'Tacoma' Doesn't Reach Heights of 'Gone Home,' But It's Damn Good Sci-Fi
The developers of 2013's groundbreaking adventure game have returned with a short but sweet tale, this time in space.
Image courtesy of Fullbright
It's been nearly four years since Gone Home, a seminal adventure game that's been rippling into others ever since. It was always going to be tough for its developers, the team at Fullbright, to follow Gone Home. There was no way to know that game would hit people so hard. But even I couldn't shake my expectations when I booted up Tacoma a few nights ago. Gone Home shook me to my core when I first played it, so it's natural to hope for another experience like that. Tacoma isn't Gone Home, but that's an impossible ask. Tacoma is, however, a clever game with a thoughtful story to tell about life, people, and technology.
Set in 2088, Tacoma's world similar to ours, but one where, among other things, Elon Musk became President (which apparently went well) and Amazon opened a college (the jury's still out on that one, it seems). The game's name is derived from the space station you're headed to, Tacoma. It's unclear what happened at Tacoma, but chances are it's nothing good. You've been tasked with retrieving an AI, Odin, for the Ventris Corporation. And because it's the future, everything on the station was recorded. Using an AR system, you can watch moments the Tacoma crew experienced and piece together what happened.
You can't talk about Tacoma without talking about Gone Home; Tacoma builds upon the gameplay structure established in Fullbright's first game, but plays with it in different ways.
Gone Home leveraged its low-budget status to tell a story of discovery and exploration via natural objects, rather than splashy exposition-packed cutscenes. It felt grounded and natural, if a bit voyeuristic, to be digging through a desk drawer and reading letters that explained decades of family politics. (It was also a gift to anyone who, like me, deeply appreciates high-res images in games.) Gone Home painted a picture of events through its objects, but let your imagination run wild. And look, sad as it might sound, it felt downright revolutionary to explore a story about a young queer woman discovering their sexuality. It's not like such stories hadn't been told before—queer creators had been doing so long before Gone Home came along—but it was likely the first time a lot of people encountered one.
People were present in Gone Home, but it was abstract. Tacoma splits the difference. You're still digging through drawers (or hacking computers) to read private letters, but the AR system means you're given a glimpse into how they laughed, interacted, and loved. There's still a layer of abstraction, as each character is represented by a featureless but individually colored human-shaped hologram. It's always clear who each person is—they're fully voiced, each is shaped differently, and colors are constant—but you're still filling in the blanks.
Tacoma's big trick is how the space station's residents' lives are represented.
The station hasn't just recorded their voices, but their movements, too, which means conversations can be happening all over the place simultaneously. In order to fully understand what's going on, you'll need to wander around and follow different characters, weaving together individual motivations and fears. To that end, it's possible to pause, rewind, and fast forward these memories, letting you take note of some information Conversation A, hitting pause, and running over to the other side of the room and seeing how it intersects with Conversation B. There's precious little you have to actually do in Tacoma—you could probably finish the game in 20 minutes if you literally went from point A to point B—so the meat of the game becomes how long you want to spend deciphering conversational puzzles.
As it turns out, that work is incredibly satisfying! If you were to break down the story beats in Tacoma, there's not much to it, but that does a gross disservice to the quiet moments that come to define the real story. Coming to understand the relationships—some as friends, others as lovers, some only begrudging colleagues—is what grants the few beats their emotional weight. It's one thing for a situation to take a turn for the worse, but another to be given the opportunity to learn how people actually feel about it. ("Will I get to see my kid graduate from college?" "What if my colleague fucks up and kills us all?") In the action movie version of Tacoma, you'd only see characters coming together to enact a plan to save themselves. In the story Fullbright is telling, you can hit pause, walk to the other room, and see one of them have a full-blown panic attack, barely holding together under incredible stress.
(It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with designer Steve Gaynor that the ship's AI, Odin, is also a fully developed character. In the world of Tacoma, advanced AIs, with their own thoughts and feelings, have become fully integrated into society. Gaynor is a huge fan of System Shock 2, which had a malevolent AI, SHODAN, running amok a space station.)
It's important that the character moments land, too, because there isn't much to the story. It's fine, and the final beats go to some unexpected places, but it's mostly a pretext to place the residents of Tacoma in an extraordinary situation. (It probably doesn't help that Tacoma arrived the same year as Nier: Automata, a game that asked unbelievably huge and unsettling questions about humanity's relationship with technology?)
But Tacoma excels at making you care deeply about how those questions impact people. When the story was over, I was bummed. There was just enough for me to get to know everyone, but it felt like the first episode in a larger story, cliffhanger and all. That I came away from Tacoma wanting to know more about the fates of everyone I'd "met" is a compliment to any character-focused drama.
There probably doesn't need to be another episode in this saga. I just didn't want to leave.
I'll confess to feeling a little disappointed when the story was over, after a little under four hours of poking around. "That's it?" Maybe I was expecting some big revelation, the kind of a-ha moment that defined Gone Home, even if it was likely the right move for the storytellers at Fullbright to avoid hitting the same notes. Tacoma is a damn good sci-fi story with some truly interesting characters that you get to know in an uncomfortably intimate way. Unlike most game stories, this one has sat with me better, as I've put distance between myself and the credits. Tacoma might not be Gone Home 2.0, but there's nothing wrong with that, either.