A visual novel of sorts
Exploring the rooms and corridors of the titular Tacoma space station feels familiar. There aren’t that many ‘walking simulators’ out there, which makes a comparison to Fullbright’s previous work inevitable. Where Gone Home returns players to the 90’s, Tacoma transports us to a plausible near future.
Tacoma belongs to a growing genre of first-person adventures that emphasize narrative and exploration. They’re the queens of environmental storytelling, targeted at those who scan every nook and cranny not for collectibles, but for lore. Enjoyed reading all those letters and books in Skyrim? This is for you. Just be aware that the entire premise is divorced from traditional gaming mechanics, so they’re closer in spirit to visual novels than RPGs.
As sub-contractor Amy Ferrier, we’re tasked with boarding the Tacoma to retrieve both the data and physical wetware of ODIN, the station’s AI. Upon docking – and wistfully parting with our ship – we soon equip a pair of augmented reality wearables that interface directly with the station. It’s a cool showcase for AR, allowing Amy to register commands via sign language and hand gestures. On the flip side, it also lets headquarters record and monitor all crew activity, even private and intimate moments. While waiting for her data transfers to complete, Amy uses this stored AR information to recreate scenes prior to her arrival.
Just what was this Obsolescence Day party, anyway? This idle curiosity quickly reveals why the station is empty, setting the stage for the time-honored tale of human determination in the face of adversity. In this case, the former crew of six must place their trust in one another if they are to survive a disaster.
Now, let me point out that Tacoma does not break sci-fi tropes, nor is it free from a predictable ending – playing with established settings seems to be
something Fullbright enjoys. And while it raises the same questions of AI ethics and Orwellian corporations, it doesn’t set out to address them. Rather, what you’ll find here is a truly diverse cast of characters that are, again, rooted in authenticity. It’s their stories that take center stage, their fears, relationships, and their resolve, not the event surrounding them.
To tackle the larger dramatis personae, we can rewind and fast-forward the different AR scenes Amy encounters. This lets us follow and eavesdrop on all the crew, even when they’re apart, adding context to their thoughts and actions. It’s surprisingly effective, giving us separate perspectives without having to replay the story or reload save files, as one typically would. The scenes themselves aren’t long either, usually two minutes at the most, supplemented by peeks at any open AR desktops to read chat logs and mails – it’s the future equivalent of peeping at someone’s phone.
Tacoma pairs that with some good character animation. Despite the complete lack of facial features, we can still tell a lot from the way the characters act and react. Gripping a handrail for support, slowly pacing a room, distantly looking out a window – they help frame a character’s emotions just as well as the voice acting, so it’d be silly to call this a low-budget production. More than any other genre, immersion is vital. Be it a letter from home hidden in a drawer, diet and exercise goals reflected in lockers, or the choice of music wafting from speakers, there is plenty of nuance planted aboard the lunar space station. Even learning how someone still prefers a regular toothbrush wound up being a fun little discovery. There is a nagging sense of violation as one rifles through personal effects but Tacoma incentivizes this exploration. We can spy on code combinations being punched in and uncover stashed keys, all of which are optional, but lead to interesting background information.
However, what is without question is that Tacoma doesn’t engage us the way Gone Home does. It can’t. Here, we’re merely an observer aboard a cold space station, not a family member returning home. While I don’t see this as a strike, it’ll certainly disappoint those swayed by Fullbright’s earlier title.
There’s also the fact that the Tacoma runs for only approximately three hours. It’s an ideal length for the story they want to tell, while also preventing the whole AR mechanic from getting stale. So when it comes down to “Is this worth buying?”, it’s simply a question of what you value most out of your entertainment – long hours of deep gameplay, or a brief, captivating story.
CONCLUSION Tacoma is a fine example of the possibilities in interactive fiction.
There’s no running and gunning here. You’re merely an observer, piecing together the story through AR playback.
Augmented reality wearable is a vital gameplay component to move the story along.