Stuck in Adolescence: Oxenfree, Degrassi and the Importance of YA Games

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Stuck in Adolescence: <i>Oxenfree</i>, <i>Degrassi</i> and the Importance of YA Games

I have a long history with Degrassi. While it isn’t my favorite TV show (boringly, that’d be an HBO stalwart like The Wire, The Sopranos or Deadwood), the venerable Canadian high school drama hits certain notes that other, more serious-minded shows don’t. It is, in its wonderfully earnest way, one of the best examples of young adult (or YA) fiction out there. I watched it religiously in high school, catching re-runs of the Junior High and High seasons long after they’d originally aired during the late ‘80s/early ’90s. The show was dated, but it was still easy to get absorbed in the travails of Toronto kids with fantastic haircuts and acid-washed jeans as they navigated issues like sex, drug addiction, abuse and bullying.

You’re only supposed to like Degrassi ironically because it’s incredibly, unapologetically melodramatic and features actors who, being teenage unknowns, usually haven’t yet internalized the value of underselling a performance. All the same, Degrassi, in its outsized style, captures the truth of being a teenager in a pretty remarkable way. It lacks nuance, sure, but that’s appropriate in YA fiction. When we’re teenagers, our problems are more confusing and difficult to process than they are when we’re adults. The YA genre speaks to its demographic by presenting its subject matter directly, preferring raw emotion to thoughtful implication. That’s its purpose and its charm.

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Early on in Night School Studio’s Oxenfree, protagonist Alex ends up arguing with frenemy Clarissa as a round of their group’s truth and dare variant becomes uncomfortably personal (as truth and dare always does). Clarissa begins forcing Alex to talk about her dead brother, goading her into an area of conversation she’d obviously rather avoid on a night out with high school friends. As the scene plays out, the player guiding Alex’s responses by choosing dialogue prompts, it doesn’t seem possible that anything else in the game could be as important as their discussion. The game’s focus quickly shifts to the supernatural mystery that guides its plot, but it never loses sight of the power of this moment.

Oxenfree, like all good YA fiction, knows that anything else that happens during its story—the excitement of scares and metaphysical plot twists—is only an extension of how its young characters are dealing with their world.

It’s also the latest example of videogames’ exploration of YA. Though there are plenty of games starring teenagers, the 2013 release of The Fullbright Company’s excellent Gone Home is the real watershed moment for the genre’s use in games. Exploring the family home she’s just returned to after a long trip abroad, Gone Home’s player character Kaitlin pieces together family events that took place in her absence. Largely focusing on Kaitlin’s teenage sister Sam, Gone Home is a classic coming of age story, presented through household objects and notes. The narrative’s core is a heartfelt look at a young woman’s struggles with homophobia and familial acceptance. It’s powerful and sincere and a beautifully executed example of how to use the medium to portray the confusion and pain of a teenager in the process of forging her own identity.

Dontnod Entertainment’s Life Is Strange, aside from an unfortunate diversion into true crime silliness, is a similarly effective model for YA videogames. Like Oxenfree, it uses a kind of magical realist take on teen drama—its main character’s ability to manipulate time—to discuss nostalgia and regret. In true Degrassi style, Life Is Strange is filled with awful step-parents, drug dealers, shitty cliques and the odd loaded gun. And, like Degrassi, it’s also full of goofy, faux-hip dialogue that is performed and directed with such straightforward passion that it more often enhances than detracts. Most important is its developer’s dedication to expressing, through game protagonist Max, the difficulty of trying to be a good person while working through adolescent self-identification. A teenager devoted to the well-being of her friends, Max finds herself trying to do the right thing in situations where there’s rarely a way to please everyone. She can try to take the right side in a fight between a short-sighted best friend and a pragmatic parent, knowing that she both wins and loses through either choice; she can go to a drive-in movie with a boy who has a crush on her, understanding that doing so is polite, but that she’s encouraging flirting she’s not interested in receiving.

It’s a wonderful depiction of how difficult it can be to make the sort of choices that define our future relationships and path into early adulthood. Like Oxenfree, Life Is Strange shows that part of being a teenager is about managing our regrets—and coming to understand the lifelong haunt of wondering if we could’ve made a better future for ourselves and others if we had only acted differently in the past.

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Each of these games are successful because there’s a momentum to the teen drama that comes from how it focuses on the most dynamic social interactions. Audiences naturally respond to stories that are emotionally charged, and YA benefits from this by focusing on adolescence—a time when we’re still figuring out how to process the intricacies of our relationships. But, when we’re older, wanting to contextualize our emotional world as part of the larger human experience, we need more complex approaches—work that’s unafraid to express itself in unclear terms.

There’s nothing wrong with games like Oxenfree, Gone Home, Life Is Strange or, for that matter, TV shows like Degrassi. They serve a valuable purpose. They’re entertaining, cathartic and they show that our inner emotions are more universal than we think. But, YA’s unique strength is in exploring a teenager’s world. These stories can be rich, well told, and powerful, but they’re often relatively narrow in form and conceptual challenge. Games, now having grown a strong foundation in this area, need to expand further. Aside from a few key examples—say, Papers, Please, Kentucky Route Zero or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture—videogames rarely seem interested in the kind of ambitious concepts that the best films and novels trade in. It often feels like the baseline of emotional resonance is all the audience needs to celebrate a game as “artistically important.” We can expect more.

Still, fostering the medium’s YA genre is an important step toward diversifying how videogames are made, talked about and received. Understanding how games like Oxenfree, Life Is Strange and Gone Home tell their stories—stories about subjects other than human violence, something mainstream games consider a default interaction and narrative theme—provides a foundation for the less action-filled drama that other types of “mundane” games can be based on. YA games hone the non-violent dramatic language necessary for more complex work. They provide a model for stories about ordinary relationships between people. They show how to make hours of non-violent exploration and dialogue function as the core interactions of videogames.

In many ways, the intellectual ambitions of our best games are stuck in adolescence. By understanding how—and why—the best YA games function, the medium has a better chance of reaching a rich, fulfilling adulthood.

Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto whose work has appeared at Kill Screen, VICE and Playboy. He is the co-editor of SHOOTER (a compilation of critical essays on the shooter genre), co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast and tweets @reidmccarter.

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