Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Xbox One
It’s impossible to review Tacoma without revealing core plot elements, so this review is going to be loaded with spoilers. If you want a brief spoiler-free assessment, I’ll say that this game doesn't live up to the high narrative bar set by Fullbright's Gone Home. Beyond this point, beware of ye olde spoiler dragons.
I was an enormous fan of Gone Home, Fullbright’s previous effort. Released in 2013 during the early part of the story-game boom, its refreshing exploration-based gameplay mechanics allowed the player to slowly enter the Greenbriar family’s world. Through examining family possessions, listening to audio journals, and exploring their lived-in home, you learned Samantha Greenbriar’s deeply moving coming out story. As a closeted 90s punk rock kid, this game was practically made for me.
But most importantly, it took its time. The story moved exactly as fast as it needed to. Playing through the game was like watching a floral blossom timelapse, with equally beautiful results. By the end of the game, I was joy-sobbing at the outcome. Gone Home is one of my favorite short games of all time, so when I heard about Tacoma my expectations were high. Unfortunately, the game didn't live up to my hopes.
Tacoma is set in 2088. You play as Amyitjyoti “Amy” Ferrier, a subcontractor for the Venturis Technologies corporation, tasked with recovering the artificial intelligence computer ODIN from the eponymous, and now evacuated, Tacoma Space Station in high Earth orbit.
ODIN recorded augmented reality simulations of all crew activity. As you explore, you rewatch all the little moments that the crew lived through, fast-forwarding and rewinding to listen to each conversation. This is the core game mechanic that you use to interact with the world and it’s a pleasure to use. It was exciting to see a big group discussion break up and pair off. When I was listening to one conversation, and another character arrived to deliver critical information, I knew I would get to follow them around next and see what they were dealing with before and after. This helped give Tacoma a strong sense of narrative momentum.
Fullbright knew that this mechanic would fall apart without the right voice actors, and they got some of the best in the business. While not all of them are big names, all of them deserve to be. Combined with crisp dialogue, each character is a world unto themselves, rivaling characters from games hundreds of hours longer.
You can also pause the AR playback to hack into characters' AR desktops, read their e-mails, and dig through their belongings. The environmental storytelling from Gone Home works hand in hand with the AR playback game element. In fact, hearing and seeing the characters interact gives you an impetus to investigate further by examing their possessions, whereas in the beginning of Gone Home you spend the first thirty minutes wondering who the heck these people are and why you’re pawing through their stuff.
While there are fewer items in Tacoma, what’s there is lovingly rendered. I felt compelled to examine a large number of Vietnamese coffee drink boxes, whiskey bottles (proudly distilled since 2014!), and on-the-john reading. Yes, I spent an inordinate amount of time checking out each character’s bathroom. From this, I discovered that there is bad pulp fantasy in every world culture. Functional QR codes also appear in many documents, and one contract has some amusingly shitty caveats hiding in their codes.
Unlike other games where all discussion centers around your character, Tacoma allows you to be a fly on the wall. As a result of this design decision, you can see who each character is in public and in private, and the contrast is sometimes stark, especially after you hit the plot’s inciting event.
Disaster and Diversity
Just days ago, space debris struck the Tacoma, destroying its communications array and most of its oxygen supply. With only 50 hours of oxygen left, the crew hatches a plan to use a supply drone to fly to the nearby moon. Complicating matters, this drone was never designed for human passengers and must be retrofitted with radiation shielding and life support. To save oxygen, non-essential crew must be frozen in cryosleep, which is a perilous last resort. If rescuers do not arrive in 72 hours, frozen cremembers will die. The crew responds to the news with varying degrees of fear, despair, anxiety, and courage.
With Gone Home, Fullbright established a reputation for attention to diversity, and that continues in Tacoma. The crewmembers have a wide array of sexual orientations, accents, body types, races, and genders. And this is smart game design since each character is portrayed only by a colored AR wireframe. You’d never mistake svelte Sareh for bulky, butch Roberta, and short and curvy E. V. is fully distinct from tall, skinny Clive. Fullbright knows that the future doesn’t belong exclusively to the impossibly beautiful. Nor does it belong to the exclusively white. The crew members are from around the world, with ethnicities and accents to match. Even the food onboard (yes, I picked up and examined the food) indicates a global palate - curry flavored popcorn, anyone?
All the characters feel like they’re from somewhere, which is fantastic. Science fiction has a tendency to de-racialize characters of color, removing them from their cultural background, and I’m glad Fullbright had the good sense to avoid this tiresome trope.
The game’s romance is also not restricted to straight pairings. Natalie and Roberta are married, and Andrew left a husband and son at home on Earth. The year 2088 is not 1995, and their queerness passes without comment. The world of Tacoma is far from idyllic, but Fullbright believes that at least some things Get Better. The inclusion of these narrative elements help make the world more convincing and realistic - the current world isn’t a monolithic monoculture, and the future shouldn’t be either.
But queerness and brownness is never a stand-in for strong characterization. E. V. is a tough, hard-nosed commander who is inspiring in public and resigned and sad in private. Sareh takes medication for her intense anxiety attacks. Roberta is afraid that she’s slowing down Natalie’s career. Natalie is a spunky, enthusiastic, hard-rocking AI tech and beer fan. Clive likes to get drunk on scotch. Fullbright’s writers know that each human being contains multitudes, and can’t and shouldn’t be simplified down to their gender, race, or sexuality. Each of the characters is fully drawn and well-realized.
And never let it be said that cutting edge graphics are necessary for emotional storytelling. I loved every single one of these characters, and they had less detail than the average N64 character.
A Compelling Story Cut Short
This all sounds terrific, and it is. There is so much to love about this game. But right when it seems to be entering its thrilling second act, it ends. Roberta and Natalie are working on the drone when something explodes, almost killing them both. Now there’s no way out. How would the rest of the crew react to the news? What’s Plan B? Would the crew force Tacoma out of orbit, crashing the whole station into the moon in a bid to survive? Would they launch a plan to repair the communications array via space walk?
It turns out that none of that happens. ODIN has an attack of conscience and allows Sareh to access the computer core where she discovers the entire accident is an evil corporate plot. The comms array was never broken, just deactivated. ODIN turns it back on, Sareh calls for help, and everyone gets off the station alive. Even your character is actually an AI Liberation Front member on a secret mission to rescue ODIN from being erased by Venturis. It’s like we bypassed the bulk of the game and skipped right to the denouement. I was so disappointed when I saw the penultimate scene that I poked around the station for another 15 minutes or so, sure that I had missed something.
As a fan of the “space disaster” movie genre, it feels like the writers left the second act on the cutting room floor. In films like Sunshine, Gravity, and Apollo 13, the first plan always fails, as does the second, and the third. Acts of heroic sacrifice and epic courage lead the way. I loved this crew and wanted to see them endure the impossible and come out the other side stronger and wiser.
What I didn’t want to see was AI ex machina. It’s almost as if the writers couldn’t bear to see their characters suffer. And I can almost understand that. After the drone explosion, Natalie is holding Roberta while she wails in terror about not being able to smell the smoke, afraid that she has some kind of brain damage, and I just wept. I could hardly take it as a player.
But good writers know that you can’t let your characters off the hook. You can’t simultaneously give them the easy way out and the story they deserve. This wasn’t the pleasant “leave them wanting more” feeling that you get after completing a fantastic game. This is the feeling you get when the movie projector breaks down just as the alien shows up or the last escape pod explodes. But instead of a short pause followed by a satisfying conclusion, the usher slaps the popcorn out of your hand and kicks you out of the theatre.
One of the most harrowing plot threads is rendered moot by the conclusion. Midway through the game, Sareh discovers Natalie has a critical genetic defect that makes her death in cryosleep a near certainty. Sareh chooses not to tell her, believing that it’s better for Natalie to die in her sleep than asphyxiate to death on a broken down space station. If any other game or film gave you this information, it would be a sign that Natalie would die flying the drone so everyone else could survive. Or we would get a scene where the crew clustered around her cryopod, anxiously waiting to see if their friend survived. And that would’ve been dramatic and satisfying. But no. She never has to go into cryosleep because ODIN (literally named after a god!) enacts his deus ex machina.
Let me be clear - I don’t care that this game is short. Short is fine by me. As mentioned above, I loved Gone Home. I loved Firewatch and you can beat it in an afternoon. I’m a huge Telltale Games enthusaist. Games, like stories, should only take as much time as they need to. Adding superfluous gameplay only bogs down a good narrative experience. (I spent way too much time searching for bottles in Life Is Strange.) This isn’t an issue of a game being short. This is an issue of squandered promise.
If this story was about an AI struggling with its emerging conscience, it failed. We never saw ODIN grapple with the ramifications of its decision to jettison the oxygen and deactivate the comms array until the literal last moments of the game. If it was about a crew facing the existential sadness of certain death, it bailed them out before they were truly tested. If it was about friends banding together to keep each other alive, it should’ve made their survival contingent upon their actions instead of the will of a benevolent AI god. I have to ask, is this the story the writers wanted to tell? Did Fullbright run out of money? What happened?
This is especially disappointing in light of Gone Home, a game that took its time and gave you a chance to live with its characters. The romantic plot had a real chance to flourish and grow organically and its conclusion is one of the most satisfying I’ve ever had the pleasure of enjoying. I wish I could say the same thing about Tacoma