There's an age-old question that game theorists have long thought futile to answer: What is a video game? No one agrees on the exact parameters or qualifications, but it's still an important debate that challenges our preconceived assumptions about the medium and what can be classified under it. Back in 2013, Fullbright brought this conversation to the forefront of the industry like never before with Gone Home. While opinions widely differ, I think most would agree that the developer brought environmental storytelling to a new level with a meticulously detailed and genuine space that pulls players into the Greenbriar family's seemingly average yet complicated, compelling lives. Imagine a similar exploratory experience that's just as (if not more) intricate and character-driven, but it's set in space. That's Tacoma. I'd say it's Fullbright's best work yet.
The wonder of beholding a massive mansion right from the start of Gone Home is one thing, but docking into the Tacoma space station in 2088 is another. You play as Amitjyoti (Amy) Ferrier, a subcontractor assigned by the Venturis Corporation to figure out what became of the station's crew while finding a way to extract the ship's AI, ODIN. To accomplish these tasks, you'll need to take advantage of the station's AR monitoring, which has digitally recorded the crew's correspondence and movement that you can pause, rewind, and fast-forward through at your convenience. Imagine the Batman: Arkham series' Detective Mode (where you can look around and examine crime scenes), but instead of solving crime scenes, Tacoma wants you to get personal to understand the complex relationships, motives, and backstories of everybody. Well, except for your character, who's more of a vessel to explore the lives of others, much like Katie in Gome Home.
Have you ever thought about how complex and layered human interaction is? Tacoma puts this on full display in one of its first areas with all six characters. The AR recording may be about three minutes long, but the characters are spread throughout different rooms. E.V. is near her office reciting a speech that attempts to prove her people are needed and capable of maintaining Tacoma. Roberta and Natali are in another room talking about the pros and cons of being with such a tight-knit group. Clive and Andrew are preparing a cake for a celebration with ODIN's oddly precise instructions. Sareh is waxing philosophical with the AI, asking how it'd feel about meeting another one of its kind and if it's closer to some crew members more than others. It takes a while to navigate through these separate interactions because all six of them come together after an explosion rocks the station, which rarely happens throughout the story.
Once you get the whole picture with scenes like this, you can understand why one character was acting a certain way by following their digital echo to see what they were doing beforehand. If you're listening to one conversation and hear a sound somewhere else, you can go figure out the source of it. In addition, characters will pull up these interfaces that you can analyze at specific points in the recordings, allowing you to see who they were messaging or looking up during that time. This comes in handy to uncover pass codes or glean insight into the corporation the crew works for, the families of certain characters, and so on.
No character is more important than another because all of them are written out with superb dialogue backed by authentic performances. If you've ever heard of the curious word "sonder," you'll experience the feeling it defines as you adjust to the omnipresent position of Amy. Tacoma brilliantly reminds you of the extraordinary in the ordinary through its interpersonal narrative.
However, I do believe Tacoma could have taken this powerful storytelling even further to deepen the gameplay. This was a problem I had with Gone Home, which could have integrated even deeper puzzles or investigative work. Instead of just finding a code for a safe on a wall after reading a note, it would be amazing if there were more rabbit holes that took you around the house as you pieced a string of clues together. Likewise, Tacoma touches on possibilities like this as I found keys that could open drawers or watched holograms input a passcode on a door, but these aren't engaging at all. I would have appreciated if items had a greater role to play in perhaps, say, putting together a tool to open a malfunctioning door.
For example, you could follow Natali's hologram around to figure out where she moved an object you need, or you might have to return to a previous section to access a room since you figured out a hint note that E.V. left herself about where she hid the key. In other words, being able to interact with an endless stream of detailed items is cool, but it would be great if you had to find specific ones, turn them over, and piece some together (like in the Tomb Raider series or Resident Evil 7: Biohazard). It's likely a purposeful decision to avoid distracting players' attention from the story and keeping the experience short and simple at around 2-3 hours. Even though this lack of deeper game design and longevity would normally amount to negative criticism, these issues don't necessarily detract from the experience Tacoma aims to provide.
After all, it's not just a narratively pleasing experience, but an aesthetically impressive one, too. Fullbright has a bit of love for retrofuturism, but its overall vision of the near-future feels modestly grounded with the interior design of the station. Whereas Gome Home was a faithful, nostalgic recreation of a nuclear family's household in the mid-1990s, Tacoma is a greater exercise in creativity and originality that more than proves itself in both categories. Even innocuous items like food and supplies are akin to the vacuum-sealed, pragmatic items that astronauts use, but still have their own eccentric design twists like triangular rolls of tape or circular tubes of soap.
There are subtle touches in the environment that make the station feel lived-in, like scuff marks on the floor where there's a lot of traffic or multiple coffee cup stains at Roberta's work desk. You can tell a lot about what the characters do, where they go, and what their interests are just by looking around. There's also an unbelievable amount of audio for the objects you'll interact with; I would go as far as to say that each and every one is accompanied by a unique sound effect. Again, Tacoma may be short, but it's packed to the brim with meaning behind every single nook and cranny.
Like its predecessor, Tacoma is more like an interactive museum of sorts than a traditional video game, but I don't believe its story or characters would come across as strongly if it weren't strongly driven by storytelling. While it would have been interesting to see objects play a greater role in gameplay and forms of backtracking, getting to know the cast and their dire situation from multiple angles will motivate you to take your time as you absorb everything in its thoughtfully designed world. Originally, the game was going to be set in another house in Tacoma, Washington, but Fullbright's efforts to push itself creatively with its setting with its same brand of environmental storytelling result in one of its best titles yet.
While some may find Tacoma's length and lack of gameplay depth off-putting, it still manages to feel full in itself. A grounded, futuristic setting serves as Fullbright's most creative stage yet for thorough environmental storytelling that shines with an ordinary yet endearingly authentic cast of characters.
- Obsessively Good Detail
- Fully Realized Characters and World
- Believable, Appealing Visual Direction
- Well-Paced Story and Exploration
- Exploration Could be Deeper With Gameplay
- The Ending is a Tad Abrupt.
- Left Me Wishing For a Couple More Hours