Tacoma PC, Xbox One
A nonlinear timeline means the action, if you can call it that, never builds as you’d like it to
Cor, those lifts look fun. Simply grab on to a handle, put one foot in a pedal and you’re away, whisked automatically at high speed from the zero-gravity hub of the Tacoma Lunar Observation System to one of its departments. To botany, you say? We’ll be there in a jiffy. Cryogenics needs our attention? Close your eyes and count to ten. Interdepartmental transition has never been so fun.
If, say, the Tacoma needed an office delivery boy, we’d be all over it. But the station is staffed by just six people, all brought on to perform a specific, and essential, role. Most, however, have also taken on some, well, extracurricular duties. Station administrator EV St James is coupled up with operations specialist Clive Siddiqi – their pillow talk must be an absolute hoot – while engineer Roberta Williams and network expert Natali Kuroshenko are also an item. The two remaining wallflowers are firm friends, though it’s seemingly gone no further than that. The botanist, Andrew Dagyab, is too preoccupied with somehow saving his ailing marriage while stuck high in the sky; Sareh Hasmadi, the doctor, has never been the same since suffering a professional injustice earlier in her career.
They’re a diverse bunch, then – or rather, they were, since by the time we meet them, they’re all gone. Like developer Fullbright’s first game, the walking-sim-cum1990s-love-letter Gone Home, Tacoma puts you in the shoes of a female protagonist – this time named Amy Ferrier – arriving in a mysteriously empty place. Yet instead of a home, it’s a space station, and instead of picking through the bric-a-brac of suburban American life, you’re combing through AR logs that replay scenes from the crew’s final hours.
Ferrier may be our walking window onto this sci-fi world, but it becomes quickly apparent that she is not the focal point of Tacoma’s tale. That honour goes to Odin, an autonomous AI which is, despite St James’ notional position of power among the team, the real captain of the ship. While this floating polygonal presence is by turns a sounding board, a confidant and an ally to the ship’s staff, it’s clear Odin is the one who wears the virtual trousers. It feeds back directly to, and takes orders directly from, the Venturis corporation that’s running the show on Earth.
That is, in itself, an intriguing enough setup. And when, as Ferrier, you first board the abandoned Tacoma and are immediately told to gather all archived crew data before retrieving Odin’s central AI core, you assume the worst: that it has gone rogue somehow, and you are about to stumble upon something gruesome.
Gone Home played a similar trick, but took a lot longer to show its true hand. After a short hop on of those excellent lifts, you’re in the Administration department. You watch an AR playback of the crew celebrating Obsolescence Day, a party for Venturis staff to mark the
Gone Home’s atmosphere was in part driven by its level furniture, its hand-written VHS labels and old family photos making its world feel natural, rich and vivid, adding some nostalgic weight to its central tale. In Tacoma you’ll stumble across a heavily corrupted AR archive, typically showing a crewmate spending some time on their own: showering, drinking, playing a game. None tells you much about the character in question – we would, we expect, do all of those things if we spent a year on a space station. Elsewhere, while there’s plenty of stuff to pick up, it serves little purpose. Unless you’d be surprised to learn that long-life packaged food is something of a staple when you’re spending years in lunar orbit, anyway. day when legislation, that would bring automation into the workforce at unprecedented scale, was struck down. Yet the party is interrupted by Odin. Orbital debris has damaged the Tacoma’s oxygen and communications systems. In 50 hours, the air supply will run out – and there’s no way of calling for help. We’ll leave the story details there, of course, and not just because we aren’t the sorts to spoil. It’s because story is pretty much all Tacoma has. Your interactions while watching these AR logs are minimal: you can skip back and forth through the timeline with the bumpers, pause the action, and snoop in on a crew member’s AR desktop when they call it up. Opportunities for the latter are plainly signalled on the timeline with a grey question mark that changes colour as the timeline passes over it. It’s in these overlaid desktops that the story is fleshed out, through a blend of partially corrupted news reports, email exchanges with people back on Earth, and chatlogs between crew members. Find all the AR archives in each section, and the upload completes, before Ferrier’s Venturis paymasters message her to tell her which area to move onto next.
We don’t expect a game like this to be difficult, but after What Remains Of Edith Finch’s smart rewriting of the narrative-adventure rulebook, proving that mechanical variety need not be sacrificed at the altar of putting story first, Tacoma struggles to keep you involved in proceedings. Fullbright uses Ferrier’s AR gear as an excuse for some terribly blunt signposting, in one late example literally projecting her name and a green arrow onto a wall to show us where to head next. Occasionally you’ll come across a locked door, but the access code is never far away, and if you can’t track it down you can just look over a crewmate’s AR shoulder as they unlock it. For the most part you’re simply walking, listening, and reading – and there’s little reward for poking around.
All of that is understandable, if not quite forgivable, given Fullbright’s focus on narrative and the change of setting from Tacoma’s predecessor. Yet the story itself doesn’t justify the shortcomings found elsewhere; indeed, Tacoma’s tale has a few of its own. The 50-hour deadline should, you’d think, create a certain tension, but a nonlinear timeline means the action, if you can call it that, never builds as you’d like it to. The real story isn’t hard to see coming, and the payoff, when it arrives, is over in a flash – a mic drop the preceding few hours didn’t quite do enough to deserve. There is magic here: in the likeable, believable cast, for instance, and the way partly corrupted documents dispense nuggets of narrative progress while still leaving intriguing dangling threads. It is wonderfully written, its world lived-in and vivid. It meets our expectations of a Fullbright game, but sadly leaves it at that. 7
LEFT When not eavesdropping, there’s plenty to do around the Tacoma, though little of it matters. Closing and opening shutters can only entertain you for so long.
MAIN The opening section is one of very few times you see the entire crew together. After that they mostly operate in small groups, or simply by themselves.
BOTTOM The crew’s AR desktops yield often surprising results. This links back to a darker time in the ship’s doctor’s career; elsewhere you’ll find that another wants to buy herself a body pillow with her favourite pop star printed on it
ABOVE Despite the crewmates appearing as colour-coded, translucent AR outlines, Fullbright manages to convey surprising tenderness at times. It’s inconsistent, however – one canoodle late on is an an absolute visual mess