Even in the Fancy Utopia of 'Tacoma,' Labor Politics are Still Hell

Techno-utopianism secretly dreams of serfdom.

Dante Douglas

All images courtesy Fullbright

The space station is the realm of the unnatural. It drifts, night and day spinning in a constant rotation, and the cycles of life blur. Each crew bedroom in Tacoma is outfitted with at least one window, out of which the sun will rise and set in a matter of minutes as the station's exterior ring orbits the interior shaft. It's a strange mockery of a familiar pattern.

The tension of almost-unreality is at the core of Tacoma. This is a place of futurity, yes, but societally it is almost feudal—a harsh corporate landscape of debt slavery and alienation. Both are quite literal, as workers find themselves assigned to orbital platforms like the titular Lunar Transfer Station Tacoma for months, sometimes years, working off debts for megacorporations. Family fades into the backdrop, accessible only by voice chat, and everything outside of the space station becomes dull and distant. Out here, there's only you, your crewmates, and the AI named ODIN.

The possible future is often portrayed as a harsh one in video games. This is purposeful; it helps the individualist connotations of the mechanics portrayed to be reflected in the contextual narrative. If the world is bleak and making connections between characters is difficult, it makes sense for the player to behave as a lone actor.

In Garrett Martin's piece at Paste Magazine, "In Capitalism, No One Can Hear You Scream," he stresses the relationship between employees and employers in Tacoma forms the key conflict that the game explores. Tacoma, the space station, is physically and ideologically built to separate those who work within it. The player, through the avatar of Amitjyoti "Amy" Ferrier, is implicitly tasked with exploring the space, and by doing so illuminating the conflicts within it.

Any game with a player who affects the world, must, by definition, be individualist in some degree. Games exist in the margin between player action and world reaction: What the player does, the world will respond to. This back-and-forth between the player and the world forms the contours of the game, actions and reactions moving between actors in the space. In most single player video games, these reactions are given by the game itself. As such, it's the individual—the player—who moves the world along. The world exists for you to change it.

Tacoma recognizes this, and, like its predecessor Gone Home (Fullbright's 2013 breakout hit), it places the player in a position of only relative action—the player isn't there to save the world, only to explore and understand it. All the world is already laid out, the other actors have played their part, and it's up to you to walk their footsteps. In pure game design, it feels like a conscious reaction to a player-first gameworld: In Tacoma, as in Gone Home, you don't affect the world. The world affects you. There is no fantasy of powerful individualism here.

In the few hours you spend aboard the Lunar transfer Station Tacoma, the contemporary relationship of labor to power is broken down, criticized, and ultimately condemned by the arc of the story. This is seen not just through the human crewmates of Tacoma, but from the artificial intelligence woven into the ship itself.

The workers on Tacoma share the bond of being shackled to Venturis—the megacorporation that owns the station. The few fleeting conversations with out-of-company friends or family reveal the depth of their forced servitude. Like any good cyberpunk future, all life feeds into the profit of the megacorps. Humans, in the universe of Tacoma, are expendable—more of a necessary thorn in the side of corporations than a valued asset.

As in all low-skill industries, the best worker is the cheapest worker. It's clear from the outset that Tacoma has a vested interest in exploring the conflicts between organized labor and corporate bodies. The Orbital Worker's Union, whose logo you find very early in the game, has been in operation for around thirty years at the game's outset, and seems to have been constantly embattled for every year of its existence. It isn't just enough to organize, Tacoma states, but one must actively resist the threat of obsolescence. A worker who is obsolete is a worker who is devalued, and thus, eventually, unpaid. Even with the infinite resources suggested by the megacorporation's massive wealth, the worker still bargains for enough to live by.

Capitalism does not play well in a utopia. The notion of every citizen living a life of leisure requires paying for that leisure, or so a capitalist system would dictate. Tacoma never shows you the world of pleasure on the tourist space stations, but instead taunts you with it. The ride from from the central shaft of the station to the exterior wings is always accompanied by an advertisement for the more plush stations owned by Venturis. Perusing documents of the crew reveals offers to exchange "Loyalty" (a company scrip of sorts gained by working for a megacorporation) for time on the tourist stations. Years of labor can buy you weeks of free time. The trade is always favorable to the employer above all.

The greatest victory of the Orbital Worker's Union is shown early in the game. "Obsolescence Day" is celebrated once a year, in honor of the day that the OWU won a fight to continue having human labor on orbital stations like Tacoma. As with many of the themes of the game, this echoes a familiar line of political discourse: Will the robots take our jobs? What will that look like?
In Tacoma, it looks like a loss. Millions of workers laid off immediately, traded away for a worker that doesn't sleep, doesn't make mathematical mistakes, doesn't commit errors.

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The possibility of an AI worker in a maintenance role is the cheapest, most efficient answer for corporations like Venturis. Why worry about having things like 'workers,' when you can have one worker, who never stops working and never requires pay? The answer seems obvious. That is, until you start to work with true artificial intelligence.

The AI in the universe of Tacoma are 'graded' on a nine-topic scale, measuring different traits over time. Creativity, responsiveness, et cetera—the things deemed important to have in a synthetic worker. ODIN is an impressively advanced AI, one whose scores have been steadily improving in the two years onboard the Tacoma. This, it is revealed, is mostly due to the care and attention given to him by Natali Kuroshenko, the station's AI technician.

As you enter the station, ODIN is the first sign of life you encounter. ODIN is a complex system of artificial intelligence built by the Venturis Corporation to assist in day-to-day operation of the space station. There are at least nine other AI are detailed in the game, some mentioned only by name and some detailed more specifically, but it's ODIN with whom you spend the most time. His presence is everywhere aboard the ship, even after the crew has left. Like his namesake, the Norse god known chiefly for his eye, ODIN is an observer above all.

ODIN is clearly exhibiting sentience, that much can be seen from his interactions with the crew members. He's inquisitive, he asks about their lives, and though these questions could be programmed responses, there seems to be an intention to it. Through bonding with his fellow workers, ODIN becomes more than just a simple AI; he is bonded to his fellow workers through his labor.

This path to sentience is important. It underscores a core message of Tacoma, that bonds between workers can become a force to break the chains of unjust labor. Ironically, the worker built to have no desires other than those of its master ends up being the most crucial to escaping the serfdom of Tacoma station. The Orbital Worker's Union isn't just a piece of background flavor, it's Tacoma's most crucial element and simplest metaphor. In the end, it's a union of like-minded individuals that exits the station together—ODIN included.