PC, Xbox One
Tacoma faces something of a narrative challenge. Its forebear, Gone Home, relied as much on the potent nostalgia of its setting as it did on narration, letters and recordings. That game’s family home may have been a little larger than most childhood dwellings, but the homemade music cassettes, bedroom collages and folders of schoolwork conjured up an overpowering familiarity that told a story all of its own. Fullbright’s second game doesn’t just abandon its predecessor’s setting, it leaves Earth behind altogether.
“After we made Gone Home, we were like, ‘Well, we know what we’re good at now, and we’ve got a lot better at it’, so we thought about how we could use our strengths without being bored to tears,” explains story editor and co-founder Karla Zimonja. “And so Steve [Gaynor, co-founder] came up with the idea of setting it on a space station. I said, ‘Are you kidding me, Steve?’ And I fought about it for a while and was like, ‘Well, all right, but it’s going to be hard!’ Because it’s so much easier with Gone Home: you just go to a thrift store and look at furniture and it’s: ‘That’s what I’m going to do!’ We can’t do that with space. We can’t just go up to the space station and be like, ‘Oh, let’s use that’.
Fullbright has drawn inspiration from other places instead. The Lunar Transfer Station Tacoma is ornate, partially carpeted, and lushly decorated with ferns and flowers. Built to accommodate the booming space tourism trade of the game’s not-too-distant future, the station has been made for customers, which explains its grand aesthetic. And there’s something of BioShock’s Rapture here in the arches, gold detailing and the foreboding atmosphere of an experiment gone awry. It’s not a surprising allusion given that both Gaynor and Zimonja worked on BioShock 2’s Minerva’s Den DLC.
But the space station setting isn’t the team’s biggest challenge. “It’s not the space part that makes things difficult, although we do constantly have to remind ourselves that the story is about the people, and that they’re the most important [aspect],” Zimonja tells us. “Everything, like the plot and the world, is only important when it intersects with the people, and that’s difficult because there are six of them, and they’re all interacting in real time, and you can find evidence of that constantly. That’s just way more people than we had in Gone Home.”
It may be a lot to write for, but these six individuals – encountered as holograms – represent the minimal crew in charge of the expansive Tacoma. Cast as recently hired technician Amy Ferrier, you arrive at your first day on the job to find your colleagues
are physically absent and the station awash with floating packaged food and other items. Voiced by Sarah Grayson, who also leant her talents to Gone Home’s Sam, Ferrier must piece together what happened from diary entries, messages and recordings.
These recordings are displayed as brightly coloured holograms which play out as 3D videologs. But as well as the different colours applied to each individual’s recordings, the crew are also differentiated by their wildly differing body shapes. The first recording you encounter is a welcome message from station coordinator Evelyn, who is rotund, shorter than the player and, in this form, decidedly purple. When she pops up, it’s hard not to view her as a very deliberate reaction to the less realistic proportions of holographic companions in other games.
“I think there’s a lot at play there,” says Zimonja. “It’s good to have representation of lots of different kinds of people in videogames. But also, practically speaking, they don’t have faces, so you can’t really differentiate them that way. So that was kind of an interesting way for us to do that. Obviously we care about representing different kinds of people in games as well, so it’s a combination of decisions.”
The crew’s a varied bunch, and Fullbright has ensured that a complex entanglement of backstories underpins the science-fiction mystery that drives exploration. Operations specialist Clive, for example, is romantically involved with Evelyn but feels the undesirable Tacoma posting is below him. Botanist and acting station cook Andrew, meanwhile, is struggling with being away from his Earthbound boyfriend and feels that the rest of the crew take him for granted.
At the centre of this web of domestic unrest, AI ODIN (Operational Data Interpreter Network Interface) cuts a chilly, dispassionate figure and is unwilling to comply with the requests of a new recruit without questioning her motives. Shortly after arriving, you discover that ODIN was manually shut down by a crew member, and on rebooting the system, ODIN claims that the crew are still alive and holed up in a different area of the station. The setup riffs on familiar sci-fi ideas, but any surface reading is likely to miss the mark – Gone Home, remember, did much the same with the horror genre but ultimately veered in an unexpected direction.
And this time, hints of misdirection are physicalised by the environment. While you’re able to walk along the floor, the station is a zero-G environment, and you can explore it through a “surface transfer” mechanic that allows you switch your orientation along the way to make progress. In such a narrative-heavy game, it’s an unexpected level of dexterity, and as a result we spent probably way too much time trying to work out how to exit a cargo loading bay before it clicked that we could use ceiling to gain access to an inconspicuous doorway.
“Deciding that we would make a zero gravity station gave us a lot of opportunities to think about traversal in a different way,” level designer Nina Freeman tells us. “So we decided to play around with that and see what things we could find that were interesting but also not entirely confusing. Because it can be [disorienting] to take away all control and let you float about, for example, so we thought that surface transfer was a good midpoint.”
It certainly doesn’t feel like a compromise, instead reinforcing the sense of physicality as Ferrier puts out her hands to brace herself for the coming impact of each new surface. And the absence of Gone Home’s affecting, nostalgia-triggering cultural references doesn’t corrode the mystery at hand either. Indeed, for all the apparent differences in tone, Tacoma and Gone Home share many commonalities: both isolate you in a location you can’t leave, both explore a sense of dislocation, and both trade in the loaded cinematic language of long-established genres. But while Fullbright is evidently (and sensibly) building on what it learned in its debut, the studio is also taking intriguing steps in a new direction for its particular brand of environmental storytelling.
The absence of Gone Home’s affecting cultural references doesn’t corrode the mystery
FROM TOP Story editor and studio co-founder Karla Zimonja; level designer Nina Freeman
Ferrier is able to walk on surfaces by way of her magnetised boots. Launching from one surface to another will often reveal new avenues for exploration