Games are going digital. Well, the whole world is going digital, really. Blazing fast internet connections are more common than ever, and so are subscription services. Whether you’re looking for tv shows, naked ladies, or video games, someone will take $9.99 per month to give you just that. Why bother with a physical disc, something that takes up shelf space, gets scratched, gets lost?

One reason: some things are worth holding onto. Maybe you fancy yourself a collector, or occasionally you want a memento of something that resonates strongly with you. If you’re a gamer, that’s where collector’s editions come in. To the publisher they’re a way to squeeze a few more bucks out of their most dedicated audience—that might be cynical, but it’s true. But for those that buy them, they can, at their best, be a reminder of adventures, victories, and intense emotional moments. Maybe even just a reminder that yes, you have the coolest hobby.

More and more, though, it feels like the former is true more than the latter. Every collector’s edition is pretty much the same. You get a statue of a space marine, an Earth marine, an explorer, an adorable little plumber, or whatever. You get a card for some downloadable character skins to use or bonus levels to play through, a steel case, an artbook. For those of us who buy these things, it becomes repetitive and starts to take up space; it’s not long before our shelves are filled with dusty relics of the ancient past—2008. To the more casual gamer, they might look pointless or even silly.

That doesn’t even start us on the collector’s editions that normally accompany digital games. With the rise of digital sales, big triple-A games are changing how they do things, and trying to offer more value to players for more money. But those special editions, sometimes costing $20 or $30 more, offer entirely disposable content. You get an hour or two of extra gameplay, some skins, digital currency—the stuff that feels like throwaway junk even when there is a physical statue involved.

Oxenfree preys on human nostalgia, which is much more powerful in a lot of regards.

Jon Gibson,
iam8bit founder and co-partner

That’s where iam8bit comes in. Iam8bit is a creative company that, in addition to hosting live events at their gallery space in Los Angeles, produces all manner of products meant to connect people to the art they love and make the intangible tangible. Now, they’re getting into collector’s editions with the new adventure game Oxenfree. But they’re not just going to crap out a couple of blocky figurines and call it a day; the Oxenfree collector’s edition includes an array of unique physical objects, from a working six-pack cooler to an actual cassette tape, all of which have some meaning attached for anyone who enjoys the game.

But why Oxenfree in particular? Oxenfree is an entirely digital game with no physical element. You can’t walk into a Best Buy or GameStop and pluck a box off the shelf, and there’s nothing for potential collectors to hold onto. Of course, there are countless digital games, so it’s not just that. It’s the game itself, too. Oxenfree takes place in something like modern day, but it has a timeless feel to it. A small group of teenagers head out to a nearby island to spend the night partying and hanging out, getting high and whatever else might happen. It has a sort of universal nostalgia to it that resonated with iam8bit.

“I was a teenager who went camping with my friends and got scared, saw cool things, had mix tapes,” said Amanda White, iam8bit co-partner. “A lot of little details resonated with me even though it’s been a long time since I did something like that.”

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Oxenfree is “nostalgic without preying on commercial history,” added iam8bit founder and co-partner Jon Gibson. “People talk about [certain commercial properties] being nostalgic, and they certainly are, because they have a history in the marketplace and people connect to them, but Oxenfree preys on human nostalgia, which is much more powerful in a lot of regards.”

“No one can bypass [being a teenager],” Gibson continued. “You have to, through growing up, experience the kinds of things these characters are. You’ll at least have a portion of that in your own life.”

That matched up well with iam8bit’s overall mission.

“Our approach as a company is to delve into the narrative of any project we’re working on—maybe that’s a game, tv show, a movie, an album, something—we dive into the mythos of what’s there and expand upon it and…we hope to create emotive experiences for the people who consume our products,” said White. “And to do that, we feel pretty strongly that you need to give them something tangible to hold onto, quite literally, so that they can feel something substantial when they interact with whatever we’ve made.”

Gibson likened the experience to attending a live event and standing in the front row rather than choosing an expensive but far-off box seat. Like with those fancy box seats, the typical collector’s edition has you “spending $150 on something, and it doesn’t necessarily get you any closer to the intimate nature of the game.” He’d rather get into the front row, finding something that “digs into the narrative and really helps expand and bring that thing into your life in a way that’s more practical and special.”

Sean Krankel, co-founder of Oxenfree developer Night School, echoed Gibson’s sentiment. As a gamer, special editions of games still have their appeal for Krankel, but the appeal has changed.

“I have a three year old, I’m married—there’s just too much stuff in my home already,” Krankel said of the standard collector’s edition. He called out a couple games that did something unique, like the Call of Duty game that featured night vision goggles a few years back—editions that can “stand on their own and serve a purpose.” While Krankel didn’t purchase those, they hint at the direction he wanted to see his own game head in.

The temptation to go big and silly was still there, though. A radio figures heavily into the story and gameplay of Oxenfree, and the team even looked into that as they were thinking through their options. But it wasn’t realistic.

“How long are you really going to be using a radio?” Krankel asked. “The only people I picture using a radio are like, an old man listening to a baseball game. I don’t even use my car radio, and that’s right there.”

The traditional route, too, took some work to circumvent. “I don’t know if it’s just muscle memory or whatever, but you do start to veer into the territory of, ‘what about a collectable version of our protagonist?’ A custom t-shirt with whatever object, all that stuff is fine,” he said. With a game as heavy on story and dialogue as Oxenfree, though, that didn’t seem quite right.

So they kept working and within what Krankel estimated to be about a week, something started to coalesce, bringing us to iam8bit’s take on the the collector’s edition. A six-pack cooler, a “stash can,” a beer koozie, and a cassette tape filled with songs by the fictional band heard in the game, the Redheaded Bedwetters. Download codes for the game and the the songs on that cassette tape, as well as a couple of game-specific paper mementos, fill out the set.

While the game does delve into the supernatural, “the first third of the game is about these kids who are pretty normal and relatable,” Krankel explained. “By the time the supernatural stuff really hits the fan in the game, it makes all that supernatural stuff feel all the crazier, because you’ve spent an hour with these kids bickering about stuff and making jokes.”

So the developers and iam8bit went after that idea, building a collector’s edition meant to be used, not displayed.

“With Oxenfree, we’re giving people a cooler—that cooler’s going to travel with them somewhere,” GIbson said. “We’re giving people a stash can, and those cans will get used to, uh, stash things. The mix tape has the fictional band for the game; songs that are important to the characters. It’s not a real band, but it is real musicians.”

Coolers meant to cool. Stash cans meant to, uh, stash. Tapes meant to be listened to. The only things meant to be sat and looked at are a few pieces of paper, the least expensive parts of the package. What you’re paying for, Night School and iam8bit want you to use, so that every time you do, you remember how you felt when you played Oxenfree and how you felt being a teenager, out late at night with friends, feeling all the crazy emotions that teenagers feel. You know—actual, real nostalgia.

Rather than being inspired by cool armor or lasers or something, it was being a teenager in America, and the things so many of us experience growing up.

The Oxenfree Collector’s Edition feels like a genuine effort to make something real that its owners will hold onto. And this isn’t a one-time thing, either. White said that iam8bit has a "pretty robust slate of releases” they’re working on for this year, some of which are indeed collector’s editions for other games.

In fact, the studio just announced that they’ll be giving Three One Zero’s upcoming space exploration game ADR1FT the Collector’s Edition treatment as well.

I have a cabinet, one of those Ikea display cases, devoted to all my collectors editions and other mementos. If iam8bit’s philosophy catches on, the contents of that cabinet won’t change—because instead of displaying and forgetting about my collector’s editions, I’ll be using and enjoying them.

Eric Frederiksen has been a gamer since someone made the mistake of letting him play their Nintendo many years ago, and it’s been downhill ever since. He takes a multifaceted approach to gaming news and reviews, mixing business analysis, cultural studies, tech and design. In his free time, he perfects his napping technique and pursues the elusive perfect cheeseburger.

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