Adventure Game Hauntology: Comparing the Nostalgic Horror of Oxenfree and Night in the Woods

In the Netflix television series, Stranger Things (2016), a group of spirited adolescents become entangled with a cosmic horror that is stalking their small, midwestern town. Set in the 80s, the show makes no attempt to conceal its very obvious sources of inspiration from the time period with posters for canonical horror movies like The Thing hung in the backgrounds of certain scenes, and frequent references to the work of Stephen King scattered throughout many episodes. This deliberate pastiching helps establish a specific tone for the series, but also could be argued ties the series to a genre that cultural theorist Fredric Jameson has defined as the nostalgia film. Jameson argues that this type of cinema does not try to accurately represent the past, but instead only appropriates certain stylistic elements and selectively reuses them using more contemporary methodologies. For Jameson, the problem with this kind of nostalgia is that it, to a certain extent, collapses the present into the past in a way that dramatically slows down the possibility of new futures.

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The nostalgia of Stranger Things extends beyond the show with this fan homage made using the point-and-click aesthetics of classic Lucasarts games. For full game: https://infamousquests.itch.io/stranger-things

This connection between 80s horror, nostalgia, and the collapsing of time can also be found within two recent adventure games: Finji Studio’s Night in the Woods (2017), and Night School Studio’s Oxenfree (2016). As with Stranger Things, both of these games involve a group of youths investigating a supernatural mystery within their small towns; and both of these games also appropriate a sense of 1980s “pastness” to help convey their spook-laden stories. In Oxenfree a group of teenagers take the fairy out to a nearby island for an annual night of drunken rivalry that is waylaid by the increasing interference of ghostly presence. Players control the main character, a blue-haired girl named Alex, by moving her left and right across the two-dimensional environments of the haunted island, using a shortwave radio to aid in their progress and to communicate with the ghosts. In addition to the use of obsolete technologies as gameplay mechanic and classic adventure and sidescrolling game aesthetics, Oxenfree is also embodies the past through a distinctly brooding and synth-heavy soundtrack composed by musician and sound designer, scntfc. Similar to the eerie compositions by Disasterpeace for another recent 80s throwback horror movie It Follows (2013), or the now iconic electronic soundtracks from John Carpenter’s or Wes Craven’s filmographies, Oxenfree’s music is a vital component of the particular type of retro-horror atmosphere that Night School Studio is trying to reference.

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Neon blues and greens dominate the visuals of Oxenfree, while the synth compositions of scntfc hold sway over its soundtrack. OST available at: https://store.iam8bit.com/collections/oxenfree/products/oxenfree-2xlp

Music critic Mark Fisher (also known as “k-punk”) has commented on this of nostalgic recycling stating that since the early 1980s it has gradually been creating what he calls a “slow cancellation of the future” where anachronism and retromania have become the new norm. When writing on this kind of temporal disjunction, Fisher has stated that it is especially present within electronic music which was for so long “treated as a herald and signifier of the future”. What happens, Fisher argues, is that when contemporary electronic musicians produce work that references these specifically 80s aspirations of the future is a kind of paradox that creates nostalgia for a historical conception of a future that never came to pass, as it simply and slowly turned into the present. To define this paradox where the present is beset by spectral visions of a lost future, Fisher invokes a ghostly term coined by Derrida and calls this condition “sonic hauntology”. He further explains that what is most keenly felt within this endless, hauntological half-life is the loss of the possibility of loss. That with the acceleration of recording and playback technologies, nothing can actually end, nothing can truly die, and like the undead phantoms of Oxenfree everything will go on forever without ever reaching the future.

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“???: Sleepy time gal. Everything fine. Hope things there same. Don’t know if leave is possible.”

For Night in the Woods, music is not as such a strong a source of the hauntological, cancellation of futures that Fisher writes about as it is in Oxenfree. Although the game does have a distinctive and well done soundtrack, the main way that Night in the Woods enacts these themes of temporal dissonance is through the town in which the game is set. Similarly to many popular, recent horror films such as the previously cited It Follows, Only Lovers Left Alive (), Lost River (), or most recently Don’t Breath(), the fictional town of Possum Springs is set in the unfortunately all-too real area of the United States known as the Rust Belt. Spanning a fairly large portion of states in the Midwest and surrounding the Great Lakes, the Rust Belt is characterized by an overwhelming sense of entropy and urban decay due to the slow faltering of the previously dominant steel, coal, and automobile industries. This is seen in many ways throughout the player’s traversal of Possum Springs with many boarded-up shops, dilapidated buildings, and even a local abandoned mine to be found and explored. In regard to this particular brand of urban decline, Fisher states that “the shift into so-called Post-Fordism – with globalization, ubiquitous computerization and the casualisation of labour – resulted in a complete transformation in the way that work and leisure were organised. In the last ten to fifteen years, meanwhile, the internet and mobile telecommunications technology have altered the texture of everyday experience beyond all recognition.” Fisher’s proposed relationship between the shift away from Fordist industries and the rise of mobile technologies is especially resonant in Night in the Woods as the town of Possum Springs, apparently due to its remote location and shrinking population, has been overlooked by mobile phone companies and does not receive cellular service. This combination between systemic decay and lack of any type of governmental, industrial, or commercial support is what allows for the town to become haunted by the successes of its past and thus unable to properly grasp its present.

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“We run this town.”

This metaphorical haunting becomes real towards the end of the game when it is revealed that the spectres that the main character had thought she had been seeing were in fact members of a secret and conservative group of older men who had worked in the mine before it was forced to close. In a lengthy dialogue sequence, these men explain that they believe that by sacrificing people to an entity that lives at the bottom of mine they can stave off Possum Spring’s slow decay and prevent it from sliding into becoming an empty ghost town. This aging band of ex-miners have all become completely possessed by bygone images of Possum Springs as a successful industrial town and are now unable to happily live within the present, let alone realistically contemplate or recognize any sort of potential future. Like the Oxenfree’s trapped phantasms and Fisher’s electronic musicians, the mining cult of Night in the Woods is haunted by a long lost conception of a future that will never came to pass.

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Even though both Oxenfree and Night in the Woods are very actively employing retro forms and aesthetics through their reliance on the adventure genre and use of of the two-dimensional perspective, it is through these active engagements with the themes of looping time and lost futures that distances them from the uncritical nostalgia that Jameson would argue against. In both games, the narratives focus closely on conflicts or antagonists that are plagued by their relationships with the past. The ghosts of the naval officers in Oxenfree are tied to the island off the coast of which the submarine they were piloting sank; and in Night in the Woods the cult of ex-miners structure their entire belief system and hopes for the future in the failures their past. On top of this narrative interrogation of the collapsing of time, these two titles also heavily employ looping and cyclical gameplay sequences which work to mechanically subvert any expectations of easy or uncritical consumption that may be imbued by their nostalgic aesthetics.

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If what Fisher believes is true, that Jameson’s version of postmodernism “–with its tendencies towards retrospection and pastiche–” has become the new cultural norm, then games like Oxenfree and Night in the Woods should be especially celebrated for their active engagement and subversion of this now dominant trend. Although pieces of media such as Stranger Things definitely have their strengths, we should encourage artists and designers to be more thoughtful with their appropriations and references, to use these elements from the past in ways that generate new discussions of history and past cultural touchstones rather than just recycling old ones. As we move forward, there will be no shortage of examples of this type to inspect with other recent spooky adventure games such as Resident Evil 7 and Thimbleweed Park enjoying success with both the press and wider audiences; or the upcoming assault of film adaptations of classic Stephen King 80s horror novels such as It or The Dark Tower provoking popular attention. However, we as audiences must also attempt to promote new creative work that does not exclusively seek to create closed loops of referential time. Unlike Fisher’s hauntological musicians or the makers of Jameson’s nostalgia films, we as critical audiences must seek to activate unknown futures rather than pine over familiar visions from the past that would cancel the potential for new and unwritten ones.