Release Date: August 2nd, 2017
Platform (PC, Games Galaxy)
The first sights you gaze upon when starting Tacoma are the vast emptiness of space, a tiny earth in the distance, and a massive space station. Everything is quiet, peaceful, and beautiful as your AI instructs you on docking your ship into the space station Tacoma. Everything about this experience feels like every space odyssey slash sci-fi media mixed together in harmony. It’s like 2001, Battlestar Galactica, and Alien combined. Everything looks so new and hardly touched while ghostly and digitally generated figures wander the halls. Space travel has always been a fascination of mine. Floating up above the earth and to look down at the deserts and ice caps at once is dreamy to me, but to others, it’s a terrifying isolating nightmare. You float through the empty ship effortlessly taking in the solitary renderings around you, ready to find out the unfolding tragedy of Tacoma.
Tacoma is the follow up to Gone Home, a game developed by the Portland, Oregon based company Fulbright, hence all the Pacific Northwest allusions in both games. Gone Home was considered a breakthrough in narrative-based indie games, by having the player piece together the plot by exploring their surroundings. Tacoma follows this same narrative structure, by dropping the player on the station Tacoma and having them explore and watch their surroundings to figure out the story at their own pace. Whereas in Gone Home, you mostly follow just one character’s story, in Tacoma, you follow six lively, distinct, and totally different character archetypes. Where you begin your story, who you choose to follow first or listen to first, can totally change the way you view the game.
Tacoma is set in the nearish future of 2088. You play as space contractor Amy who is investigating the abandoned space station Tacoma just outside of earth. Amy’s mission is to collect and sort-of data mine the various parts of Tacoma in order to piece together what exactly happened, and what the crew did about it. You float your way to different parts of the station, while the station’s AI, ODIN, tracks your every move. ODIN has been tracking the moves of every crew member actually, and part of your mission is to replay and watch the moments captured. They can come in the forms of just people working, but also really intimate and personal moments that should be left private. Regardless, ODIN tracks everything everybody does, and you’re just the voyeuristic investigator.
The premise of the game is actually really similar to a popular New York play by PunchDrunk Theatre Company called Sleep No More. PunchDrunk adapted Shakespeare’s Macbeth into a full blown 100 plus room five story hotel. The play is happening all at once over the course of three hours and the audience has the free will to follow whatever characters they choose to follow, and also has the freedom to do whatever they like within the massive building, which can include rifling through the character’s things, to eating their food, to even putting on Lady Macbeth’s clothes, which someone I know actually did. Tacoma follows this concept, but from a video game perspective. You’re free to wander around the space station, pick up and rifle through the character’s things. The cool part about this concept is that you’re free to control how you see the scenes and to rewind, stop and fast forward them. You can see things from just 2 days ago, or up to a year ago when the crew first set foot in the station. Playing Tacoma you feel like you’re directing your own movie. You can move the camera to where you see fit, and I often found myself at times angling myself in a cinematic way to get what I needed out of the scenes.
You can choose to sort through as much or as little information as you want in Tacoma. Each character has a backlog of information about them that you can choose to flip through in order to figure out all the information about their lives on Earth and before they worked on Tacoma. These included files such as chat logs with friends or family, emails, order confirmation emails etc… like anything, you would find on anyone’s personal computer today. You piece together the implied pieces of detail to gather what somebody really looks like, how they act, what they fear, what they love, and what they dream about. It can teeter between feeling distantly observational and heartbreaking. The game is truly built for those of us gamers who like to wander around aimlessly in a sandbox environment and dig into every bit of information you can find about a character.
An important thing to note about Tacoma is that it does not have a plot, but rather has a story that the player views. I went into the ship thinking some horrible tragedy happened and it is my sole duty to figure that out, but over the course of the game, I sadly figured out that’s not the player’s purpose. The player’s purpose is to observe, which in the end, causes a lack of tension. For the majority of the game, because I had chosen to follow around certain characters, I was convinced someone in the crew sabotaged the station. I figured if I could gather enough evidence about said person, I could actually figure out what happened to Tacoma. But in the end, it ended up being a figment of my imagination. Such conflict never existed.
This story element exists in Gone Home as well, but I feel overall that it worked much better in Gone Home than in Tacoma. In Tacoma, the story is set up to seem like there’s some huge conflict going on, but looking in on their stories from an outsider’s perspective, it never affects the player. Because of the voyeuristic nature of the game, it can frankly get boring towards the end because of pacing and the lack of direct conflict. This idea worked really well in Gone Home, but in Tacoma, a bigger and more concept heavy game, it doesn’t pay off and just falls flat.
In addition to falling a bit flat, Tacoma felt like it had a lack of content. This might just be me, somebody who liked to extensively explore a place, but being contained in maybe one or two rooms within each “level” of Tacoma felt like too little content. The end parts of the game actually felt like the middle of the game, even though I was three hours deep, I felt like I should have had another three hours to go. I wanted more from these amazing and interesting characters, and I just felt I got to the tip of the iceberg about their lives and their conflicts working in Tacoma. I wanted a payoff for what I learned about these characters, and the time I spent digging through their files, their lives, but I never did. As in other narrative adventure games, I expected that my want to understand all of these characters would be satisfied with my detailed playthrough. The ending wasn’t satisfying, but that doesn’t mean the overall gaming experience wasn’t either. The quiet moments, when you’re just watching one character in their own little space is what is seared into my memory.
It’s hard not to think of Tacoma as a game or even a narrative piece, but the truth is that Tacoma is an interactive experience. It might not reward you in the same ways as other games, or books, or even plays. It’s a different kind of medium, where you get out of it what you put into it. I still absolutely recommend playing it just for the experience. The game is something entirely new and could inspire a whole different style of gaming for the future. But gazing at the tiny Earth from a window in Tacoma as the ghostly images of the lost crew linger, looking at the same Earth, there’s something profound in those tiny moments.