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A camping game about the awkward, intimate moments in family life

A lil camping adventure

a red car and four people standing around in wide ocean big jacket Image: Turnfollow/Tender Claws
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

There is a unique social dynamic to all families, a shared language — sometimes good, sometimes bad — that people experience in intimacy. It’s not something an outsider can understand, but sometimes, you can get a peek.

Little by little, maybe there’s room to slip in. I often wonder what it’s like for my partner to be entrenched in my family’s dynamic, something we’ve been building and iterating on for years. The first time we visited my family together, there were many awkward silences, tiptoeing to the fridge so as to not catch anyone’s glance.

Those memories feel so far away now, but there must have been a moment where things cracked. He’s become fluent in my family’s goofy shared language, and I no longer have to interpret for him.

Similarly, Wide Ocean, Big Jacket is the video game equivalent of dropping into a stranger’s world, where the campground becomes a snowglobe. Created by Turnfollow, Wide Ocean, Big Jacket is a contained experience, like a short movie, about an ordinary camping trip. The trip is brief — no longer than a weekend — with aunt Cloanne and uncle Brad supervising their 13-year-old niece, Mord, and her longtime-friend-turned-boyfriend Ben. The scenes themselves, unpacking and setting up tents and exploring the beach, are mundane and leisurely, slowly building upon one another.

Two people, one short and one tall, sitting around a campfire Image: Turnfollow/Tender Claws

It’s Ben, the boyfriend, who’s the outsider here. While Brad and Cloanne, childless thirtysomethings, are uncomfortable watching kids, they’ve got a rapport with the quick-witted (and quirky) Mord. For Ben, already shy and awkward, he’s got to navigate a whole new world. Wide Ocean, Big Jacket isn’t always from Ben’s perspective, but I found myself interpreting the world as if I were him. Like him, the player is an outsider, too.

When the game begins, we know nothing of the characters. Each chapter gives a bit more detail, and it’s through Turnfollow’s excellent dialogue where we get to explore the family’s intimate relationships. Wide Ocean, Big Jacket is like a book or a short story in that you experience it in order. Each of the scenes is contained, and for good reason. It’s not the player’s story, it’s the characters’. Chapters are crafted in such an order where, individually, they can feel like nothing, where I’m able to revel in the quiet, playful scenes.

An early scene has Mord and Ben walking through the campsite to a beach, where they meet a group of “mean teens” along the way. The teens make jokes about the couple, talking about sex on the beach — something that’s repulsive to the 13-year-olds. Roused, Mord yells back at them, but the duo feels shaken up for the time after. Camping as normal happens from then on: roasting hot dogs, birdwatching, ghost stories. But that night, Mord brings up sex in a chat with her aunt. Is sex cool?, she asks. What ensues is awkward, hilarious, and sincere — sort of a turning point for the entire story, weaving the smaller storylines together.

It’s this expertful writing that makes this tiny campsite feel much larger than a snowglobe. By the end of the game, I understand this family’s language. It’s not that different from my own. I can picture lives outside of the campsite just from the hour or so it took to play. The characters hint at this, too. It was Brad, I think, who said the campground can feel like a bubble, an ecosystem that’s running alongside the rest of the world, separate from it. And yet, what happens in the campground is influenced by that parallel world — there’s no escaping it.

I first played Wide Ocean, Big Jacket in early February, when it was released on the Nintendo Switch. On Wednesday, it’s out on iOS devices for just under $4. (It’s also available on Windows PC and Mac.) It feels particularly apt to revisit the game now, as I’m retreating back into my own little bubble of self-isolation. You’re probably doing the same, an important group effort to flatten the curve of COVID-19’s spread. I’ve spent so much time in my own little bubble, and it feels good to slip into someone else’s, even, if at first, it’s a little awkward.

Wide Ocean, Big Jacket was given an honorable mention ahead of Wednesday’s Independent Games Festival Awards.

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