What Is Wide Ocean Big Jacket Really About?
This “camping story” is more about what the characters say (and don’t say.)
Wide Ocean Big Jacket opts for the less is more approach in all things, but especially when it comes to describing itself. On Steam, the game is simply described as A Camping Story starring: Uncle Brad, Aunt Cloanne, Mord (and Ben). But don’t be fooled. Despite the brevity, that sentence is surprisingly effective at reflecting what’s in this game.
This is, indeed, a game that tells a story about camping, and that story (as names like Uncle Brad and Aunt Cloanne would suggest) is mostly told from the perspective of the middle-school-aged Mord and her sheepish, parenthetical-worthy “boyfriend” Ben.
What this brief description only hints at, however, is that this game is powered by dialogue that, just like the game’s description, says more between the lines than it does explicitly. In fact, this dialogue is so well written and so fascinatingly presented that Wide Ocean Big Jacket is really about the beautiful, subtle nuances of conversation.
About 90% of this game is spent reading simple, fullscreen, black and white (or a few other color options found in the menu) dialogue displays. Such a statistic might make you ask the same question I asked: If you’re going to make this game 90% dialogue screens, why not make it a book? Or a short story? What is added to this work by making it interactive?
The answer, in the case of Wide Ocean Big Jacket, is: a lot.
First, in keeping with the old axiom that “a picture’s worth a thousand words,” the amount of storytelling conveyed by the non-dialogue parts of this game is certainly greater in proportion than the 10% of playing time it takes you to experience them. These brief interactive moments typically only involve exploring your environment until you find the next thing to talk about, but they set each scene far more elegantly and efficiently than a written description would. Seeing the fire pit and the bear safe and the car you arrived in effortlessly colors the story’s details in a way that only visuals can.
Additionally, the music and sound design that underscores both the interactive moments and the dialogue invisibly illustrates the mood of each scene. Each track unobtrusively loops in the background, quietly hinting at the communal vibe that all the characters share.
But although those elements are interesting, it’s the dialogue that defines and drives Wide Ocean Big Jacket.
Each character’s dialogue in Wide Ocean Big Jacket is, I would argue, indisputably well written. Each character speaks with their own voice, using vernacular that seems appropriate for their age and characteristics, and every line, regardless of character, is also carefully crafted to seem natural and extemporaneous — no one in this game feels like they’ve been copy-edited.
And while it’s rare in any medium to see such carefully crafted dialogue, it’s the way this dialogue is presented that is even more interesting than the words themselves. Each dialogue screen in Wide Ocean Big Jacket may seem simple but, just like the visual and auditory aspects of the game, that simplicity conceals how much detail it really provides.
Each dialogue screen is adorned with a portrait, which might, at first, just seem like a simple additional way to identify who’s speaking. But look at the differences in each portrait, and you’ll see that information about each character is being conveyed almost subconsciously. Mord’s simple portrait is as straightforward as she is, while Ben’s oversized spectacles give him a dash of adolescent dorkiness. Brad’s blocky head and uneven smile reflect his mild discomfort around having to be responsible for Mord and Ben, while Cloanne’s portrait is presented in profile, giving her a sense of inscrutability, yet perhaps also reflecting a quiet self-assuredness.
But it’s not just a portrait that helps characterize each speaker, the appearance of each dialogue line is accompanied by a brief audio cue that differs depending on the speaker. Mord’s cue is a squeaky zip, Ben’s is a quiet, pingy blip, Brad’s is a deep wobble and Cloanne’s is a high-pitched ping. These cues eventually become each speaker’s tone of voice, and hearing each sound instantly brings the character’s entire personality to mind in a way simply reading their name never could.
The process of repeatedly paging through each line also gives conversations a natural rhythm that reading a book or a play wouldn’t provide. The pause between screens helps to add hesitation to uncomfortable conversations or drive home a joke’s punchline.
The way these lines are presented make talking in Wide Ocean Big Jacket feel like the activity it is in the real-world — an activity that’s not just about exchanging information but about exploring the way a person conveys their internal self. Conversing with someone is about so much more than words. It’s about pauses and stutters and silence and phrasing and, of course, the interplay of all those things with everything you already know about the person. Wide Ocean Big Jacket successfully recreates all of those things by using tools like simple portraits, and audio cues, and breaks between pages.
What is added to this work by making it interactive? A depth of conversation that no other work can provide. Wide Ocean Big Jacket makes each line feel more alive than it would as static text, while also making it feel more intimate than if an actor spoke it. When that dynamic mixes with the game’s art, sound and music, you get an experience that’s not only effortlessly charming, but surprisingly rich and deep.
Wide Ocean Big Jacket is a story about camping, sure, but it’s really about the beautiful, subtle nuances of conversation.