Ta­coma

PC, Xbox One

EDGE - - GAMES - Pub­lisher/devel­oper Full­bright For­mat PC, Xbox One Ori­gin US Re­lease 2016

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

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