MEET THE CREATIVE
Going home again
How artist Heather Gross rediscovered herself by designing Oxenfree.
Choice-Based Narrative Game
In the award-winning indie game Oxenfree, you play as a reticent blue-haired teenage girl named Alex, who along with her friends (and some frenemies) spends the night on a spooky supernatural island in the Pacific Northwest.
Through detailed character development and incorporating real-life memories into the action, lead artist and illustrator Heather Gross was able to not only create a compelling protagonist, but also find herself along the way – and come to understand the importance of home.
In 2012, Gross left Washington state to pursue a videogame career in Los Angeles. After two years working on the hit Where’s My Water at Disney Interactive, her former colleague Sean Krankel, co-founder of games developer Night School Studio, asked her if she’d like to oversee the artistic vision for a new title called Oxenfree.
When Gross heard the game would centre on a young girl wandering around the woods in the dark, she was immediately onboard. “I thought, ‘That’s what I liked doing when I was a kid,’” she says. “It was me!”
She and the team used character sheets to help create Alex: the music the character would listen to, which films she would like, and her deepest, darkest secret.
Gross pulled from personal experience to lend authenticity to her designs. “Alex’s white shirt with the blue collar is actually one I used to wear when I went out hiking,” she says. “In the original sketches, Alex had bright yellow boots based on a pair I had loved to extinction.” (Yellow ended up being too bold for the muted palette, so brown appears in the game’s final version.)
While working on Oxenfree, Gross was able to visit the Northwest. “I was always taking pictures and gathering inspiration while I was out in nature and hiking,” she says. At the beginning of the game, the kids take a ferry to the island and it’s all based on the real boats and harbour of Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. “I kept thinking, ‘Oh, I could put that in the game. And that too!’ And I started wishing I could be around it all the time.”
All the while, it became clear to Gross that L.A. was no longer the place for her. “I felt quite literally out of my element even though I was really enjoying what I was working on,” she says. “There was no sanctuary, just more concrete and traffic and heat. I missed the forest.”
In some ways, this informed her design work. When animating the more paranormal elements of the story, like the spirits and portals, she used harsh, digital static, almost like an old VHS tape in contrast to the very soft, organic look for the kids and wooded surroundings.
Gross finally admitted to herself that she needed a change of scenery and a break from the grind of the videogame industry. “You can be so passionate about what you’re trying to make that you forget about your health,” she says. “I’m sure on a subconscious level, Oxenfree made me miss a few things.”
After the game launched in 2016, Gross decided to move back to Washington. She has since taken on freelance projects alongside working for herself. “I get to focus on drawing things that make people super-duper happy right when they see it,” she says of the cuddly characters she shares with her 130,000 followers across Instagram and Twitter.
Now Gross is looking to marry her stress-reducing doodles with her endless love of games. “The people I look up to most are actually fictional characters,” she laughs, citing Zidane from the videogame Final Fantasy IX and Nausicaä from the animated film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
“Their personalities are admirable, and there’s this arc they go through that helps them develop into a better person than they started out as.”