The excitement of being a night school studio

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    Adam Douglas has a terrible secret. He shared the recipe for a Cuban dish – arroz con pollo – in an in-game radio station in Oxenfree II: Missing Signals, and it is one he describes as “very controversial”. According to Douglas, a senior writer at Night School Studio, the trick is to use boneless chicken thighs for the dish instead of boneless, skin-on thighs and drumsticks.

    “My family is from Cuba,” says Douglas. “It was my mother’s recipe that I turned into my own. And so, the game’s version is my version, which is a very controversial version in the Cuban community, and I stand by it. By the way. I haven’t told my mom about any of this yet. I’m afraid to tell her.”

    Amid giggles, Douglas’ colleague Sarah Hebert, head of publishing and marketing at the night school, promises to send a copy of the story to her mother.

    After the party

    Charming cheater, flawed hero

    In some ways, this intimacy influences the games that Night School is known for, in which often relatable, ordinary characters are brought together in otherworldly, unusual situations. Oxenfree stars a young man, Alex, who goes on a weekend trip to a local island with a group of friends, only to accidentally set off a series of paranormal events. Its sequel is about a stoic and older adult named Riley, who navigates similar supernatural events with his partner, Jacob. Then there’s the afterparty, where college best buds Milo and Lola drink their way out of hell. This adventure features a conversation that takes place organically. Dialogue is the main part of the game rather than a supporting feature to advance the plot.

    Oxen free

    This is the very DNA of Night School: a vision founders Krinkle and Adam Hines hoped to realize from the start.

    “I’ve been talking to Adam about starting something for years. […] Back then, you had the Telltale games, which were focused on, and then sometimes [you] Walking around and solving some puzzles, and then on the other end of the spectrum, I think Last Of Us came out maybe a year or two ago, and it was the pinnacle of that narrative and action gameplay together. Maybe,” says Krinkle. “But we’re looking right in the middle and going, ‘There’s no game that doesn’t have cutscenes, but there’s still a lot of stories that are really good. works in a way.'”

    Night School’s most popular feature is its dialogue tree system, which mimics real-life chatter. Words are exchanged even as the characters move through their environment, and any lulls in conversation become meaningful. As Riley in Oxenfree II, for example, you can choose to ignore Jacob’s attempts at small talk and simply not respond if it’s proving too persistent. Conversations can also be disrupted when new distractions are introduced – finding a new cue or pointing out a familiar sign – causing them to veer off in different directions. At times, the focus on dialogue feels almost like a bold decision, one that places incredible faith in the charisma of the games’ characters. After all, a deadly boring or unlikable cast can be the death knell for a game.

    Oxon-free II

    Fortunately for many Night School games, their cast lacks a distinctive air – something that plagues many video game heroes these days. Douglas attributes this to the deliberately written flaws of Night School’s main characters.

    “[Riley from Oxenfree II] She’s made mistakes like we all have,” he says. “She’s trying to do better, like some of us try to do, and some of us don’t. And in some ways, she succeeds, and [in] In some ways, he really doesn’t. And I think keeping in mind that life is complicated, it can be messy, it rarely goes the way you think. That’s part of what made him, in my opinion, so relatable and so human.”

    Night School co-founders Adam Hines (left), Sean Krinkle (right) and OxenFree II game director Bryant Cannon (center) at Summer GameFest PlayDay 2023

    But for all his success with deeply authentic dialogue, Krinkle seems reluctant to present the Night School games as primarily dialogue-driven stories, acknowledging that this may be the case for the studio’s future games. Speed ​​may change.

    “Story is important, and even talking is important, but the idea of ​​wall-to-wall, hyper-literal gameplay that you see in Afterparty or Oxenfree and Oxenfree II, I think we’re quite capable of that, ” they say.

    Inauspicious beginning

    As with many indie developers, Night School has humble beginnings, with the team working on the first oxen-free out of Krinkle’s kitchen. Krenkel previously worked with Canon at Disney, along with Oxenfree environment artist Heather Gross, while Hines (Krenkel’s cousin) was fresh off Telltale Games. In 2016, Oxenfree was released to critical acclaim. Immediately thereafter a Mr. Robot The mobile game, Robot: 1.51exfiltrati0n, inspired by the popular television thriller, and a Game Crinkle says is Hines’ major success in Night School (the game has since been delisted from both the Android and iOS app stores ). It was also around this time that Telltale acquired the rights to make one. Stranger things game, signed a deal with Night School to develop a companion game. However, Telltale’s unexpected shuttering meant that Night School was unable to produce the game.

    Night School was understandably tight-lipped about the episode, but Krinkle let it be known that the game was “semi-long” in development, and was going to be closely tied to Telltale’s Stranger Things in some capacity. “The bottom line, I would say, is just that they were doing a great job. Stranger things approached us about the game and making a small one that could talk to the big one. And it was really cool. It was really interesting how the two games would have talked to each other. […] In a very powerful way.”

    Robot: 1.51 exfiltrati0n

    This Stranger things The companion game was built on Robot:1.51exfiltrati0n, which unfolds its events through the discovery of a discarded burner phone, along with text messages and real-time conversations.

    In a way, this was another attempt by Night School to explore different ways of spreading dialogues – a vision that Night School realized. “It was a premise that we never wanted to completely leave behind, but we hadn’t done anything with that general design for years,” says Krenkel. “Now that’s something we’re in the early stages of exploring. […] But Stranger things Used the game we were working on and took it a lot further.

    Next stop nowhere.

    Netflix and The Cloud

    Perhaps for Netflix, Night School’s storytelling ethos is complimentary to its cloud gaming ambitions. Working with interactive storytelling with Black Mirror: Bendersenich, the streaming giant eventually acquired the studio in 2021, Nightschool was the first developer to join Netflix’s growing roster of companies. Night School’s portfolio seems particularly well-suited to cloud gaming right now, with a lack of tacky mechanics and a heavy emphasis on narrative rather than the adrenaline-fueled bombast of other games. Currently, Oxenfree is one of two games that are part of Netflix’s beta test to enable games to be played on select television models, PC and Mac.

    “Netflix is ​​a story company. Netflix tells stories. They entertain the world with different kinds of stories,” Krinkle says. “We’re a story company; We only enable play. And so, conversations like ‘Hey, we’d like to license your game’, and like, ‘Hey, would you just like to do more stuff for us? Would you like to continue to use your common sense in our larger environment?’ And it felt great.”

    Night School co-founders Sean Krinkle (left) and Adam Hines (right) film a behind-the-scenes video in Los Angeles.

    Acquisitions are usually met with some degree of trepidation, but as obvious as it may sound, those we spoke to at Night School agreed that it hasn’t changed the studio in the ways it should. They do not match his identity. Instead, any change comes only from being part of a larger organization.

    “I have an answer that sounds false, but it’s not. It’s just that I’m in a lot more meetings now. It’s not because of the Netflix acquisition,” Rohrman says. “That’s just the nature of working for a big organization. But yeah, other than that, I’m still making music the way I did before, so I’m very happy with that.

    Cannon agrees. “I think it’s changed, but not necessarily because of Netflix. It’s just because we’ve gotten bigger and we’ve got more people in the studio, a lot more different personalities in the studio and The studio has had to adapt. And that’s something that a lot of studios have faced before. We’ve definitely had growing pains there, but it gave us It has also enabled tasks that will be much more exciting for our players in the future.

    Night School Studios Team

    A changing tide

    That said, Netflix’s cloud gaming efforts are still in their early stages. It hasn’t been long since the demise of Google’s cloud gaming experience Stadia, but Knight School seems largely optimistic about the deal. The acquisition gave the studio more resources and means to improve its games. For example, how Oxenfree II was released in 32 languages ​​– a feat that Krinkle says wouldn’t have been possible without Netflix.

    “Before that, we were a small company in California, if we could raise enough money to get localization funds, we would start putting the game in other places, and we didn’t even know what. Our localization was so good, to be honest, because we were a small studio working with outsourcing teams. And now we’re like, ‘We can put our thinking everywhere, and we should.’ We’ve got to fix it,'” Krinkle says. He even pointed out that the studio is currently very well at work on their dream game, with Cannon at the helm as its game director.

    An example of dialog localization in oxon-free

    “I will say when we were working out of Sean’s kitchen, we never thought we’d be here 10 years later. As big as we are, it didn’t seem possible to me,” Cannon smiles. Said along. “And so, when I think about how much we’ve grown and how much of an impact we have on the industry and the players, it’s helpful for me to think back to those days and think about that early mindset. What we had was, ‘We don’t know what we’re doing, but we’re very passionate about it.’ And thinking about how important it is to me, and how much if I express [Bryant from] What about him 10 years ago, he would be very, very happy. It’s pretty incredible, and I don’t want to forget those early days.


    This article originally appeared in Game Informer issue 363.

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