Released in 2013, Fullbright released Gone Home to both mass acclaim and endless questions. On one hand, the critical community loved it, praising the narrative focus as well as the story it told. On the other, Gone Home really brought into sharp detail the one sided nature of what we considered video games, as its narrative only focus contained little “gameplay” beyond walking around a house and reading items found around the environment. There were no weapons to use, enemies, to find, or conflicts to solve.
In much the same way, Tacoma, Fullbright’s second release, is the same kind of game. There’s no real conflict to become embroiled in, though the situation you find yourself in depicts one, and there’s no real action you can take beyond observing to affect the outcome. That said, the way the narrative is laid out feels solid and unique, and in a change from the rather singular flow of storytelling implied by Gone Home, Tacoma allows you to choose just how involved you want to get.
Although why you would be coming to this game to be anything but 100% involved in the narrative is beyond me. Starting in the rather simple cockpit of a single person spaceship, Tacoma’s story is experienced by Amy, a contractor working for Venturis, one of those super corporations that both build and terrorize our sci-fi future. Their company owned and operated Lunar Transfer Station, Tacoma, had an accident, and everyone had to be evacuated. Your job is to go to each section of the LTS and transfer the station’s A.I., codenamed Odin, on to a storage device, grab its “central processing wetwork,” and bring it back to Venturis, no questions asked.
Given the presence of A.I., an accident that possibly claimed the lives of future humans living in space, I thought the trajectory of the story would be pretty easy to predict, but as it turns out, Tacoma takes a couple neat twists that kept me involved through the length of its 2 ½ hour story. What also helped was the method in which the story is doled out. Upon docking with the Tacoma, Amy is given a set of AR (Augmented Reality) sensors, allowing her to interface with Odin and have access to the station’s command interface. This lets her not only open things like doors and viewports, but also pull up security footage from Odin’s recording database.
Thanks to the AR sensors, the recorded footage plays out as it happened, with the one caveat being that all of the people have been replaced by single color, wireframe people. It’s a more than a little jarring at first, especially as these shapes move around a beautiful, detailed environment. The blob folk serve a purpose though, as they are a visual representation of Odin breaking company protocol. The recordings have full playback controls at the bottom of the screen, allowing you to move through the scene and pick up on various characters at play. As each recording marks a moment in time, the diverse crew is not always in the same room doing or talking about the same thing.
Sure, you have your moments where the group is discussing their current predicament, a conclave of rainbow blobs just trying to do right by each other, but there are also some really quiet, almost serene moments in between. Two crew members attempt to comfort each other on a small garden deck, complete with fountain and an incredible view of the stars. Certain smaller recordings pop up as you explore their bunk spaces, most punctuated by music or phone calls to home. In all, they form a, not quite complete, but living picture of their time among the stars, and what it means for each of them to not only be there, but to survive. The AR also provides a more in depth at each of the crew members by providing access to their AR views during recordings. At certain points along the timeline, an AR will become available to peruse, indicated by a colored marking matching the person’s blob. Crew ARs consist mostly of emails and chats, as well as the occasional HR pamphlet spelling out how to make a good impression on your boss.
There’s also an undercurrent of secrecy, with crew members coming clean, most often to Odin, about the process the company wants them to follow and how that will impact the crew. There’s a conversation between the station doctor and Odin in regards to the station’s cryo process and when the crew should have been put into stasis that skirts around not revealing that one of the crew won’t make it out if she’s frozen. Nothing comes of the actual conversation but some strong character building between the two, but it’s the kind of subtle hinting that reveals underneath the calm surface, we’re all just duck legs struggling to stay afloat during a crisis.
I mentioned the look of the station previously, and I would be remiss to not bring up the look of Tacoma. Apart from the colored blob cast, the station itself represents the kind of small upgrade we would expect from being just that much further into the future. Set around 2088, the station is basically a large axle, with each section, helpfully marked with names like Engineering, split off into separate wheels. Connected to the main axle by quite possibly the longest elevators in existence, an awesome magnetic single hand/foot hold ride that brings you from the zero G axle to the normal gravity of the section, each wheel manages a distinct feel despite being clearly made from the same materials.
As silly as it sounds, my favorite part of the whole setting were the windows. Each room had a viewport to space, with most covered by a mechanical window shade controlled through a simple open/close button in the AR environment. I laugh about it now, but it took nearly two sections of gleefully pushing those buttons to anticipate them being windows, which I blame more on my need to press whatever I saw before looking at what it did then on the system not being perfectly clear about what it would do. And no, that was not me during zero G donuts in the “Dome.” It was you.
Given Gone Home’s 90’s nostalgia musical touches, I was quite surprised at the lack of music in Tacoma. Outside of a few instances, mainly quieter character moments in their personal quarters, there was no real soundtrack in place, just the gentle rumbling of machinery as it went about its work, twisting slowly through space to provide gravity, or, presumably, pumping atmosphere.
Tacoma took about 3 hours to complete, and that’s counting the 15 minutes I messed around with space basketball in the axle because duh, who’s not going to play space basketball in zero G. I normally don’t care about this stat, but I feel it’s important to mention here because of the conversation that arose out of Gone Home’s price and short run time. As this is my review, my opinions, I can not and will not presume to assume value for you, the player. I feel I should also add that I did not pay for this review copy. That being said, and having played through it, I will absolutely be purchasing a copy on release, as I believe that the story Tacoma tells, and the way it presents it, was worth my time in a way that few games these days are. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, and I nearly screamed when it ended, which would have been super awkward given that the only other people awake at that time were my kids, and I DID NOT want to get into sci-fi corporation politics and the sentient rights of A.I. at 6am.
Continuing to tell solid stories seems to be Fullbright’s deal. Tacoma may only be about 3 hours long, but it fills that time beautifully, telling a thoughtful, poignant tale told through the magic of science fiction. Come for the space, stay for the heart. And the space basketball.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!