It can be difficult to find time to finish a video game, especially if you only have a few hours a week to play. In our biweekly column Short Play we suggest video games that can be started and finished in a weekend.
Video games and film are fairly diametrically opposed mediums, despite attempts by game creators to emulate the visual medium of film. The issue is that games are interactive, while films are passive. So often, when games attempt to emulate film, it is with non-interactive cutscenes in a medium about interactivity. In big-budget games like Red Dead Redemption, The Last of Us, and Final Fantasy, this has become the way a story is told. But there are also games like Wide Ocean Big Jacket that take techniques from film and apply them to their interactivity instead of a cutscene. It’s enough to make you wish there were more games like it.
Wide Ocean Big Jacket follows 13-year-old teens Mord and Ben, longtime friends who recently started dating, as they go camping overnight with Mord’s Uncle Brad and Aunt Cloanne. What unfolds over the course of that night is the awkwardness of ex-tweens starting to engage with the world around them less as kids and more as adults, along with the adults awkwardly engaging with ex-tweens who they’re used to thinking of as kids. It gets even more awkward when you factor in the ways these interactions affect each couple’s relationship.
What has stuck with me isn’t the story itself (which is quite good), but the way in which it is told. You aren’t controlling a specific character; instead, you’re acting more as the scene’s director. Any choices you are asked to make have less to do with changing the words or path of the narrative and more to do with the experience you have viewing it. It’s something like Thirty Flights of Loving or Virginia, which both use film techniques like cross-cutting to jump between moments in the story, combined with aspects of Kentucky Route Zero’s player as co-writer approach interactive storytelling.
A good example of this is a technique that the game frequently employs, which is a sort of circle shot. Perhaps best known for its use in That ‘70s Show, the camera is at a fixed location in a scene, and it pans to reframe itself at specific people or places in the environment when prompted by the player. It’s used early on in the game (and you can see it in the trailer above at around 0:13). The camera is located in Uncle Brad’s car, looking at him and Cloanne through the car’s windshield as they check a notice board at the campsite. Pressing right swings the camera to Mord sitting the back seat of the car behind the passenger seat, pressing right again pans to Ben, and pressing it again returns it to Brad and Cloanne in the distance. Pressing left at any point would cause it to pan in the opposite direction.
In this instance, the camera move is being used to let you select if you want to prompt Mord or Ben to talk about something. But it also shows changes to the scenes between dialogues. In a moment later in the game, while one of the characters is telling a scary story, the tale is broken up by moments where you are able to pan around to see the physical reactions of the characters circling the campfire after each new part of the story is told.
What helps to sell the cuts between these moments is the dialogue appears as white text on a blacked-out screen, which is separate from whatever scene you were looking at. It is like something you might see in a silent film, with the character’s name and an icon of their face so you know who is talking. The blacked-out screens allow the game to cross-cut between scenes across different times or locations without being disorienting.
It’s a seemingly small technique, but it shows how Wide Ocean Big Jacket uses interactivity to be engaging and immersive, despite the fact that you aren’t solving puzzles or making dramatic narrative choices. Instead, it makes you invested in the story by turning you into a participant.