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ICYMI is GAMINGbible's simple way of highlighting a game that's not quite brand new, maybe as much as a few months old, but that we've been playing and loving, and we really want to tell you about it.
An easy one to lose in the cracks of 2020, Wide Ocean Big Jacket is a short but incredibly endearing interactive story of a seemingly mundane camping trip - a getaway where not a lot happens, but all of that not a lot actually means something. It's over in less time than it takes to watch a couple of episodes of that Netflix show you're binging right now, but it's curiously memorable in a way that much longer games often struggle to be.
Let me explain. Developed by Turnfollow and published by Tender Claws, Wide Ocean Big Jacket is a super low-poly, low-budget, low-player-skill game that is absolutely set up to get the "but is it a game" crowd a little frothy. Less walking simulator, more sauntering and slouching and peeing-in-bushes 'em up. This is a story first, and the interactivity drives it; but it does so in a way where the interactivity also is the story, rather than everything being in cutscenes.
Only, there are cutscenes, sort of. White-text-on-black-screens cutaways that are reminiscent of silent movies, where the characters talk to each other using some genuinely funny turns of phrase (I laughed, like actually out loud, a fair few times in the game's early stages). Later on, these conversations can change tone - less breezy, more life-direction-determining. More, can-I-keep-this-marriage-working of importance. And, sometimes, they're just super, super cute.
You take control of each of the game's four campers - there's Uncle Brad, his wife Aunt Cloanne, their niece Mord (who's recently turned 13) and her boyfriend, Ben. But all you really do is push them towards the game's next piece of pop-up text: might be the name of another person (or persons) to interact with, a truly excellent stick, a cute spot to sit down on at the beach, or a glow-in-the-dark skeleton that helps the campers find their pitch after sunset.
Text on screen? Press a button, and the next conversation or interaction plays. There's no dramatic player agency here, no dialogue trees, no alternative outcomes with the minor exception of some order-you-do-things-in variety.
And yet, that's all fine, here. It's not a story, a game, where you're in it long enough to even begin to imagine disparate endings. The ghost story that Ben shares doesn't need three potential climaxes; Cloanne's birdwatching doesn't need to reward her, and you, with anything more than watching the birds (and offering a little hello, as she goes). And the conclusion to this overnight adventure beside the seashore is a guaranteed and simple one: you will pack down the tent, pick up your rubbish, and drive home again. It's all the closure you need.
Wide Ocean Big Jacket is entirely about the journey rather than the destination, in that respect; and that its setting is a campsite will undoubtedly have it resonating with a great many players. Those who've spent enough nights under the stars to know the joy and pain of (badly) cooking hot dogs on an open fire, of rising from your uncomfortable slumber as stiff as a log, and the glassy-eyed grogginess of making breakfast in the morning glow of nature also waking up around you.
But then, the camping element of the game could be substituted for another backdrop to the understated, everyday drama, and the stories these characters tell could still be the same, or close to.
Brad and Cloanne are very much in love, but there are divisions in their marriage, which are explored. Mord is a riot - a hilarious, sharp, inquisitive teenager who asks questions that, well, everyone wants to at that age, and doesn't seem to have the brain-to-mouth filter that a lot of us did. Ben is an adorable, multi-faceted kid who proves himself to be much more than he seems to be on first impression. Together, they make up a foursome that you'd want to spend time around a campfire with, a beer in one hand and a flame-scorched snack in the other.
And that's it, I think. That's the appeal, here. Wide Ocean Big Jacket is a game to just spend a little quality time with - and that's all it asks of you, too. Not six hours, or 60, but more like 90 minutes, if that. It's cheap, it's frequently charming, and it's likely to leave you feeling more fulfilled on the way out than you were on the way in. A little like camping then, really, but without the mosquito bites.
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