SEATTLE — The evergreen forests and churning waters of the Pacific Northwest have a tendency to take on a more sinister aura in video games. The shadowed forests of Alan Wake’s fictional Bright Falls, Washinghton, are the definition of oppressive, terrifying both in what they hide and what they don’t. The waters of the fictional Arcadia Bay, Oregon, in "Life Is Strange" portend disaster despite their apparent serenity.
For 2016’s "Oxenfree" and its sequel, "Oxenfree II: Lost Signals," released this summer, developer Night School Studio leaned into that ambiance, creating haunting, narrative-driven experiences that made you question reality itself all while surrounded by the eerie sights and sounds of the PNW at night. (The first game is set on Edwards Island, off the Oregon Coast town of Camena, the setting of the second game; both places are fictional.)
We talked to studio director Sean Krankel and the game’s soundtrack composer, Andy Rohrmann, about the inspiration for the games’ settings, the haunting melodies that follow you throughout and what comes next for the studio.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What drew you to want to set the games among our waters and forests, rather than some place like Maine as with [the psychological horror game] Silent Hill?
Krankel: We already sort of just inherently had in our DNA, from media, everything from both coasts: the Maine vibes à la Stephen King, and then on the West Coast, I definitely am like one of the biggest “Goonies” heads on the planet. And I had really romanticized that environment for so long. My wife and I took a trip to Portland, and it just blew me away because that sort of ambiance and vibe of the trees and the fog and the water and the temperature and the mist — it’s a real character in and of itself.
Q: There was a long gap between when the first game came out and the second game was announced. Why continue that story so many years after the fact and why keep it in the PNW?
Krankel: It was a multiyear process of returning to and thinking about if we wanted to make a sequel at all. I think, as it relates to ["Oxenfree"’s protagonist] Alex and her story, we felt like we told a pretty darn complete story. I think the reason it took us so long to return to it was because we didn’t want to turn Alex into a serialized ghost-busting character who we just throw a bunch of new problems at because her story felt so complete or at least trapped in its own nice little bubble, right? And the thing that was a light bulb moment, I think for a lot of us on the team, was the thing that made "Oxenfree" special wasn’t necessarily just Alex, but it was the rules [of the world]. ["Oxenfree II"] is a brand-new story, but it is based sort of in the same rules of the world.
Rohrmann: When "Oxenfree II" was floated, I had no doubt that it would be in or near the same place because the setting is such an integral part of the game. I mean, literally visually, the characters are tiny. So, like, 95% of the screen is location. So it’s visually, directly or subliminally, that’s what you’re absorbing the whole time you’re playing. So to me, it was a foregone conclusion because I don’t know this game in the Bahamas; that would be weird and awful and discordant.
Q: The PNW-specific sounds in the first game really transferred over in "Oxenfree II," but there were differences along the way. What changed between the games?
Rohrmann: I’m a kind of a research-obsessed and authenticity-obsessed person. So you can see, by my head [points behind him], this is the ’50s-era radio that I recorded all the shortwave content for all the static. This is the sound of this place when no one’s around. Capturing as much of that as possible added to the authenticity — and not to mention that I went out and recorded a bunch of the ambiences. I went up into the Cascades and sat in the middle of the forest, quiet as I can be with a quad recorder recording these places.
Q: "Oxenfree II" wrapped up with a pretty neat bow, and I could see other games coming down within the same universe or different stories where it can be a little bit of an anthology type of situation. Would you like to come back to the PNW for future games?
Krankel: It’s definitely not off-limits. I think we’re in a very similar stage as the end of "Oxenfree I," where we don’t have the great idea yet, but the door now has been kicked open to this idea of different types of stories taking place here. And if that guides us back to that universe, that might be really cool.
'Oxenfree II: Lost Signals'
The video game is available on PlayStation 5/4, Nintendo Switch, PC, iOS and Android. Of note: Though the game is available to play on mobile devices, you have to be a subscriber to Netflix, which acquired Night School Studio in 2021 and published "Lost Signals." The game is also available to play through Netflix’s mobile app.
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