If there’s a phase of life more awkward than being a teenager, it might be when you’re old enough to hang around teenagers. The gap between the daily lived experience of each group is so vast, so incomprehensibly different, that even making small talk can be an effort worthy of trying to send a person to space. It’s why, understandably, each side often does its best to avoid the situation entirely. But you lack such a choice when camping, an event where all parties are next to each other, and that’s where Wide Ocean Big Jacket sets itself.
Wide Ocean Big Jacket wasn’t on my radar until days before it came out last week. It looked quirky and charming, and after spending a little under two hours finishing it, I can confirm it is, in fact, quirky and charming. But “quirky and charming” has become an overused descriptor for a certain type of indie game, and Wide Ocean Big Jacket is more than just its aesthetic, it’s heartfelt, funny, and most importantly, grounded. These feel like real people.
You know how we sometimes use jokes to avoid more truthful conversations? Wide Ocean Big Jacket is about when the jokes run out and you’ve accidentally stumbled into having a real conversation about something. The second your eyes go wide and you mutter “oh no,” before later realizing those kinds of moments were formative in developing a sense of self, a cycle of personal improvement that starts in your teens and carries on through adulthood.
Wide Ocean Big Jacket is a story about four people—specifically, two couples. Cloanne and Brad are married and have been together for awhile now, though the game doesn’t specify how long. They’re comfortable with one another, having reached the top of the relationship mountain, wherein they now have longrunning in-jokes they subject everyone else to. Then, there’s youngsters Ben and Mord. Mord is Cloanne and Brad’s nephew, and it’s clear Cloanne and Brad are the “cool” aunt and uncle you feel comfortable being more honest to because they won’t bullshit. Ben is Mord’s longtime friend, but their relationship is at a new crossroads because it’s clear they care for each other more than friends but neither is confident about what that even means, and no one has the confidence to make a next move.
All four have hopped in the car to camp for the weekend without much of an agenda, except to spend a lot of time with one another. But no vacuum lasts forever, as something will fill it.
While you technically control four different characters in Wide Ocean Big Jacket, there aren’t any mechanics or puzzles to speak of. You walk around an environment, bump into a few interactive objects, and click through the dialogue. At most, you’ll pick up a pile of wood and carry it for a few seconds, or strap on some binoculars and take a quick glance around.
Each of the game’s 20 chapters moves fast, lasting a few minutes each. It’s all more akin to a visual novel dressed up in stylish graphics. (An approach I’m increasingly a fan of, with no offense meant to visual novels; it presents opportunities for certain kinds of stories to reach wider audiences.) The game’s look is key to crafting the game’s vibe, too, working in concert with the whip smart dialogue to better illustrate how these characters all view the world. It may be a short story, but in the time it’s around, you can easily imagine their larger lives.
Much of Wide Ocean Big Jacket focuses on Mord, but everyone’s given a spotlight. There’s a sequence where Ben tells an unforgettably creepy story around a campfire that I want to steal the next time I’m in the same situation, and my heart ached during a tough exchange between Cloanne and Brad, as two people who think they fully understand one another quietly realize that change, too, comes for grown ups who believe they’re on the same page.
The highest compliment I can pay to the writing is that I felt equally empathetic towards the teens and adults. As a 30-something currently raising a young child in a relationship that’s been going on for nearly 15 years, I have been on both sides of the coin and managed to see myself in all the emotionally-tinged situations Wide Ocean Big Jacket pulls from. I have been the confused kid desperately seeking guidance, even if they don’t know how to ask for it. I have been the adult who’s thankful when their partner asks “Hey, are we cool?” and are given the chance to explain why they felt uncomfortable about something that happened.
Whereas most stories have a sense of narrative momentum, as they move towards a climax, Wide Ocean Big Jacket sits firmly during the spaces in-between. They’re high stakes relative to everything else, and certainly within the framework of these people’s lives, but it ultimately feels like you’ve been dropped into an episode of TV show about the lives of these four people. You’re being given a glimpse into the million tiny moments that come to define a life.
That might be enough, but I must confess: I hope we get another episode.
Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is email@example.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).