getting spaced out has never been more engrossing
Imagine you’re watching your favourite soap opera and, in the middle of a blazing argument, you get to pause the show and then go and look around the characters’ bedrooms.
You can open their cupboards, read their letters and throw their pens around. Then you can go back into the room where the row is happening, rewind the characters and follow them back into different rooms where they sit around playing guitar and talking to themselves. Now imagine all this is happening in space and your characters are trapped in a terrible corporate arrangement aboard a space station that’s in dire peril. Welcome to Tacoma.
It’s a story game from the creators of mansion-exploring and cupboard-opening simulator, Gone Home. However, in Gone Home you simply walk around a mansion and read letters; in Tacoma you’re exploring an entire space station and recovering details of the disaster, as though you’re exploring a huge, interactive black box recording. You play as a contractor on a job to download the resident AI from the Tacoma space station shortly after it has been abandoned. The AI, Odin, addresses the station’s inhabitants using an augmented reality system that layers digital information over the environment. Odin also records every sound and movement the crew makes. As you move between Tacoma’s modules and download chunks of Odin, you can recover corrupted data in each area and watch the team’s ghostly interactions.
The six crew members are represented as coloured silhouettes, and they have a symbol on their back that represents their role – medic, station administrator, botanist. This helps you to quickly identify them early on before you come to know their voices and personalities. The first proper conversation you recover is a great showcase for Tacoma’s excellent storytelling system. The crew is having a party in the rec room. Two of them flirt at the main table. The medic plays pool in the lounge nearby. The station administrator practises her speech with Odin in a separate room, and the two other crew members prepare a cake in the kitchen. The sound of a huge crash unites the panicked crew members at the table. As they discuss the explosion they bring up their augmented reality interfaces, which you can access to read their chat logs and emails. These interfaces each have four icons, which you can press A on to open the email or chat log in a floating window. You have your own augmented reality overlay where you receive messages from your employer, as well as information about your character and her background.
The whole event is a four-dimensional play that you can rewind and examine at leisure. Pressing X sets all the characters in motion, and you’re free to walk around and eavesdrop on any of them. X pauses the action again, and you can use LB and RB to scrub back and forth through the sequence. It’s worth following the crew around and watching their every moment. Even when crew members are alone they often discuss personal matters with Odin, which gives you a little extra insight into their lives. Remarkably, though you are a mercenary trespasser hoovering up private moments for your own entertainment, it never feels nasty or voyeuristic. The crew’s total lack of privacy is a contractual necessity of their employment on the station, and it feels as though their memories deserve to be recorded as they struggle heroically against disaster.
The voice actors deliver strong naturalistic performances and the silhouettes are expressive enough to give you a sense of each crew member’s mood. A few have also coupled up and their relationships are believable and, at points, quite moving. As you recover more scenes you discover moments of quiet intimacy that gives each character a strong sense of individuality. The abstract, phantom-like presentation of the crew works surprisingly well. A version of the same system with fully animated faces would likely have seemed more unnatural. The ambiguity allows your imagination to pick up the rest of the work.
The station itself is almost as interesting as the characters that used to live there. Each module is packed with objects that you can pick up, zoom in on, rotate close-up and throw around. Every little item has been painstakingly modelled to make the setting feel authentic – the pens even have the station owners’ corporate logo embedded in silver.
The environments are full of little puzzles too. As you dig through a crew member’s belongings you might find a key to a locker elsewhere. A door code hidden in someone’s emails might grant you access to a new room. In each crew member’s quarters you can dig through their personal belongings and learn a lot about their past, and their families back home. These puzzles aren’t difficult, but they create some satisfying payoffs if you are good at rummaging. Tacoma rewards you for being nosy.
The game looks great, too, though there are hitches in performance. These are especially pronounced when you’re hurtling down the elevators that link the zero-G central
spindle to the station’s rotating habitats. It’s a minor annoyance, though, and has little impact on Tacoma’s gentle exploration. The station itself is made up of winding corridors and satisfying, chunky bulkheads. A lot of thought has gone into crafting a utilitarian space that is nonetheless designed to be lived in for long periods. It’s sometimes a surprising space, too. One moment you’re prowling the dark, businesslike medbay, then you discover the tea room – an observation deck full of plants with a little table. It’s easy to imagine crew members enjoying a hot beverage and looking out at the stars here. Even though the crew isn’t around any more, their decorations and general life-clutter bring a warm sense of humanity to Tacoma’s grey corridors.
The station is managed by Odin’s soothing presence. The AI is an interesting character itself; grown over time ‘like a redwood’ and moved between owners so that it can learn to better interact with humans, Odin is part of a richly conceived science fiction setting. The station is owned by the Venturis corporation, which keeps its crew in a form of servitude with a series of loyalty rewards and punishing insurance arrangements. Details of Venturis’ activities are artfully seeded in Tacoma’s clutter, and each crew member has their debts to pay. As Gone Home played with players’ haunted house expectations, Odin’s calm voice and secretive nature deliberately evokes 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Hal 9000 AI, but then plays with that in interesting ways. We don’t want to spoil any story details, but it’s a satisfying tale with some surprising twists.
It’s amazing that Tacoma manages to cram so much into such a short space of time. If you rush through you can polish off the whole thing in two hours, but the game is far better if you take your time and properly explore every shelf. Tacoma is also worth replaying once you know what’s going on. When you know how the game ends, small details earlier on take on fresh context. As with a good book, particular moments and decisions stayed with us, and part of us still wants to go back and discover new stories beyond the station carapace. It’s a good sign when it feels as though a game’s wider fiction is strong enough to sustain more stories elsewhere in the universe.
Tacoma is the latest in a series of short narrative games that are creating clever new ways to tell stories. Tacoma is great because you have to actively participate to uncover story beats and connect them into an overall narrative. This is a significant improvement over comparable story games such as Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, which tells you a story with a series of virtual plays, but without the enticing ability to control the actors. Even the enchanting What Remains Of Edith Finch prefers to funnel you forcefully through its story beats. Tacoma is a puzzle rather than a slideshow, and it tells a story in a way that only a game could. Even with its uneven performance and short length, it’s an easy recommendation to anyone who enjoys a well-constructed yarn in a compelling world.
“When you know how the game ends small details earlier on take on fresh context”
right Why don’t the projections wear those party hats on the table?
far Right The small private moments feel as big as the ones that include everyone.
left More party hat questions: where did the crew get them from? Did they pack them in advance ‘just in case’ they needed to party? Or are they essential space station equipment?