The simple beauty of video games that confront difficult conversations
Sitting around a campsite near a tent. Making a coffee drink.
Typically, these activities are interstitial moments, actions that occur before or after something more exciting. Yet these undertakings are at the core of two new games, “Wide Ocean Big Jacket” and “Coffee Talk.”
Both approach interactivity with a light touch, letting players uncover intimate, conversational moments. We play less as directors of action and more as voyeurs. Throughout, we connect with sometimes odd characters — we meet an alien, for instance, who is not so hot at the dating app game in “Coffee Talk” — and while we don’t become friends with these characters (tech has yet to make such a thing possible), we do walk away feeling as if we’ve shared a moment with them.
Play here comes in the form of discovery, as each game deals with mature themes where what is said is often of equal importance to what isn’t said. “Wide Ocean Big Jacket” unfolds like an interactive animated film, albeit one with adult topics such as the never-ending difficulty of navigating interpersonal relationships regardless of age. “Coffee Talk,” which contrasts its nondescript name — one with echoes of an old “Saturday Night Live” skit — with a roster full of mythic creatures, can be experienced in multiple ways.
Both largely dispense with typical game-like elements yet show how even delicate participation can illuminate the everyday. Simple acts, be it swinging around a camera in “Wide Ocean Big Jacket” or opting to mix ginger and cinnamon in “Coffee Talk,” offer the illusion of choice, thus creating relaxing environments in which we can explore weighty topics.
“Coffee Talk” alludes to multiple thought-provoking subjects, from interracial dating (here it’s inter-species dating, between an elf and a succubus) to a parent struggling to maintain a connection to his daughter. “Wide Ocean Big Jacket,” meanwhile, emphasizes the fragility in relationships. In “Coffee Talk,” we sometimes feel like a barista therapist, while “Wide Ocean Big Jacket” shows how efforts to console often fail. When a teen asks about sex, we shift the spotlight to her aunt, who squirms her way out of answering the questions.
So while the core narratives of the two games use interactivity relatively sparingly, they connect by creating a world in which we explore topics we often try to avoid. The characters in “Wide Ocean Big Jacket” may try to joke away a serious moment, as if real life could be solved with a clever social-media-worthy quip, but we’re still there, a faceless observer moving among the campgrounds and prompting conversations to happen whether the characters want it or not.
Mord, the outgoing, goofy teen, seems to court confrontation, while her first crush, Ben, along for the family trip, struggles with awkwardness. The adults, Brad and Cloanne, are apparently happily married, although their partnership is stitched together with a string of compromises. The characters are drawn slightly exaggeratedly, all floppy limbs and bones. Charm abounds — Mord is confused when the grownups enthusiastically praise one another for their “good” stretches to alleviate back pain — and as we hop from adult to kid and back again we can serve alternately as instigators or connectors, setting into action relationships and bonds.
We can let much of “Coffee Talk” play on auto-pilot, or take a more active role and explore the characters we meet via their writings or social media pages. Their concerns and their troubles are discussed at the coffee counter, and whether it’s a vampire, an elf or a succubus, their issues are relatable. Be careful, of course, not to mess up their drinks — we may not be solving problems but in “Coffee Talk” the happier the patrons are, the more they may share.
Regular customer Freya, a green-haired journalist with dreams of writing fiction, digs into the tales and woes of everyone who comes into the shop, approaching most with equal amounts curiosity and suspicion. Male customers immediately put her on guard, and the world outside this near-future Seattle coffee shop is relatively bleak, even if werewolves and vampires are enjoying a peace treaty. America here is a place where “anyone can dream of being whatever they want to be and have those dreams crushed before they can even be discussed.”
Fear is everywhere, and there’s talk of closing borders. A fish, for instance, must leave her home in the ocean because there are no decent schools underwater anymore, only now she’s lonely because no one she knows can get a visa. We delight in uncovering the interpersonal drama of fairy tale and fantasy creatures, but there’s no denying this is a game of modern life, where relaxing electronic beats create a calm environment in which we can make drinks and provide a little relief to those we meet along the way.
It’s a reminder of the healing power of listening and talking. When an alien, dressed as an astronaut, lands in the coffee shop, the visitor proclaims that Earth has done little more than cause frustration. The planet’s “vagueness has taught us a new kind of feeling,” the extraterrestrial says, clearly indicating this newfound emotion is one of discomfort.
Games for decades have been teaching us new tools — how to fight off orcs or bounce off mushrooms and blast away at Nazis. Maybe they can also remind us how to talk to one another.
"Wide Ocean, Big Jacket"
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