When we talk about space – both in real life and in near-future science fiction like The Martian or Gravity, we think of it as a lonely, inhospitable place, and for good reasons. Our first steps into the great void were made by lone astronauts, albeit supported by countless scientists and engineers back on the ground. But developer Fullbright puts another spin on life in space with Tacoma, turning the void into a deeply intimate setting, full of warmth and life. As a follow-up to 2013's Gone Home, it explores new environments and a different sort of story, but it retreads some of the same ground and doesn't quite live up to the revelatory experience of its predecessor.
Tacoma is named not after the city in the state of Washington, but rather after the space station in which it takes place (which is named after the city). As the player, you step into the space-boots of contractor Amy Ferrier, sent to the transfer station to look into the aftermath of a disaster, extracting the station's AI and sensor data to determine what went wrong. As you collect this data, you'll explore the different areas of the station, where its six human crew members lived and worked, and you'll uncover the moments leading up to your arrival on the now-empty station.
The story of the Tacoma Transfer Station is told through a first-person exploration of the station, in much the same way Gone Home was a first-person exploration of a certain household. And once again, you're a voyeur to lives recently lived, surrounded by still-warm artifacts of these lives. Only this time, things aren't quite so lonely thanks to the holographic recordings that form the game's primary vector for telling its story.
The game takes place in the year 2088, and presents one of those plausible science-fiction futures, with still-developing AI and significant advancements in things like Augmented Reality technology. It's through this AR tech that you start to get truly acquainted with the station's crew.
In each area, there are recoverable fragments of the crew's interactions. In recovering them, you'll bring to life wireframe representations of these people, and watch them move about the station, talking to each other. This is where the game's surface story and the primary interaction with your environment takes place. When you meet the team, they're celebrating Obsolescence Day, the day upon which the Venturis Corporation – the company that owns Tacoma Transfer Station – told its spacefaring employees that they were to be replaced by artificial intelligences. That the employees are there to celebrate it should be enough to tell you that never happened. The celebration is cut short, though, when the station is struck by space debris, taking down its comms and damaging the life support systems. From here, your goal is to find out what happened between this first event and the now-empty station, with a story that takes as much from movies like Moon and 2001 as it does from character-driven drama and small theatrical productions.
Each area has its own set of conversations. Often, they'll start as group conversations between four or more of the characters, and then break off into loners or pairs. Since you're watching an AR recording, you can rewind and fast forward these conversations as you see fit, following each branch of the conversation to it's end. While the wireframes talk, you can explore the areas they're talking in, or even wander off to do your own thing.
This is really the sole game mechanic of Tacoma and is both its greatest strength and weakness.
Living and Working
The characters aboard the station are all interesting people. I had a great time learning out their lives – eavesdropping on their conversations and digging through their files. It feels a bit voyeuristic, but while you're exploring these areas, you have a reason to be there and you don't know yet whether these people are alive or dead as you dig through their stuff. You're just an investigator investigating.
While I dug around, Fullbright's ability to create real, believable spaces really shone through. Designing a character space in a game feels, in my brain, kind of like moving into a new apartment. It's easy to design a space, but it's another to make it feel real. When I see rooms designed to show off game engines, it often feels like everything was arranged just so. It usually feels more like a house staged for sale or for showing on HGTV. Making a place feel like people lived in it requires that people live in it.
To that end, it feels like Fullbright's designers lived in these spaces as they created them. I get some insights into the hopes and dreams of the characters as I explored.
One crew member's room is filled with closed boxes, while a couple characters who live together live in a messy space. Sketchbooks dot one character's spaces, with each showing a different sketch. They don't feel like items thrown into spots because spaces were empty. And when you watch the wireframe stories left behind by these characters, they match their personalities.
While you watch the conversations flow, you have another opportunity to get to know each of these characters. Each character has an AR desktop that follows them around, and you can peek into these at various times, recovering bits and pieces of their documents from the corrupted data left aboard the ship. Here, you can see their private conversations – again, it feels very voyeuristic, especially with their wireframes standing right there – exposing the hopes for the future they had before the impact and the fears that manifested directly following it.
As naughty as it can feel to rifle through other peoples' things, it feels intimate, too. As I learned about the crew members and got to know them, they felt more and more real, more and more like friends, despite neither I, nor my avatar Amy, ever meeting them.
Hurry up and talk!
As intimate as it can feel at moments, though, I was often reminded that I was just watching cutscenes play out in 3D space. Despite how many voices Tacoma features compared to Gone Home, I felt just as alone. These friendships were one-sided, like watching someone you follow on Twitter go through some real-life drama. My heart ached for these characters, and yet they would never know I existed.
The story the game is telling is an interesting one, dealing with themes of corporate power versus worker rights, automation, and questions about AI awareness. The trouble is, much of this is buried in those AR desktops, in found objects in the environment. I like the idea of exploring, but it's frustrating that all of these interesting themes have to be pieced together from scraps. They feel like secondary thoughts to the relationships themselves.
And maybe that's the point. That even as these big thematic chess pieces are moving around, people are still at the center of the events, living, working, and surviving. But instead it feels like the interesting ideas that are affecting and changing these characters' lives were buried and given the short shrift.
Worst of all, Tacoma really does feel like it's treading ground a bit too similar to Gone Home, and as such it just doesn't have the impact that game did. I just finished watching the first season of The Expanse from the Syfy channel. Like that show, Tacoma is a story about a plausible future made on a much tighter budget than other stuff around it. In both cases, I try not to make note of the signs of that limited budget. But sometimes, they're hard to ignore.
With Tacoma, I can tell the team is working around how difficult it is to believably animate human characters, especially now that it's so commonplace to see such high-fidelity graphics in modern games. It's easier to leave them out than to have them be a sore spot on the game's artistic direction. I would almost rather the team had done something akin to Her Story, filming actual actors and imposing them on the space, bringing in performances that way.
And, perhaps most interestingly, I feel like this increase in production value – bringing actors and character animation into the mix, however primitively – exposes these strings more than the empty mansion of Gone Home did. In Gone Home, I could take the game at my own pace, exploring as quickly as I liked, or as slowly as I wanted. The AR recordings of Tacoma, on the other hand, felt like they were setting the pace for me. I was interested in these characters' stories, but I was often standing around waiting while they talked. This isn't a problem specific to Tacoma by any means, but it's especially apparent since listening and watching are the core of the game.
While playing Diablo III with a friend a few weeks ago, I was spending a bit too much time listening to Deckard Cain talk (I wanted to stay a while, and listen). While I was staying and listening, she was bouncing around the area, waving her weapon around and rolling in the dirt. In Tacoma, I was the one doing that. Like a sugar-fueled four-year-old listening to grown-ups talk about the weather, I was moving objects about the level, throwing trash into trash bins and putting hats on things. In Gone Home, the solitude forced me to stay on task. Sure, I had my fun playing with the spaces, but that play felt more like part of the game. Here, it felt like a distraction from it.
The Ol' Time and Money Equation
Despite my problems with it, I enjoyed my time with Tacoma. The story and characters are interesting, and the space station is a fascinating place to dig around in. But it is a short game. A five-hour playthrough would net you not only the entire story and all the ancillary story elements, but every achievement the game has to offer. If you speedrun the game, it could take maybe two hours. Don't do that, please. But if part of purchasing a game for you requires that you do a math problem dividing time by money, then you'll want to skip Tacoma.
Tacoma is a small, interesting story about people surviving in a contained space, surrounded largely by elements out of their control – space, corporations, and a locked-down artificial intelligence. It's about how they interact with those and survive both because of and in spite of those elements. Tacoma is worth the time I spent with it, even if it isn't the same holy-crap-what-did-I-just-play experience provided by Gone Home. I'm hoping that Fullbright's next project will push the team's boundaries a little further than Tacoma, edging them a bit further out from the previous game's shadow.
Disclaimer: We received a code for Tacoma from the publisher and completed the game before writing this review.