Wide Ocean Big Jacket: Evoke, Don’t Show

Alright, we’d better do this now, or else it’s never going to happen. Whenever I play a game and I’ve got something to say about it, I make a note in my drafts and plan to come back to it later – and then it just sits there for months on end. Other stuff comes up, there are things I want to write about more urgently – and it’s sort of nice, because there are always backups in case I’m not feeling inspired, but it also means that things just sit there forever. There’s one on Vampyr which has been hanging out since, uh, July 2020 – six months or so. This one, though – I want to write it, I’m keen, I’ve just been getting caught up, and – anyway, we’re gonna do it. Wide Ocean Big Jacket. Fucking awesome game.

Wide Ocean Big Jacket is a 2020 game from Turnfollow, a small two-person team over in Los Angeles. They’ve published a few games on itch.io, and Wide Ocean is their first Steam release. It’s essentially a short story about camping, and it’s just – it’s so good, guys, it’s just so wonderful. They’ve got such a strong sense of voice, a really strong sense of tone, they understand how kids are awkward and dumb and say accidentally inappropriate things that make all the adults go uhh okay I won’t take that personally I guess because you probably didn’t mean it like that – it’s just great. The story follows a young married couple, Brad and Cloanne, who have decided to take Cloanne’s thirteen-year-old niece Mord and her new boyfriend Ben on a camping trip. Ben is very awkward and quiet, and Mord is the best. This is Mord cooking hot dogs:

But the reason we’re talking about this game is because it has this fun, unique little way of managing dialogue. It’s essentially like an interactive silent film – so when people are speaking, you see the dialogue against a black screen. You’ll move around, cut to dialogue, and then cut back to what’s going on – except the scene will have changed as a result of the dialogue. The black dialogue screen serves as a visual break, cutting the scene into separate parts and creating some flexibility around the temporal relation of those parts. Often when you return, the game will have jumped slightly ahead in time, meaning you have to re-establish what’s going on, and almost backfill in a bit of detail. Let me give you an example. Below, we can see Ben sitting in a deck chair during the campfire scene. We cut to black for dialogue, where Mord asks him to get some mustard for Aunty Cloanne, and when we return we see him already over by the table. And mentally we go oh, we didn’t see it, but he got up and moved over there, that’s a thing that happened. The visual break provides cover for the temporal jump.

And the game uses this technique pretty regularly. It’s a constant throughout the whole thing, creating this atmosphere for you as a player where you’re always going right, what’s changed. There’s a rhythm, this call and response of anticipation and payoff. It’s a really beautiful way to tell a story. It also offers a range of storytelling options that we don’t often see in video games. As a technique, we might describe it as essentially a type of juxtaposition. It emphasises chunks of narrative, instead of the continuous unbroken flow we see in most other games. It places discrete segments of story next to each other, manipulating the relationship between parts for dramatic effect. In fact, the closest point of comparison would be something like the gutter in comic books.

If you’re not familiar, the gutter is a term that I was introduced to by Scott McCloud’s 1993 Understanding Comics. It’s a pretty famous text of – I guess comic book theory? One of the particularly famous ideas that it discusses is the idea of the gutter, the white space between two panels where the reader carries out their own imaginative work. McCloud uses a simple two-panel example to illustrate – in the first, you see someone about to get whacked with a fire axe, and in the next panel you see a scream rising above the city. In the gutter between those panels, McCloud says, each reader imagines their own version of the murder, filling in the gap between the two moments. In some regards, it’s a way of coping with the limits of the medium – it’s obviously pretty hard to depict the movement of time in a still picture. By juxtaposing two moments, the gutter encourages readers to fill in the gaps, and imagine the movement of time as prompted or curated by the presented images. Arguably we don’t often see video games using this technique because they don’t need to – like film or theatre, they already operate across time. They don’t need to trick you into imagining the passage of time because they can just show it directly. However, Wide Ocean Big Jacket deliberately steps back from direct representation. It trends more towards the evocative, depicting a series of non-continuous moments and inviting the player to use their imagination and fill in the blanks. That’s a smart move in a text about nostalgia and childhood – when players fill in those blanks, they’ll inevitably draw on elements of their own memories of camping or cookouts or whatever. They’ll bring the feelings and emotions they have about those events in their own life, populating the game with a personal history and an individual richness that it just couldn’t achieve by itself. Where the trend for video games is towards spectacle, towards lovingly detailed renderings requiring ever-increasing amounts of processing power, Wide Ocean Big Jacket understands that there are simpler, more intimate ways of creating meaning for players. Sometimes it’s just about sitting round a fire in the woods and remembering times gone by.

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