Jor­dan Er­ica Webber is The Praiser

This month, Jor­dan rudely talks over the teens in Ox­en­free

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Night School Stu­dio’s de­but game be­gins with chat­ter. As the cam­era pans down to a boat, one of the teenagers on board, Ren, speaks in a mono­logue to his friends about their is­land des­ti­na­tion. “Henry Fonda sta­tioned here, I think, for a bit,” he says at one point, “Un­less he was Navy…”

“Who’s Henry Fonda?” asks an­other char­ac­ter, Jonas. But Ren con­tin­ues with his pre­sum­ably un­so­licited lec­ture: “And around Christ­mas time, this lit­tle break­fast place used to sell these amaz­ing po­lar bear sugar cook­ies. Maaaaan, those were good.”

When Ren fi­nally does wind down, he calls to the other per­son on the boat: “Alex. Hey! Still with us?” Three pas­tel-coloured speech bub­bles ap­pear with dif­fer­ent di­a­logue choices, and you re­alise that this teenage girl with aqua­ma­rine hair is the player char­ac­ter. If you’re too slow to choose a re­sponse, you lose your chance. Of course, Ren picks up the slack: “So, Jonas, this is what I like to call a ‘trip’, this blank slate thing Alex’ll do some­times.”

This in­trigu­ing ex­change sets the tone for Ox­en­free. Os­ten­si­bly, this is a su­per­nat­u­ral mys­tery game, but it’s far more in­ter­est­ing viewed as a game about a group of teenagers, and thus about so­cial dy­nam­ics. The de­vel­oper has put an im­pres­sive amount of fo­cus on in-game con­ver­sa­tion – writ­ing sprawl­ing di­a­logue trees, let­ting you walk and talk at the same time, cre­at­ing mo­ments where two con­ver­sa­tions hap­pen at the same time – and it’s paid off.

Some play­ers might hate the di­a­logue time limit, but it’s nec­es­sary in or­der to en­cour­age in­ter­rup­tion, which makes the con­ver­sa­tions feel nat­u­ral. Alex’s speech bub­bles usu­ally ap­pear be­fore her con­ver­sa­tional part­ner has fin­ished talk­ing, and just as in real life a re­sponse will of­ten pop into your head while you’re lis­ten­ing. Some­times the speech bub­bles dis­ap­pear be­fore the other per­son is done – if you’d wanted Alex to speak, you should have in­ter­rupted.

Real life in­ter­rup­tion def­i­nitely has neg­a­tive as­pects (for in­stance, men are more likely to in­ter­rupt than women, and are more likely to do so in a con­ver­sa­tion with a woman), but it’s a nat­u­ral part of hu­man in­ter­ac­tion. Some­times we do it so we don’t for­get what we want to say. Some­times we want to pre­vent a con­ver­sa­tion from go­ing down a bad path. Some­times the other per­son is glad of the in­ter­rup­tion be­cause they were just talk­ing to fill the si­lence. Ox­en­free rep­re­sents all of these even­tu­al­i­ties.

Choose your chat

The in­ter­rup­tion me­chanic isw pow­er­ful for those mo­ments when, as in real life, you make the con­scious de­ci­sion not to use it. At one point Jonas, who is Alex’s new step-brother, starts to open up about his past. You can in­ter­rupt, but I choose not to. In real life, if peo­ple have sum­moned the courage to tell me some­thing emo­tional, I make a con­certed ef­fort not to break up the flow with ques­tions or ad­vice. I try just to lis­ten.

I in­ter­rupt peo­ple more than I would like. I’m work­ing on it, and that’s part of grow­ing up. Teenagers, as un­com­fort­able bun­dles of so­cial en­ergy still get­ting to know them­selves, talk over one an­other all the time. In Ox­en­free, how much each char­ac­ter in­ter­rupts or is in­ter­rupted is part of what de­fines them. Clarissa, who seems self-cen­tred and may be in­se­cure, talks over her friends fre­quently, de­spite hav­ing lit­tle to say. Ren’s shy crush Nona, on the other hand, is of­ten cut off.

A friend of mine is writ­ing a book about a teenage girl, and I know from talk­ing to her that it can be dif­fi­cult for adult writ­ers to cap­ture the way teenagers in­ter­act. Some peo­ple have com­pared Ox­en­free to Life Is Strange, an­other nar­ra­tive-fo­cused game with a su­per­nat­u­ral theme and a young cast, but the way Ox­en­free’s char­ac­ters speak seems much more nat­u­ral. Their speech is pep­pered with “like” and “uh” and “you know”, and de­liv­ered by skilled voice ac­tors (Ren an­noys me when­ever he speaks, but I’m pretty sure he’s sup­posed to). But most of all it’s full of in­ter­rup­tions, and of things in­evitably left un­said. When not eaves­drop­ping on teenagers, Jor­dan writes for The Guardian

“I in­ter­rupt peo­ple more than I would like but that’s part of grow­ing up”

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