Stories are all around us. If we stop and listen long enough, the world begins to open up. Perhaps we remain unchanged. These stories laying in the past may remain static without our involvement. Their main purpose could be to change us. Emerging into our lives, unknowingly lending context to our current predicament or even helping us empathize with those around us – that is the power that stories can bring. That is, if you choose to open up. Fullbright’s Tacoma is about opening up to the world around you, even if you weren’t asked to. In a way, it’s a testament to compassion and empathy, woven into very traditional gameplay mechanics that still make you care despite the game telling you otherwise.
"Events unravel over a timeline which you can play forwards and backwards or pause at any point. Certain key points will indicate AR data that can be accessed for more information."
Amy Ferrier is you as Lunar Transfer Station Tacoma opens its hatches. An AI named Odin, owned by the Venturis Corporation and the oldest thus far, keeps the station up and running though you’re greeted by a pre-recorded message instead of actually talking to him. When boarding the station, you don a pair of earphone-like devices called ARDWare that gather your body positional data. This allows the station to create a life-size model of your movements and actions throughout your stay on Tacoma, for the sake of archiving. It’s also the means to investigating what happened to the Tacoma‘s crew. Where did they go? What’s up with Odin and why does the Venturis Corporation prohibit you from talking to him?
You start off in the Observation module, downloading data from the station and exploring while you wait. Events unravel over a timeline which you can play forwards and backwards or pause at any point. Certain key points will indicate AR data that can be accessed for more information. At first, they seem like your rudimentary boxes to tick for progressing forward but whether you want to learn more about the characters or not is up to you. You could theoretically stick around near the data access point and not do anything if you so desired (though it will take a lot longer for the download to complete).
Make no mistake – this is a cast that you’ll be interested in, even if you don’t particularly like them. E.V. St. James is the station administrator, a forthright leader who’s also down-to-earth and approachable. She’s in a relationship with the talkative but welcoming operation specialist Clive Siddiqui. Andrew Dagyab is the gentle but somewhat shy and nervous botanist. Roberta Williams is the erstwhile and warm engineer who’s unsure of herself while her lover Natali Kuroshenko is the outspoken, K-pop loving network specialist who’s prone to outbursts. Then there’s the mysterious but gentle Sareh Hasmadi who’s the medic on Tacoma and seems to know more than she lets on. Odin interacts with the crew constantly but their relationships all interplay with each other as well. It’s in those tangles that these characters really begin to shine thanks to excellent writing and top-notch voice acting.
"The very fact that Tacoma can be compared to a movie in terms of narrative, pacing and overall engagement is noteworthy. Once you’re properly invested, you won’t want to stop playing until the end."
The player’s connection to the Tacoma crew is made even more amazing when you consider that you’re viewing hologram figures composed of body positional data via augmented reality tech. There are no facial expressions or features. Outside of the rudimentary shapes of their bodies and some wonderfully expressive animations, Tacoma‘s voyeuristic power fantasy is established when you think you’re so much more whole than these shadows of the past.
It’s immediately subverted upon realizing that Amy is a silent observer for most of the game. The past is highly involving and at times, you’ll feel overwhelmed by these utter strangers while still controlling the recording that binds them. I’d tell you how the game wants you to identify with one character in particular as a result but that would be saying too much.
Along with witnessing the crew’s conflicts and interactions, you will also dig through their personal mails, messages, voice calls and so on to learn more about them. At certain sections, you can head into a crew member’s personal quarters and witness them “raw”. As stated before, you may or may not like them, but Tacoma‘s cast comes off as incredibly human-like. The overall scripting and plot may be somewhat typical compared to other sci-fi properties like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and Solaris. However, the very fact that Tacoma can be compared to a movie in terms of narrative, pacing and overall engagement is noteworthy. Once you’re properly invested, you won’t want to stop playing until the end.
"Tacoma lets you explore as much or as little of its story as you want, involving yourself deeper and deeper with its cast until they win you over."
I’ve talked plenty about the characters’ believable nature, the great presentation (though keep in mind that the visuals aren’t necessarily as cutting edge as, say, Adr1ft) and the involvement of the player as a voyeur. However, the real power of Tacoma‘s immersion lays in hunting the key events of each recording, witnessing the group’s discussion and then watching all of these other threads splinter off as a result. Nat and Roberta could be talking about the former’s tenure after E.V. leaves to talk to Clive.
The conversation could then be paused and rewound as you catch up to Clive who’s talking to an old friend of his before E.V. enters to discuss their future. Meanwhile, Sareh could be prepping for a workout and running into Andrew who’s doing yoga and talking to his son. In the midst of all this, you can explore Clive’s quarters and witness the man in his drunken reverie before returning to the previous recording. That’s not even taking into account the sheer amount of information that can be gleaned from the environment, be it books, pictures, dart-boards and so on. Tacoma lets you explore as much or as little of its story as you want, involving yourself deeper and deeper with its cast until they win you over.
It’s perhaps for this reason that the game is a relatively short experience. Even with several interruptions in between, it was possible to complete the story and explore a majority of the setting in just a few hours. Some may take issue with this while others may feel that the story could have been expanded upon even further or at least gone on for longer. While I do agree on the latter part, I feel that for its length, Tacoma offers a sublime and under-stated but still powerful experience that’s stayed with me longer than some games that have lasted for many more hours. That’s just me though. Cue the “Gone Home in space” comparisons and “LOL walking simulators” comments that you know and love.
"It’s a sympathetic story as well, one that identifies with our faults but still celebrates the compassion, unity and understanding that makes us human."
Jokes aside, despite Tacoma cleverly using its mechanics to tell a compelling story, they’re still fairly simple. This is good, don’t get me wrong, but at times I wished for a few actual puzzles instead of “memorize X passcode” or “find Y key to Z locker”. Also, for all intents and purposes, I wish the game actually allowed you to dynamically influence the story’s direction. The observer role is powerful but it felt like it was pushing me as a player to actually make a change, whether for the good or bad, before settling into a foregone conclusion. That being said, the emotional impact of being involved with these characters and witnessing their tribulations as I was there can’t be understated.
Even if I didn’t have the power to actually affect the results, the various perspectives of each character are all told using the same tools – that is, through dialogue, computer data files and animations. It’s fairly standard for games like this and handled very, very well. However, for those who’ve played What Remains of Edith Finch with its variety of gameplay elements and story-telling quirks or Her Story which featured a narrative labyrinth that the observer had to connect and unravel completely unaided, will that really be enough?
I feel that Tacoma stands firmly on its own despite these small quibbles. Tacoma is a great story told in a fantastic way. It’s core strengths are polished wonderfully and invite you to learn more about this world where you’re seemingly all powerful. It’s a sympathetic story though, one that identifies with our faults but still celebrates the compassion, unity and understanding that makes us human.
This game was reviewed on PC.
Cast is believable and backed by wonderful dialogue, voice acting and expressive animations. Skillful pacing and observational gameplay mechanics allow player to explore conversations and meaningful interactions at their own leisure. Great aesthetic style and sound design all throughout.
Short playlength, which definitely made me wish for some threads to have been resolved. Key gameplay hooks could have been further expanded on. Though a voyeuristic journey, some kind of direct choice from the player side would have been appreciated.
Rather than big and bombastic, Tacoma is small and personal, inviting you to be involved. It's a strong testament to the power of visual narration and characterization possible in today's video games despite some nit-picks here and there.
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