Poltergeists and Teen Drama – OXENFREE Interview with Adam Hines

Jul 22, 2017
Adventure

A blend of Telltale adventure, coming of age whimsy, and Lovecraftian horror, OXENFREE has been a surprise indie hit, coming to home consoles, PC, and now your handheld device. We got the chance to sit down with developer Night School Studio’s co-founder Adam Hines to talk in-depth about the game and how Night School came to be. We even get some juicy details about later events in the game, for those of you who’ve already beaten it and want to know more about OXENFREE’s many twists and turns.

Appolicious: To start, what originally inspired OXENFREE?

Adam Hines: Narratively, wanting a playable version of the movies my co-founder Sean and I largely grew up with, coming-of-age films from the eighties and early nineties like Stand By Me or Monster Squad. And gameplay-wise, we just wanted a game where the focus was on the interactions and character moments between a tight-knit cast of protagonists, where free-flowing conversations both drove and sat on top of the game play. Those were our primary goals, and everything sort of came from that.

APP: How did you handle designing a narrative game where the player could walk away from other characters or interrupt mid-conversation? How hard was it syncing the audio so that, even if interrupted, conversations would flow naturally?

AH: Syncing the audio was easy, as the tools would automatically interrupt lines with slight timing delays so it sounded mostly natural. Actually designing it was another story… the way it works is that if you interrupt a key conversation to talk about something else, the important conversation will get picked back up again by the non-player characters after they’re done with the brief interlude. It requires many different versions of the same lines so that you don’t get repeating dialogue (which was a big no-no for this game, since if characters kept saying the same stuff over and over again like little mindless robots it would immediately break the illusion that you were having a “real” dialogue, a flaw other games can perhaps get away with since conversations aren’t their focus, but for us, it’s the entire game, and so must be as seamless as possible). If you play it like a maniac, clicking on everything and not giving characters a chance to breathe, it sounds insane, but if played at any sort of a reasonable pace it works well enough.

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APP: What got you into game development? Why the shift to indie game development?

AH: My first games job was with Universal working as a QA tester, driving Crash Bandicoot into walls in Crash Nitro Kart twelve hours a day to find map holes. I took that job because I like video games, and wanted something mindless, so when I got home I could work on my own stuff and not be burned out. Years later, I worked as a writer at Telltale, and from there founded Night School with Sean. We wanted the freedom to make our own stuff, something that’s impossible if you’re an employee at a company, which was the main reason to make indie games.

APP: How was it forming your own studio? You have a variety of developers from Disney and Telltale.

AH: Pretty painless. Sean ran around and got funding and we hired whoever was available and right for the job at the time.

OXENFREE: Official Teaser #1

Night School Studio’s OXENFREE is a supernatural teen thriller about a group of friends who unwittingly open a ghostly rift. Players control Alex, who brings her new stepbrother Jonas to an overnight party gone wrong off the coast of their hometown.

APP: Were there any surprising twists and turns in development? What was the most challenging trial in OXENFREE‘s development?

AH: The ending was the only real surprising and horrifying “twist”, in that it turned out the ambitious finale we originally had devised turned out to be too ambitious for the time we had to make it, so we had to come up with something from scratch using existing assets at pretty much the eleventh hour. The most challenging aspect of making OXENFREE consistently throughout the process, however, was simply getting Alex and her friends to feel “real.” We had naively assumed that just having the characters in the landscape, speaking recorded dialogue and bobbing their heads a little would be enough, but without gestural animations, timed-actions, deliberate body language… without the characters actually PERFORMING, it felt like you were watching little toys be strung along on a flat world. And that always took a while, getting the timing of things right, having them move around on their own, look at things on their own… there was no real way to automate it, so it was lot of custom work.

APP: What was your favorite part of working on OXENFREE?

AH: Once the scene is written, and recorded, and you can play it start to finish, and all the art is added, and one layer of polish gets put on it… THEN it becomes fun to work on. When we can go in and tweak things and make parts really sing and feel good, when you can do stuff like putting a half-second pause before someone says something to make the joke really stick, or get two lines to overlap in a way that sounds creepily real, I love that part. I really enjoy noodling things. I’d work on stuff forever if I could. It’s that percent of a percent increase in quality that separates the work you’ll remember a week from now from the stuff you’ll remember five years from now, and having the time to actually do that is rare, but should be fought for as much as possible.

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APP: A number of Telltale voice acting alumni joined on for OXENFREE. Was the recording process any different on the indie scale?

AH: Nah. Being indie just means you don’t get to fly in the actors and go to an expensive, sleek studio where assistants are serving you lobster as you leisurely record sessions on state-of-the-art audio equipment. Erin Yvette, the actress who played Alex, literally recorded all of her lines from her apartment’s bedroom closet while we directed her over Skype. But the ultimate difference in quality between the two scenarios is negligible.

APP: Okay, now we’re delving into some spoiler-territory questions relating to the narrative. To start – were there any big changes to the story over the course of development?

AH: Nothing huge. The ending, as I mentioned, changed, but just in scope and scale, not in what was actually happening. VERY early on when we were working out just what the story was going to be at all, you were going to have a permanent ghost friend, someone who’d died previously trying to stop whatever horror was about to consume the town that would aid you with special “ghost powers.” This character kind of morphed into Maggie Adler, someone who still helps you from beyond the grave, just not directly.

APP: Was Clarissa always meant to be the one who would become possessed?

AH: Clarissa was always going to start out as the human antagonist, be eventually pushed to second place once the ghosts showed up fully and became the REAL antagonists, and then Clarissa would essentially merge with them to become the beating heart of all of your problems, personal and otherwise.

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APP: Are there any secrets with the radio that players haven’t found yet?

AH: I doubt it! I’ve honestly lost track.

APP: Are there any cut features or ideas you still wish had made it into the game?

AH: The radio was going to be a lot more, um, fully featured, I guess is a way to put it, allowing you to do more stuff with what was essentially going to be a Walkman. And we wrestled with the idea of giving you a notebook for story tracking and as a sort of fake “inventory” for codes and clues about the story. I don’t know if either would have really made the game “better,” but it would have made it bigger. One thing I wish we had time to do was more flashbacks with Alex’s brother OFF the island, so we’d see them driving around in a car back in their hometown or at school.

APP: What ending would you choose?

AH: I always try to just do what I imagine I’d do in the situation. So I’d probably end up saving Clarissa, but having not been nice to her so she’d still hate me. Jonas would probably like me, I think… Ren and Nona wouldn’t be together, since I wouldn’t care about pushing that along, and would think I’d be saving Nona from a semester long headache.

For more on OXENFREE, be sure to visit Night School Studio’s website and check out OXENFREE on iOS and Android.

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Elijah Beahm

Elijah is a man who can't stop talking about games, geeky things, and to the chagrin of his colleagues, horrible puns. He's been working as a game journalist for several years now, and in addition to Appolicious, His other work can be found at GameCritics.com, I Need Diverse Games, and The Unabridged Gamer on YouTube. When not reviewing games, you'll probably find him ranting on Twitter, writing, or replaying Dead Space 2 for the zillionth time.

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