Stephanie Harkin

Stephanie Harkin is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Media and Communications at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia. Her research focusses on girls’ digital culture, girlhood representations, and coming-of-age themes in video games.

Contact information:
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Liminal Rhetoric in Girlhood Games: Developmental Disruption in Night School Studio’s Oxenfree

by Stephanie Harkin


The increased presence of adolescent girl protagonists in popular videogames calls for deeper analysis into their representational potential. Drawing on anthropological accounts of ritualistic rites of passage and on feminist appropriations of those accounts, this paper theorises what I call “girlhood games” as liminal spaces that have the potential to evoke transformative play. To illustrate this, I take Night School Studio’s Oxenfree (2016) as a case study for it offers a transgressive presentation of developmental linearity. I propose that Oxenfree disrupts the frequent narrative of “overcoming” adolescence when its heroine Alex's conclusive reincorporation to normative society is denied. Oxenfree achieves this through its use of playful temporal disruptions projected through the game’s supernatural timeslips and its cyclical conclusion that repeatedly transports its heroine back to the beginning of the game. Oxenfree’s remote island setting is a liminal space where the teenage characters are free from institutional authority. Within this playful setting, its teen girl protagonist is able to move and lead in a manner that is comparatively difficult for adolescent girls in the regulatory “real world.” This freedom has the potential to extend to girl players who are likewise experimenting with comparable freedom from their regulated realities when occupying the liminal fantasy of the game space.

Keywords: Bildungsroman, coming-of-age, girlhood, liminality, Oxenfree, rites of passage


Introduction: Girlhood Games

There has been an increase of centralised girl protagonists in videogames. Many studies interrogating girls in the media, however, seem to avoid videogame analysis in way of film, television, literature, magazines and comics (see Bellas, 2017; Cocca, 2016; Kaveney, 2006; McRobbie, 1991; Projansky, 2014). Perhaps the reason for this lies in videogaming’s troubled reputation for character representations fraught with hypermasculinity, hypersexualisation, exoticisation, white supremacy, damsels in distress, compulsory heterosexuality and the secondary status, stereotyping, or invisibility of marginalised persons. A number of contemporary videogames, however, are increasingly featuring agentic, adolescent girl protagonists and narrating coming-of-age girlhood experiences including, but not limited to: AAA action adventure games like The Last of Us series (Naughty Dog, 2013-2020), Horizon Zero Dawn (Guerilla Games, 2017) and Marvel’s Avengers (Crystal Dynamics, 2020); small studio exploration games like Mutazione (Die Gute Fabrik, 2019), If Found… (Dreamfeel, 2002), Oxenfree (Night School Studio, 2016) and Night in the Woods (Infinite Fall, 2017); walking simulators like Gone Home (Fullbright, 2013) and What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow, 2017); episodic choice-driven games like Life is Strange (Dontnod Entertainemnt, 2015) and The Walking Dead: Season 2 (Telltale Games, 2013); platformers like Celeste (Matt Makes Games, 2018) and Indivisible (Lab Zero Games, 2019); driving games like Lost Wage Rampage (Jane Friedhoff, 2018); and RPGs like Ikenfell (Happy Ray Games, 2020). In light of this ever-increasing centralisation of girls across several game styles, I propose an approach for understanding the potential transformative functions of girlhood games upon girl players, although the category "girlhood games" first warrants addressing.

I define girlhood games as games that firstly feature adolescent or young adult girl protagonists (inclusive of anthropomorphic or other non-human characters). It is difficult to confine these characters to an age bracket as many games do not disclose their ages. I therefore consider a flexible and interpretive range from pre-teen and teen girls to young adult women. The second feature of girlhood games is their formative coming-of-age themes, namely the negotiation of social and identity trials. Girlhood games are, moreover, not explicitly gendered towards girl players as practiced within similarly termed "girls' games" that in the 1990s actively sought to exclude boys and men (Cassell & Jenkins, 1998b). When I discuss their feminist affordances, though, I am considering their possible function as a resource for girl players which is also inclusive of pre-teens, teens and young adults regardless of assigned sex -- simply put, any who self-identify as a girl.

Many contemporary girlhood games illustrate a post-feminist context, meaning that feminist messages are incorporated if searched for, although they mostly present their girl protagonists as already equal citizens. At the same time, the increased presence of girl protagonists in mainstream, commercial games may also be contextualised through popular feminism, a concept exemplified by the #MeToo movement, the 2017 Women’s March and various celebrities proudly proclaiming feminist identities (Banet-Weiser, 2018). Girlhood games that reflect popular feminism tend to raise gendered issues but are relatively sanitised, resisting politics that are overtly radical (See Butt & Dunne 2019 [1]). Many girl protagonists listed in the games above, for example, are white, cisgendered and heroic; although others, particularly those from smaller studios, tend to depart more defiantly from the status-quo [2].

Studies of girlhood is a small but growing area of interest in game studies. An early notable contribution that was published alongside the 1990s girls’ games era was Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins’ edited collection From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games (1998a), which includes several interviews with girls’ games designers and studies on girls’ play preferences gathered from focus group research. More recently, Carolyn Cunningham’s Games Girls Play: Contexts of Girls and Videogames (2018) examines the role of contemporary videogames in girls’ lives based on qualitative interviews. Several textual analyses have also examined human development in individual games that I would categorise as girlhood games, although some of these address adolescence in games more broadly (de Miranda, 2018; Ensslin & Goorimoorthee 2020), or instead examine the equally compelling depiction of queer temporalities (Knutson, 2018; Pelurson, 2019), rather than attributing specific attention to the gendered conditions of girlhood (as seen in Braithwaite, 2017, 2018; Butt & Dunne, 2019; Harkin, 2020; Vist, 2015). Ian Bogost (2015), meanwhile, promotes an overall dismissive perspective towards critically successful videogames that draw on young adult themes. When questioning the narrative maturity of Gone Home (Fullbright 2013), a game that centres on a queer teenage girl, Bogost writes, “It’s a literary work on the level of young adult fiction” (p.178). He later wrote that this is “hardly anything to be ashamed of, but maybe much nothing to praise, either” (2017, n.p.). He considers the popularity of young adult fiction like The Hunger Games among adults. But then goes on to characterise a trend pointed out by Lisa Bode (2010) of adult critics devaluing adolescent stories when he asks, “What if games haven’t failed to mature so much as all other media have degenerated, such that the model of the young adult novel is really the highest (and most commercially viable) success one can achieve in narrative?” (Bogost, 2015, p. 179). Elise Vist addresses the cultural dismissal of Gone Home as being rooted in its “disorienting, queer, and blasphemous” (2015, p.59) content for traditionally masculine gamers. This is because, as Vist writes, “Gone Home is the story of women, girls, sisters, from which men are literally absent -- and tampons and hair dye are in abundance: you can find boxes of tampons in the bathroom! Tampons!” (2015, p.59). Bogost’s critical viewpoint informs the need for further analysis of girlhood games, particularly from perspectives that value their possible social functions.

In simultaneously addressing the minimal presence of videogame analysis within girlhood studies, I question how the game medium’s interactivity extends how we make sense of girlhood representation by contending that girlhood game spaces offer navigable sites for potential transformation. These spaces enable girl players to perform, rehearse, try on and experiment with identity within the game’s unreal settings. In this article, I theorise the game space as a liminal threshold by drawing on Victor Turner’s (1969) anthropological observations on initiation and what he calls “anti-structure.” I take Night School Studio’s Oxenfree as a demonstrative case study for liminal freedoms in videogames [3]. This game is particularly interesting for considering liminal space and girlhood because of its isolated island setting and anti-structural temporal distortions that disturb linear ideologies of development. Following an overview of how the liminal subject has been theorised in anthropology, I analyse Oxenfree’s timeslip obstacles and cyclical conclusion while identifying the heroine’s unregulated, empowered status when navigating the island. I then consider the performances and reflections made possible for girl players roleplaying within the game space.

Initiation and Liminal Anti-structure

The concept of liminality applied to human development was put forth initially by Arnold van Gennep’s ([1909] 1960) anthropological account of global indigenous ritual ceremonies in his foundational text, The Rites of Passage. Observing various rituals of transition (from status progression to the change of seasons), he identifies a formulaic three-part pattern: the preliminal rites (separation), liminal rites (transition) and postliminal rites (reincorporation) (van Gennep, [1909] 1960, p. 11). Van Gennep’s linear trajectory is useful in making sense of human development, where the preliminal stands in for the subject departing from childhood, the liminal being a reflection of the transitory trials of adolescence and the postliminal marking the subject’s final acceptance back into mature, adult society. This application to the life stages represents an ideology that celebrates an individual’s developmental transition as temporary and their maturation as conclusive and stable.

Considering videogames through an anthropological lens allows for discursive readings to emerge. This is because popular culture reflects (and reflects upon) society. As L. A. Alexander (2013, n.p.) points out, screen media expresses social organisation and values and is hence the “heir” of community rituals. Van Gennep’s structure is cemented in the traditional Western narrative formation of beginning, middle and end. This formula is particularly prevalent in Bildungsroman literature and coming-of-age screen media that conventionally celebrate a subject’s initiation into adulthood. 

The idea of the liminal life stage is applicable to girlhood games because their protagonists occupy the ambiguous “middled” phase. Anthropologist Victor Turner (1969) builds upon van Gennep’s positioning of the liminal subject by identifying its unbounded and exploratory condition. He locates these potentials in the liminal, perceiving the phase to “operate betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremonial” (1969, p. 95). By this he means that liminality functions in isolation from the rule-bound establishments of normative society; or, in relation to adolescence, between the regulated spaces of childhood and adulthood. The phase hence reflects unboundedness, uncertainty, suspension and ambiguity -- in Turner’s (1969) terminology, an “anti-structure.”

Turner’s framing of liminality has been co-opted by feminist theorists, who consider the playful and subversive opportunities for experimentation afforded to adolescent girls passing through the less regulated liminal threshold (see Bellas, 2017; Bright & Wills, 2011; Daley-Carey, 2018). While occupying this neutral territory, gendered transgressions may take place and alternative identities may be explored. As Athena Bellas writes,

The liminal is a threshold at which hierarchies of the dominant order break down, so it is a promising concept for feminist appropriation. Because the liminal operates in the gaps or fissures, in the "betwixt and between" (Turner 1977, 95), it is a site where conventional boundaries and hierarchies dissolve, giving way to an unsettling of the status quo (2017, p.18).

Such feminist approaches consider the freedoms liminal girl subjects attain while occupying the less regulated, or anti-structural, space between adult and child societies. (Consider the common refrain, “It’s just a phase,” to excuse girls’ actions that are otherwise socially unacceptable as children or adults.) Exploring liminality through a feminist lens allows one to contemplate the empowering potential of girlhood games, specifically those that feature non-conforming protagonists.

Turner’s work has been previously engaged with in game studies in contexts both within (Harkin, 2020) and outside of girlhood (Dippel & Fizek, 2020; Ford Morie, Fron, Fullerton, & Pearce, 2007; Harvey, 2006). His theorisation of liminality and its possibilities shares themes with the “magic circle;” a concept more often discussed in game studies. The magic circle was coined by Johan Huizinga ([1938] 1980) to describe broader processes of play that may be located in various realms of culture (well before the advent of videogames). Game studies has long adopted Huizinga’s imagined performative possibilities in videogame spaces. In 2003, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman engaged with the concept to describe digital games as “possibility spaces.” They perceived a successful design to be one that fosters a player’s agency to explore and enact numerous possibilities. The medium’s interactive nature continued to inspire several theorisations of the game space’s exploratory and agentic potential upon the player’s personal reality. Among these, are formal perspectives like Nitsche who likens learning a game’s rules to a theatrical “rehearsal process” (2008, p.217). Cultural perspectives, meanwhile view the game space as an emotional “arena” for the “practice of tension and relief” (Jörgensen & Mortensen, 2020); as “existential simulators” (de Miranda, 2018); or even the potential to be “life simulators” (Ensslin & Goorimoorthee, 2020).

These ideas of game space offer a paradoxical application of the magic circle. The paradox lies with the theorisation of games as both a safe arena for inconsequential experimentation, while at the same time impacting the player’s real-life convictions, empathy, or sense of self. To be sure, the magic circle’s legitimacy has been disputed (Consalvo, 2009; Crawford, 2015; Jakobsoon & Pargman, 2008; Pearce, 2006). Yet I embrace its paradoxical application in order to comprehend the formative potential of game space within a context of girlhood. The "unreal" girlhood game spaces have the potential to incite critical reflection of a player’s social reality. These spaces are grounds for girl players to experiment, try on, practice and perform different expressions of girlhood identity, actively engaging with narratives of resistance through the perspective of non-conforming heroines.

Media in general can certainly provoke self-reflection, but I’m interested in how games specifically elicit this for girl players. So rather than discussing these spatial affordances in relation to the magic circle, I prefer to consider girlhood games as threshold spaces based on Turner’s observations. In this context, game spaces are relatively free from real world regulation, allowing girls more freedom to practice alternative and resistant actions and identities. This is not an attempt to reimagine collective discourses surrounding game space. My approach to game space as a threshold is useful here because of its applicability to adolescence and adaptability to feminist interpretation; befitting a suitable framework to understand the specific possibilities of girlhood games. The remainder of this article examines the many anti-structural layers within the game Oxenfree to demonstrate how girlhood games may function as transformative liminal spaces.


Oxenfree is a relevant case study to illustrate these ideas because on the one hand it features liminal subjects navigating an otherworldly realm, but it also resists the girl hero’s conclusive reintegration to adult society -- instead allowing her to remain infinitely liminal. An overview of the game, however, is first helpful for clarification.

Oxenfree is a five to six-hour long 2.5D supernatural adventure game [4]. It was pitched by its designers as a “walking talking game” (Skybound, 2016a, 1:57) as its primary mechanics involve exploration and dialogue choices. The game is set in America’s North West over a single evening on the fictional Edwards Island -- a former military base turned day-time tourist destination. The island is both brooding and enchanting. Creative director, Adam Hines, describes the art style as the blending of a “fairy tale children’s book” with an “adult complexity” (Skybound, 2016b, 2:20-2:26). Players are initially guided where to travel on the island but the further they progress through the game the more the map opens up for free exploration. The exploration is meanwhile mostly uninterrupted; despite being a narrative-centric videogame, Oxenfree does not include any cut scenes (with the exception of its epilogue).

The protagonist controlled by players is Alex, a seventeen-year-old girl who is approaching high school graduation and impending adulthood. While the player doesn’t learn Alex’s race, she is a young girl of colour. She travels to Edwards Island with her childhood friend Ren and her new stepbrother Jonas where they meet up with classmates Nona and Clarissa. As the player begins to roam the island, Ren details to newcomer Jonas (and to players) the nature of their visit: “We are not allowed here after dark, the town is shut down, and we -- the Camena High junior class -- have come to commit improper acts.” Alex has also brought along a handheld radio, as it is rumoured that voices belonging to a non-existent radio station can be heard while on the island.

Tuning into a specific frequency activates a temporal tear that disrupts the rules of time and space around them. In doing so, the teenagers awaken the spirits of the victims from an accidental friendly-fire bombing of a wartime submarine, trapped neither dead nor alive in a time and space loop. They seek to possess the group of teenagers by dawn as a means of escaping their fate. The goal of the game is then to seek a method to leave the island. This involves semi-directed wandering between the island’s landmarks like its closed down school and its various communication buildings. This wandering, however, is frequently interjected by temporal distortions, forcing players to repeat certain areas multiple times or transporting Alex back in time to past visits on the island with her recently deceased brother.

As mentioned earlier, one of the most compelling elements of Oxenfree is its conclusion. Despite the narrative outcomes based upon the players’ choices, Alex will inevitably become trapped in the island’s time and space loop herself. The game concludes with the teenagers leaving the island by boat, followed with a voiceover by Alex describing each of the characters’ lives after graduation. The image then glitches and her voice is altered to the familiar unsettling pitch of the island’s spirits. Alex then discusses her plans of travelling to the island with her high school class, as if for the first time. Following the credits, players then have the option to “preserve” or to “reset” the timeline. Resetting the timeline will enable them to replay the game as before, while preserving the timeline will open up new dialogue options throughout the replay that allude to Alex experiencing a form of déjà vu. In this continued playthrough, players may attempt to warn Alex’s past self to refrain from visiting the island, although the continued timeline option always remains on the home screen, suggesting the futility of closing the loop. As long as players continue playing the game, Alex will always remain on the island.

Oxenfree’s emerging appearance in scholarly discussions has mostly been in relation to interactive storytelling strategies. The game has been understood as producing perceived player agency (Kway and Mitchell, 2018), evoking a ludonarrative epiphany (de Lint, Di Pastena, Janson et al., 2018) and for destabilising the conventional concept of self-contained gameplay (Mitchell, 2018). Building upon the game’s growing presence in scholarly literature, I read Oxenfree as a girlhood game that troubles conventional conceptions of linear development. Drawing on anthropological accounts of ritualistic rites of passage and on feminist appropriations of those accounts, I suggest that the game’s cyclical conclusion allows Alex to maintain the freedoms of her liminal state rather than taking on a normative position in the more structured adult society.

Temporal Disorder

In compliance to the Bildungsroman formula (beginning, middle and end) and van Gennep’s three ritual stages (preliminal, liminal and postliminal), young adult fantasy fiction often concludes with a heroine’s reincorporation to mature society, usually via her participation in the institution of marriage (Waller, 2009). Despite offering an unreal space for a heroine to thrive, she often must return to the “real world,” restore order, or marry. These represent acts of postliminal reincorporation that are accepting of normative gender roles. Such conclusions are most well-known within classic fairy tales adapted by Disney, but they also persist in popular contemporary screen media like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 (dir. Lawrence, 2015).

Criticisms have moreover responded to the universalising and conclusive nature of van Gennep’s linear trajectory. Alison Waller is one of many who is critical of this clean three-step process when she suggests that “human beings never truly become unified, active or powerful selves” (2009, p.1). Robyn McCallum likewise notes that representations of conclusively stable and independent subjects in young adult fiction “offers young readers a worldview” that is problematically “idealistic” and “unattainable” (1999, p.7). Furthering these views, Ebony Daley-Carey observes that Bildungsroman literature traditionally presents an ideology of maturation that is “linear, unitary, and essentialist” (2018, p.468). She therefore looks towards contemporary young adult fiction that disrupts this model by embracing the ongoing fragmentation and continual evolution of selfhood.

Following these critiques, Oxenfree’s timeslips and cyclical conclusion (the conclusion will be expanded upon in the next section) effectively disturb the traditionally linear coming-of-age conclusion, promoting a resistance to normative reincorporation. The timeslip is a narrative device wherein a character from the past may appear in the present or a character in the present is transported in time (Cosslett, 2002). Oxenfree’s ghostly antagonists are subjects from the island’s history that Alex unintentionally invites to the present when she opens the temporal tear with her radio. In lifting the veil of the island’s past, she activates a broader temporal disruption that also transports her back in time where she can revisit moments with her brother prior to his untimely death. The timeslips to the past operate as a trial towards Alex’s internal development as she is confronting her personal history and grief. At the same time, and indeed more conceptually, the timeslips also function to fragment homogenous temporality. In this way, the subversion of time in Oxenfree may be read as a visual and interactive articulation of unregulated liminal space; or a “slip through the network of classifications” as imagined by Turner (1969, p.95).

As Alex and Jonas step off the cable car and enter the “Campgrounds” area of the island, the two experience one of the game’s first timeslips. The temporal loop is activated when players progress from the right side of the frame to the far left. As they traverse this space, Jonas prompts a conversation about Alex’s past on the island when he asks, “You used to come here a lot as a kid, right?” As they walk beyond an abandoned tent, he then comments that the island would be nice to visit in the summer or spring, to which Alex has the option to respond that she “never again” intends to return. Perhaps these exchanges regarding their past and future relationships to the island provoke the temporal disruption that thereafter occurs, for when they reach end of the path on the far left, they are sent back to the right of the screen where they stepped off the cable car. Jonas, ignorant to the timeslip, repeats, “You used to come here a lot as a kid, right?” If players choose to comment on the repetition, Jonas will assure her that she is experiencing déjà vu related to her numerous memories of visiting the island. They traverse from the right to the left of the frame as before, although this time the image is slightly slanted and the top and bottom of the screen are overlayed with static, like that of a distorted VHS tape. The tent is now also accompanied by a campfire, signalling that they are not merely retracing their previous path but are rather inhabiting a different timeline altogether.

The theme of memories of the island remains the focus of Alex and Jonas’s conversation. Jonas worries that the traumatic events of the evening have damaged Alex’s relationship to the island, which he believes to be a part of her identity (the player then dictates whether Alex agrees or disagrees with him). As they reach the left side of the screen, Alex and Jonas are again transported back to the cable car where Jonas oncemore repeats, “You used to come here a lot as a kid, right?” In this sequence, a soccer ball sits in the centre of the frame and Alex may remark that she had the same ball when she was a child. When Alex kicks the ball, an invisible force sends it rolling back towards her. As the word "fetch" is unsettlingly voiced through her radio, an obscure imprint of a towering figure is then burned onto a stone wall in the background.

In the following loop, Alex is by herself, although as players pass the lake in the foreground, they will notice her static reflection not mirroring her movements. The reflection offers the player cryptic advice about a later narrative decision in the game. The advice is in fact from another player that has already played the game. Players appear on the other side of the reflection towards the end of their own playthrough where they must select their own advice to future players via a multiple-choice option. This online component reoccurs when players encounter other reflective devices, like mirrors, in later sequences of the game.

In the final loop, Jonas has returned and is now conscious of the timeslips. Next to the tent is a new object, a 1940s magnetophon that Alex perceives to be both “super old” and “almost spotless.” Players must then rotate the controller’s right thumb stick (if playing on a game console) to reel the magentophon in order to effectively conclude the loop, signalled by the removal of static and restoration of the clear image. In this frame (that is now assumed to be the present) the burning campfire is absent, yet the figure burned onto the wall remains. Temporal loops similar to this sequence repeat throughout the game, although the player is now aware they need to search for a magnetophon to progress.

I describe this sequence in detail because it represents an abundant and complex merging and obscuring of time. While Alex and Jonas are caught in a temporal loop, it is unclear whether they are simultaneously transported to other timelines or if objects of the past, like the soccer ball and the magnetophon, have entered their present. The ghostly hauntings further represent a convergence of the island’s past with the present, while the reflection of Alex’s future self even further obscures the timeline. This sequence hence breaks an ample sum of temporal laws. Within this sequence, it is difficult to map or regulate time. The only accurate approach of understanding time in this sequence is by acknowledging its chaotic ambiguity.

The timeslips in Oxenfree disturb the ideological linear progression of its teen subjects by sending them backwards, forwards and through chaotically merged temporal realities. Their unfixed position in time mirrors their broader unfixed position as liminal, adolescent subjects. Oxenfree, however, does more than just situate its teenagers passively in chaotic temporal suspension as a reflection of their liminal status. Alex is equipped to reclaim temporal control through the magnetophon mechanic. She likewise takes advantage of her ability to communicate with people from the past to communicate with various versions of herself (other players) and offer advice from her experience towards the end of the game. That advice appears within another player’s game and may then be practically applied. On a narrative level then, the timeslip works to challenge linear progression, while its presence in an interactive medium also offers the potential to extend the idea of liminal empowerment by granting the player a claim for temporal manipulation.

When the future version of Alex appears in the lake or mirror reflections, she is figured less as Alex the character but rather as Alex the proxy of another player. During these online moments, the characterisation dissolves as player identities are brought to the forefront, so the temporal control is reconfigured to belong to the players themselves. The other players’ usernames hover above Alex’s head in the reflections, and when players are put in the advisory position near the end of the game, their own online username likewise appears; reinforcing their participation in the game and encouraging self-reflective input.

To revisit the conventions of coming-of-age fiction, scholars have perceived that classical renditions of the genre present ideologically conservative formulas of subjectivity that celebrate mature unification as the desired, permanent and irreversible closure of adolescence (Bright and Wills, 2011; Daley-Carey, 2018; Waller, 2009). Nevertheless, Amy Bright and Deborah Wills (2011) and Ebony Daley-Carey (2018) identify texts that begin to trouble this ideology and instead endorse subjective fluidity. Daley-Carey (2018), for example, identifies literary works that do not present an “overcoming” of adolescence or champion adulthood as a superior or stable end. Relatedly, Bright and Wills (2011, p.106) introduce the term “transliminal consciousness,” to describe a threshold that “may be crossed in both directions.”

Oxenfree participates in these strategies through its exploration of disordered time and subsequent expression of post-structural identity. The traversals of time are more meaningful in Oxenfree for the game does not include a death penalty. This is a convention of most platforming or action games, where players are non-diegetically transported back in time to an earlier part of a game to try again if they fail a task or to keep their character alive. By excluding this conventional and media-specific form of relatively unquestioned time-travel, Oxenfree’s experimentation with diegetic temporal traversal is therefore significant in its distinction. The game embraces fragmentation through its multiple timeslips that send its characters (and players) forwards and backwards at the same time. The player’s traversals between past, present and future troubles the linear beginning, middle and end that inform the traditional rites of passage. In this way, Oxenfree’s chaotic timeslips are rhetorically expressive of what Turner (1969, p.95) describes as the “necessarily ambiguous” state of liminality. Occupying this ambiguous state, Alex can exert control over her temporality, using the radio and magnetophon technology to manipulate the island’s temporal anomalies; a sense of control also shared with the player.

Stuck in the Middle

At the end of Oxenfree, Alex is transported back to the beginning of the narrative. This is a transgressive finale because it represents a departure from a heroine’s usual conclusive reintegration into normative society (van Gennep’s “postliminal” phase). The postliminal phase marks a girls’ entrance and participation into a patriarchal system that oppresses those with marginalised identities. By denying this conclusion, Oxenfree supports girls’ unfixed, continual and non-linear development by situating its heroine, Alex, in an infinitely liminal state. This is a dynamic state to remain within as, according to Turner, the anti-structured nature of in-between, unregulated and transitory space affords a degree of freedom that makes room for playful thoughts, feelings and actions (Turner, 1969, p.vii).

Oxenfree’s setting on Edwards Island provides the grounds for these opportunities and so Alex remaining on the island signifies her enduring liminal state. Within this setting, the game’s teenage occupants are disconnected from adult authority (calling upon van Gennep’s “separation” phase). The terrain itself is also alienating, as there are no other inhabitants and no phone reception, with the exception of advanced military radio technology that is at the same time limiting and old-fashioned. Developing Turner’s observations in her work on teen film, Catherine Driscoll (2011) discusses the wilderness setting as representing American imaginings of the frontier. She relates the frontier’s adherence towards self-determination to notions of maturity. For Driscoll, the wilderness signifies a “new experience of limits” where “social rules are suspended and strength of character alone enables survival” (2011, p.69). Darkness and the wilderness are indeed pervasive atmospheric dimensions of Oxenfree’s setting and tone. The abandoned and decaying military facilities, their inability to communicate to others off the island, the degraded machinery required for traversal, the tall fairy-tale-like trees and eerie synthetic music interjected with warped frequency sounds all combine to establish an otherworldly realm distinct from society.

Van Gennep’s theorisation of the first separation phase (between preliminal and liminal) takes place when a subject enters what he calls a “neutral zone” ([1909] 1960, p.18). The neutral zone is typically unburdened from external influence or industrial intervention, ordinarily designated as natural sites “where everyone has full rights to travel” (van Gennep, [1909] 1960, p.18). While Alex is restricted from being on the island at night, once arrived she is granted freedom of spatial occupation and movement. Such freedoms are less available for young girls of colour in a patriarchal and white supremacist reality that overpolices girls of colour, as Kimberlé Crenshaw (2015) and Monique W. Morris (2016) point out. It is into such otherworldly spaces then, that liminal subjects “cross over,” entering into unfamiliar, ambiguous worlds that sit between the two regulated worlds of childhood and adult society.

On Edwards Island, Alex displays personal growth as a result of the supernatural trials faced throughout the game. As players are only acquainted with Alex for a single evening in the game’s time, Ren, her friend since childhood, is there to affirm her change when he shares prior to the climactic final sequence:

I- I wanna get this off my chest, just… something happened to us tonight, Alex, something… broke. I don’t know if it was the ghosts or whatever but… you have been acting, like, *not* you.

Alex is assigned the leadership role because she has brought the radio to the island and hence takes responsibility for closing the temporal tear that she activates at the start of the game. Her role on the island contrasts from Nona’s confession that she had failed to notice Alex at school. If players choose to respond sympathetically to Nona’s apology (rather than defensively) Alex will admit, “I don’t talk all that much so I don’t know why you would remember me,” signifying that Alex’s acquaintance with leadership is newfound and that her successfully received authority attests to her thriving on the island in spite of its supernatural hauntings. In her leading role, Alex is a resourceful and active agent, and she courageously confronts the hauntings of both her past and the island’s ghostly antagonists, all while navigating the island without heroic assistance from her male companions.

Oxenfree’s cyclical conclusion is powerful because Alex remaining on the island exempts her from forfeiting her liminal freedoms. Regardless of the player’s chosen strategy in overcoming the spirits, they will always be transported back to the beginning of the game. In the closing epilogue, Alex summarises her friends’ lives after graduation, yet when it is time to share her own postliminal fate, her dialogue deviates to an explanation of travelling to the island with her high school friends, as if for the first time. Her disrupted reincorporation therefore represents a departure of the ideologically supposed permanence or stability of mature development. In this cyclical moment, Oxenfree thus supports a post-structural or, to borrow Turner’s phrasing, an “anti-structural,” mode of subjectivity through its heroine’s resistance to emerge from the threshold. Significantly, this communicates to players the possible endurance of liminal freedoms. They may play the continued timeline mode, where there is the chance for Alex to warn her past self not to visit the island, yet despite receiving this message, the “continue timeline” option nonetheless remains on the home screen, indicating that Alex will never leave the island as long as the player continues to play the game. As the spirits frequently ask throughout the game, “Is leave possible?” players come to learn that the answer is no.

Conclusion: Girlhood Games as Liminal Spaces

In a sublime sequence of cryptic distortions towards the end of Oxenfree, Alex stands alone in the centre of a frame surrounded by infinite blackness. While occupying this non-space, the spirits inform her through a fragmented radio transmission, “It is the. Road. Of the Middled.” This phrase affirms my reading of Oxenfree as an allegory for adolescent liminality. Through its separate and supernatural island setting, the game presents the “middled” road as at once uncertain and even frightening but at the same time empowering in its isolation from the regulation of the “real world.” While traversing the threshold space, Alex is able to roam freely, uphold the authority of a leader, and courageously confront the undead. Oxenfree’s playful temporal distortions trouble the linear and conclusive formula of development cemented within centuries of Bildungsroman fiction, presenting instead an alternative trajectory of adolescence that resists its stable conclusion. This subversion significantly promotes a post-structural account of subjectivity that permits the endurance of a liminal identity.

Through the game system and the player-character Alex, girl players too get to visit Edward’s Island and are hence roleplaying their own performances of resourcefulness, leadership, curiosity, wandering and resistance. Where the island represents a liminal space for Alex to perform these traits, the game system likewise represents a liminal space for girl players too. Like the island’s isolation from society, the game too is a separate, relatively unregulated space for rehearsing resistant performances of girlhood. After participating in this girlhood game, there is an underlying potential for girl players to then draw on these practiced traits in their own social realities after emerging from the digital threshold. Girlhood games are hence a promising resource for girl players’ own journeys of self-discovery.

In these concluding remarks, it is crucial to emphasise that girls’ engagement with videogames -- and popular culture in general -- is not passive, but rather an active process. Girls are too often incorrectly presumed gullible to media influences (as noted by Bellas, 2017; Driscoll, 2002; Harris 2004). When playing a videogame, girl players do not confuse their sense of self and reality when identifying with a game avatar. The player, generally speaking, is rather what Melanie Swalwell describes to be “a fully perceiving subject” that instead practices “a partial becoming” during play (2008, p.84). Furthermore, girls are not entirely susceptible to the promotion of monolithic ideologies of femininity as seen in patriarchal cultural production (within media representations, fashion and beauty industries, children’s toys and more). The reality of how girls craft their identity is far more intricate. The active role that girls play in exploring, performing and constructing their identities while faced with patriarchal regulation is articulated well by Bellas (2017, p.11):

Girlhood can be thought of as a field of contestations in which the limits of "acceptable" feminine adolescence are constantly negotiated, challenged, redrawn, affirmed and destabilised by girls. […] The category "girl" is a site of meanings negotiated by the regulatory and institutionalised norms as well as by girls themselves, who respond to and frequently contest these norms.

Girlhood is a constructed identity that involves, as Bellas says, both systemic regulation and girls themselves. Popular culture, then, is one of many resources that girls interpretively draw upon when constructing their own multidimensional identities (see Budgeon, 2011). As Mary K. Bentley argues, avenues are needed “outside of the traditional spaces where girls interact with the larger culture” where they can “try new identities without self-censoring” (1999, p.219-220). These spaces are important because, as Bentley continues, “Without safe spaces, girls will not be fully able to discover who they are and who they would like to become” (1999, p.220). Videogames may hence operate as one of these possible spaces, especially girlhood games that deal directly with girls’ identity development. Girlhood games like Oxenfree, which presents an agentic girl protagonist and an alternative trajectory of adolescence, is thus a possible ludic resource for girl players’ own resistant identity and developmental formation.



Special thanks to my supervisor Prof. Angela Ndalianis and Swinburne’s Centre for Transformative Media Technologies’ Postgraduate Seminar Series for providing thoughtful and encouraging feedback on earlier drafts of this paper. Acknowledgements also to the Commonwealth of Australia for providing funding for this research through the Research Training Program (RTP) Stipend Scholarship.



[1] Mahli-Anne Rakkomkaew Butt and Daniel Dunne (2019) analyse how the presumed canonical ending of Life is Strange engages in female sacrificial tropes in order to restore the status-quo.

[2] Examples include Lost Wage Rampage, which features two girls anarchically driving through a mall to steal valuable items in order to recoup the gendered wage gap between themselves and their male colleagues. Ikenfell, meanwhile, has players roleplaying a group of students rebelling against the authority of their school headmistress while overtly celebrating queerness and gender fluidity.

[3] A PlayStation 4 version of Oxenfree was played for analysis.

[4] I write 2.5D because the game is neither strictly 2D nor 3D. Players move left or right across the screen but they are also able to move in restricted up or down directions. Yet unlike most 3D games, the camera is fixed to a wideview of the frame. The length of the game is dependent on the player’s approach. A “rushed” play through the main story only may take three to four hours while a “leisurely” and “completionist” approach (locating all collectables or accomplishing all achievements) may take twice as long ( The encouraged replay of the game further complicates its overall runtime.



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