Oxenfree II: Lost Signals Captures the Horror of Parenthood

The haunting adventure game understands that one of the greatest fears of all is failing our children like our parents have failed us

Games Features Oxenfree 2
Oxenfree II: Lost Signals Captures the Horror of Parenthood

Spoiler Warning: Certain Oxenfree II plot points are discussed below.

“I could never be
I could never be
I could never be ready for this.

I could never be
I could never be
I could never be ready.”

Neil Druckmann, the director of both The Last of Us games, shared in an interview that, during playtesting, players who weren’t parents were mixed on whether they agreed with Joel’s actions at the end of the game. Players who were parents, however, apparently unanimously said that they would have done the same thing if they were in a situation where their child’s life was at stake.

When I heard this, I was shocked. Clearly, to me, Joel’s actions at the end of the first game were horrific, damning the lives of countless people in order to save just one life. I can empathize with why someone might be driven to do terrible things to protect someone who is for all intents and purposes their child, but for every single parent to justify mass murder in order to save their child made me believe there was something very wrong with the minds of parents.

To some extent, I still believe this. For a long time, I believed that willingly bringing any child into this world was unethical. There’s no way to ask for consent, and absolutely no promise that the world will be anything like what it is by the time those children grow old, if there’s still any human civilization around at all by then. Plus, with all the orphaned and struggling children already in the world, why would someone bring another life into the equation?

As it turns out, there are a lot of good reasons. Making and caring for a child someone can call their own flesh and blood is deeply important for lots of people; for some it’s a moral and spiritual imperative. While I may not understand that desire, I can understand why other people have it. I believe that people should have the unhindered choice of whether or not to bring someone into the world, and not only does that mean that anyone should have the right and access to contraception, abortions, etc., but also that, if they want children, they should be able to have them and have the resources to care for them.

But even though I’ve made peace with this, I don’t see any world in which I will ever have any of my own. I wouldn’t want to risk, either through nature or nurture, passing on any of my many mental illnesses to a child, and although I accept that neurodivergence is something to be accepted and celebrated, it not only created countless challenges for me, but for my parents as well. I simply don’t want to spin those dice.

I was surprised, then, when, about halfway through playing Oxenfree II: Lost Signals, the player character, Riley (Elizabeth Saydah), stands quietly on a bridge next to her coworker, Jacob (Joe Bianco), and a single dialogue option appears: “I’m pregnant.”

I immediately selected it.

From there, I was given freedom to tell Jacob how it happened (unplanned), how Riley felt about it (terrified), and what his name was going to be (Rex). Riley was abandoned by her mother at an early age, and her relationship with her father wasn’t great. Of course she’s scared by all the spooky ghosts and supernatural phenomena, but what gets to her the most is what’s going to happen to Rex (Lev Rodriguez Shivers), and what being a parent is going to do to her.

At the end of the game, Riley is given another choice: who she decides to send through the portal. Even though the threat has been neutralized, in order for the world to go back to normal, one person needs to stay behind in the void as the portal closes. One character, a child named Olivia (Abigail Turner), emphatically wants to close the portal, as she desires to be in a perpetual moment of when her parents were alive and with her. From what I could tell, Jacob has no desire to close the portal, so I don’t know why people would choose him unless they didn’t like him for some reason.

But I chose Riley.

Admittedly, there was a bit of an “I’m the hero, so I need to sacrifice myself in this moment” reason to my choice. I also reasoned that although Olivia wants to stay, she’s young and has her entire life ahead of her. But the biggest reason was that, unlike in the real world, where we find out that Riley’s relationship with Rex would be much like hers with her father, she gets to spend eternity with Rex as a child, never growing older.

The final moments of the game, when you choose this option, have you take a walk with Rex, choosing to speak or stay silent. Many times, I would let the dialogue option timer run out, with nothing I could say seeming to fit. In that moment, I felt not only an unmeasurable love between Riley and her child, but also a deep sorrow that she couldn’t be the parent for him he deserved.

I cried in that moment, and again while typing this, because, like the best scary stories do, Oxenfree II captures a real and terrifying fear: despite your best efforts, failing your children in being a parent.

I’ve had the unusual experience of having had five total parents: one mother, one father, one stepfather, and two ex-stepmothers. Some were abusive, some were loving, but none of them were perfect. Some in small ways they never could have predicted, others in big ways that still leave emotional scars, all my parents failed me.

I still deeply love many of them. My mom in particular has always been in my corner, advocating for my well-being even when I would say mean things to her, including asking her why she ever thought having me was a good idea. I don’t think she gave me an answer, but she hugged me and told me she loved me, and that was enough.

In big ways and small ones, all of our parents have failed us, and in big ways and small ones, those of us who have children will fail them. That’s incredibly scary, especially for those of us whose parents failed us more profoundly. But the beautiful message of Oxenfree II is that, whether we choose to bring life into this world or not, being scared about it is okay.

“Things start and things end, and
Isn’t it lovely in theory, but

I could never be
I could never be
I could never be ready.”

–Greg Universe, Steven Universe


Read Paste’s review of Oxenfree II: Lost Signals.

Joseph Stanichar is a freelance writer who specializes in videogames and pop culture. He’s written for publications such as Game Informer, Twinfinite and Looper. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.

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