Wide Ocean Big Jacket, a video game by Turnfollow Games which runs roughly an hour long, works in service of these same virtues. It is spare, withholding excess detail, both visually and in its writing. Therein lies its biggest achievement. The game is evocative like good songwriting is: it is hyper attentive to language, aware of how each word has to work against the time limit.
The story centers on an overnight camping trip. Mord, a precocious but brusque 13-year-old, and her boyfriend, Ben (she describes him as someone who uses the phrase “that doesn’t sound too scary” as a way of saying yes) have tagged along with Mord’s uncle Brad and aunt Cloanne, both veteran campers.
Mord and Ben have stepped tentatively out of best-friend-hood and into a relationship; this trip is a test run for that venture. Brad and Cloanne are well-meaning and young (early 30s is my guess, though the game’s aesthetic makes it a bit hard to approximate age), and from the start give off the vibe of adults who haven’t had to think much about how to talk to kids. The two couples are mirrors: the women appear self-assured, the men a bit more hesitant, self-conscious and dopey.
These four characters are lovingly rendered — shockingly so for such a short game — and the way their dialogue is written shows an attentiveness to character that reads effortlessly but must have been a challenge to write. Each character has a unique cadence, things they understand and don’t by virtue of their age and experience — all of which is made explicit in roughly an hour’s worth of conversation.
Moreover, the reader is never burdened with lore or biography, which contributes most to the game’s song-like quality. Ian Endsley, credited as the game’s writer, conjures up dialogue with a keen eye for details that are illustrative and revealing, if not factually descriptive. Tangled, yet correct.
This sense of precision is essential to the story, and carries over to the game’s design. In a superficial way, the game’s design brings to mind Smash Bros. stages. The game is organized into 20 chapters, set across eight explorable areas on the campground; at a certain point, these areas simply cut off, an empty void at the edge. There’s no attempt made to even gesture at a fake-but-inaccessible area beyond the stage. All that matters is what’s immediately visible, the four characters and the spaces they’re in, which serve as petri dishes for the player to observe the characters interacting.
Therein lies that Davis-like invitation to participate in that “muscular act of looking,” to be attentive to what is immediately before us, a virtue in a moment when life seems defined by distraction. It is a masterclass in focus by way of concentration and shortness.
The kids, here, are the catalyzing actors, unearthing topics the adults would rather ignore and pushing conversations beyond where they might naturally end. Prodding by the kids — there’s no good way to shake off an inquisitive child, doubly so in an enclosed space — surfaces the questions and anxieties troubling the adults. In turn, the adults’s sometimes less-than-perfect answers set the tenor of Mord and Ben’s exploration of their relationship.
Sehgal, in her review of Davis’s book, highlights a piece of advice: “Maybe the notebook is a place to practice not only writing but also thinking,” writes Davis. For the characters in Wide Ocean Big Jacket, the campground, so distinct from the rest of the world, is a blank page on which to practice. The thinking we observe — both by the characters and by the writer — is a joy to behold.
There are so many tender moments worth commending: Mord asking Ben to call her “honey” after she overhears Cloanne’s pet name for Brad. An eavesdropped-on conversation between two lovers on the beach. An argument between Brad and Cloanne, late in the game, along a hiking trail. But to recount them in detail here would be a disservice to the game. The beauty is in the delivery, not the particular plot beats. There is something about these moments, as-written, that is so true to what they’re describing that it’s hard to think of a way to rephrase them that conveys the fullness of their meaning without sounding less-than.
In short: the game’s writing is an absolute achievement.