing themselves for the loss of a loved one, and the player is tasked with grappling with their venture towards some sort of closure. One is devastating while the other uplifting, however both are underlined by a sense of taking responsibility for another’s death.
The two titles are almost perfect reflections of one another, though with an equal underlying goal. James’s denial has caused him to disassociate himself from Mary’s death, whereas Alex’s lack of ability to find meaning in Michael’s drowning has caused her to take responsibility, no matter how much she denies it. Ultimately, both narratives associate memory as a means of plight, and the only way to overcome grief is to accept the past as an unchangeable truth.
Denial and grief walk hand in hand. Memories burden the mind into assuming responsibility, no matter the circumstances regarding tragedy. Alex seeks to find closure through punishment, failing to search for acceptance, until coming face to face with the ghosts haunting her subconscious. James damns himself through strict denial, and only finds closure by facing the ghosts of his own mind; only these ghosts reflect back at him the inescapable atrocity he has committed.
Both work as a compelling counterpoint to each other. In a state of duress, the mind is eager to associate the end of a loved one’s Life as an end to the process of memory-building altogether. As if a part of them has died along with their companion.
It takes strength to overcome the mental obstacles impeding longevity, and both of these titles represent that struggle through unique forms of interactivity. Whether meandering through laid paths across an island of forests and valleys and deteriorating forts; or directly assaulting an assortment of visual representations of guilt; the player is invited to join the characters in the grieving process, perhaps in turn even allowing them to overcome internal hardships of their own.