Review: Tacoma

August 9, 2017

Fullbright’s landmark 2013 title Gone Home was essentially a ghost story. The abandoned house you explored may not have been haunted by vengeful spirits, but phantoms of the past clung to every surface like cobwebs.

Despite a geographical shift from Portland, Oregon to a space-station orbiting the moon, the basic premise of the developer’s new game remains the same: your role is to uncover the secrets of the past through what’s been left behind.

You play as Amy Ferrier, an engineering contractor sent to retrieve data logs from a now-deserted satellite. She’s under strict orders not to poke around too much, but that’s a tall order when the space station Tacoma is filled with decaying remnants of recent history, shadows cast by the station’s partially-deleted monitoring system, which take the form of shimmering holograms. Every conversation between crew members, every clandestine embrace, every sly cigarette, has been logged in three dimensions, and Amy can play through them at will, scrubbing back and forth through these strangers’ lives.

Fullbright is a vocal cheerleader for immersive theatre, particularly the work of British company Punchdrunk, and the influence on Tacoma is clear. The fractured story unspools regardless of whether the player is there to see it. Characters momentarily interact before scattering in different directions, making you choose which ones to follow. The difference here is you can then rewind the events and follow a divergent path, slowly building up a tapestry of life aboard the station.

And as in a theatrical production, your role is to witness rather than influence. The linear story merges well-worn sci-fi tropes – the nefarious company from Alien, the dubious AI from 2001 – with engaging personal stories, where worries about bad investments and tuition fees take up as much brain-space as mid-air collisions and dwindling oxygen supplies.

Like Gone Home, Tacoma is filled with narrative feints and tonal red herrings, forever building up expectations before knocking them back down. But for a game that clocks in at under three hours, featuring six main characters is a little ambitious, and I didn’t feel particularly invested in any of them. Put it this way: had I glanced out of the station window into the infinite void of space and seen six lifeless corpses drifting by, I wouldn’t have shed a tear.

In terms of visuals, Tacoma is pretty but not exactly breathtaking. The space-station, so often visited in popular culture, feels a little clinical despite the thick spread of knick-knacks and missives. The view outside, meanwhile, is notably more prosaic than in titles such as Prey and Alien: Isolation (those games, of course, had far bigger budgets). There are, however, nice little touches, like the tactile way Amy clicks her space-boots into the lift that whizzes her from the zero-gravity hub of the ship to its various zones.

Tacoma’s biggest success is its novel story-telling mechanic. It brings to mind Event[0], another sci-fi title set aboard an AI-controlled space station, which featured a similarly intriguing conceit: the ability to talk to the resident super computer using typed commands (it’s essentially a chatbot). Both concepts are ripe for poaching by a bigger studio able to integrate them into something broader, but begin to feel the strain as a primary gameplay mechanic.

As a narrative experiment, Tacoma is fascinating, perhaps even a glimpse of things to come, but taken in isolation, its successes are fleeting, and it never quite emerges from the long shadow of its predecessor.

First published in City A.M.