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Road to the IGF: Turnfollow's Wide Ocean Big Jacket

February 4, 2020 | By Joel Couture

February 4, 2020 | By Joel Couture
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More: Video, IGF

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.

Wide Ocean Big Jacket follows an aunt and uncle on a camping trip with their niece and her boyfriend, exploring who they are as they all get to know one another.

Ian Endsley and Carter Lodwick, developers of the Excellence in Narrative-nominated game, spoke with Gamasutra about why they chose this specific family dynamic, their work in exploring the new feelings that come up for the middle schoolers and adults in the story, and how the tiniest of moments can often have great effects on who we become.

Trip advisors

Endsley: My name is Ian Endsley, and I'm the programmer and the writer for Wide Ocean Big Jacket (WOBJ).

Lodwick: I’m Carter Lodwick, and I was primarily in charge of art, animation, level design, and sound. Maybe it goes without saying, but Ian and I designed the game together.

Endsley: Carter and I have been making games since around 2013. I took an experimental game design class during my last year of a writing degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and it turned out I really like programming. We released our first game in 2015, which was so amazing and special that I have a tattoo on my leg that says "Little Party" to remind me that no matter what happens, I got to fulfill a childhood dream of making a video game.

In 2016, I got my first games-related job teaching game design and development to kids, and later I taught game development to young adults at Actors For Autism. In 2018, I got my first programming day job working on ABCMouse, and now I am trying to make it full time at Turnfollow.

Lodwick: I also went to SAIC, where Ian and I met in a comics class. Shortly after I graduated, he asked me to do the art for his midterm game that was due the following Monday. Making it was so fun and empowering, once it was done we just wanted to start another game. For a few years we made games in our free time and published them on while working unrelated jobs (I was a boom-op/animator at Polymyth Productions). I moved out to Los Angeles in 2018 and got a job at Tender Claws, an artist-run VR studio, where I’ve been employed for the past couple years as art director. Now, I split my time between that and Turnfollow. 

Drawing from the familiar

Lodwick: We were stalling out on a game we’d tried to make three separate times - a game about cycling. We started on WOBJ as a way to reset ourselves from that. Every aspect of the cycling game was some system we’d never attempted before, and I think we just got overwhelmed by trying to reinvent the wheel so many times in one project. So, our idea was to instead take the format of a previous game and start with that as a baseline. So, we looked at a game we made in 2015 called Little Party and tried to think of a new story, new characters, and new setting that we could create using a similar structure.

Endsley: It's a really good biking game and it will come out one day. But yeah, I spent a couple weeks writing all of the systems I could think of that we would need to recreate Little Party now that I have a little more experience, and once a lot of that was set up, we started to try to think about what kind of story we might want to tell.

Lodwick: The setting came first. A camping trip. I like to go camping a lot; my parents frequently took my sister and I camping as a kid, so it was pretty easy to think of things for the characters to do and details to sprinkle throughout the story that would make it feel authentic. Memory plays a pretty big role in how I work on games. Little Party was also loosely based on a place from my youth.

Endsley: And then, I sat down and outlined a couple loose stories, characters, and relationships, and one of those was the beginning of WOBJ.

Camping supplies

Lodwick: The game was built in Unity. All the 3D stuff is made in Blender. We used a shotgun mic to record a lot of our own sounds in and around the house, and relied on for the rest. Most of the textures are drawn with a tablet in Photoshop with little more than the lasso and paint bucket tools. 

Endsley: We work mostly in Unity, which I really like. When I was working as a "professional," a lot of the other engineers swore by Rider for C#, and I use it now and it's really good. It's a little expensive, but you get a perpetual license. I also used a lot of tutorials for the shaders. Thank you to everyone who makes shader tutorials.

Getting to know one another

Lodwick: Ian mentioned that he wrote a couple of story outlines. One of those was about a group of coworkers who go camping together. The other was about an aunt and uncle and their niece and her boyfriend. We have been wanting to do a game about having a job for a while, so the first one, about coworkers, was appealing, but it also felt sort of rote at the same time, to make it about a bunch of young-professionals-who-are-friends. I guess it seemed safe. The odd family dynamic of the aunt/uncle/niece/bf story felt weirder and more difficult and surprising, so we went with that.

Endsley: I really liked the idea of the Aunt/Uncle Niece/Boyfriend dynamic because it allowed for that "amnesiac" game thing where the characters don't know each other too well and so as they grow familiar along with the player. It also helped with the writing because there were practical problems to solve - the characters could be inquisitive toward each other and explore their feelings more blatantly.

Lodwick: I was definitely nervous about it, that the whole situation would be legible to the player. 

Endsley: Yeah but we pulled it off!

Lodwick: We did! There was a pass over the script at some point to make the dynamics between the characters more clear. So, it didn’t just magically come together. Early drafts of the story had the characters’ personalities pretty nailed down, but you could miss a line somewhere and not know how these people were related, because it’s only mentioned in dialogue once. 

Dealing with new freedoms & feelings

Endsley: We talked a lot about being a tween/early teen and how the lines start to blur in terms of how much room you're given as a person to kind of figure things out on your own. Being entrusted with non-parental adults is a space when you're young where you start to learn about differing opinions and maybe feel a little bolder with your questioning. Sending a niece on a camping trip with her Aunt and Uncle who don't have their own children seemed to open up the possibilities for her to flex and explore her own understanding of the world.

It also forced the Aunt and Uncle to reckon with some ideas they hadn't before. There was a lot of back and forth like - how attentive or strict would the Aunt and Uncle be? What are the appropriate boundaries and rules for the teens on this trip? Everyone has differing opinions or ideas about how kids should be treated and raised, and we were able to use some of that tension to inform how the Aunt and Uncle felt. I wanted them to be unprepared and in the moment have to resolve what they thought would be responsible.

Exploring self-definition through the art style

Lodwick: The focus of the art is on details. There’s a lot of love put into minor props and little, contained tableaus, rather than on making a big explorable game world with huge vistas or something. I wanted the player to feel like this was a memory, or a story someone had told them, full of weird details, like the glow-in-the-dark skeleton, the red convertible, or the dorky coffee mugs. That’s the stuff I wanted to stick in the player’s mind. 

Visually, and narratively, the game is pretty cropped. You see snapshots of scenes, but there’s a lot of stuff you have to fill in for yourself outside of them. This goes for the levels too, which are floating islands instead of being a big connected landscape. The game is structured as a series of specific scenes kind of like a sitcom, and the levels are the sets for that show. 

On a broader level, the art style (simple characters, earthy colors, lots of hand-drawn “billboarding” objects) is mostly a personal style. In a lot of ways, it’s an attempt to translate my own drawing style into game art. I like when you can feel the artist’s hand in a game, whether that means simple geometry, wonky art, or whatever. 

A weird rule emerged while designing the characters, which was that the older a character was, the more detail they would have. So the kids are really simple, with noodle arms, no hands, perfectly round heads. The aunt and uncle have more regular proportions - you can see their biceps forearms, for example - and they have these sort of boxy hands. Then there are a couple of characters in their sixties or seventies, and they have fingers! I’m not sure what this says to the player exactly, but the game is kind of about how people develop and define themselves throughout their lives, so hopefully it’s quietly reinforcing that theme.  

Endsley: I made the birds and I wanted them to be different colors and also kind of funny.

Vital moments to capture in camping

Endsley: First, we needed the structure for the trip - wandering, talking around the fire, setting up and tearing down, breakfast and fire in the morning. The regular and mundane actions of life which frame all that we do. Then, you sprinkle in personal rituals - Glowbones, The Diablo, Ben's story, and Mord's invented stick game. 

Lodwick: One that I like a lot is Aunt Cloanne avoiding Brad by reading in the tent. Camping is a lot of uninterrupted social contact, and at some point in every trip you gotta retreat for a minute. 

Tiny moments that become big parts of your identity

Endsley: I'm really interested in small moments - the things that happen to you that fade away after (which is almost everything) and how those tiny moments still stack up and inform what you understand about yourself, others, and relationships. I was trying to explore my own understanding of relationships and how my ideas were formed by observing others around me, as well as acknowledge that, cyclically, my actions and interactions would be observed and affect those around me. I hope that the game invites people to consider their own relationships, the seeds, roots and growth that has led to how they inhabit love, and how their performance fuels expectations around them.

Exploring people from different perspectives 

Lodwick: I think we wanted the player to think about how the characters felt about each other. This is probably very clear to anybody who’s finished the game. The way it’s structured, you’re switching between characters between every scene, sometimes you’re playing as two people together. So, you’re given a lot of opportunities to see these people from different perspectives, and that hopefully prompts you into thinking about how they see themselves and how others see them, and how those two things are often different.

Endsley: We want them to laugh! And plan a camping trip. And text their Uncle back.

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