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No games do dialogue like Tacoma, but they really should

Tacoma dialogue

Character 1: Dialogue in games tends to be straightforward. Not necessarily in structure or ideas, but in the way it comes out: one character talking until they’ve fully expressed a thought, and then passing the baton to another. 

Character 2: That’s right. If somebody interrupts them, it’s generally a sign that a line has triggered at the wrong time, or…

Character 1: Or that the player has gotten bored and skipped ahead. 

Character 2: Exactly. Outside of the ambitious ensemble recordings of Uncharted, a conversation you hear in a game is probably pieced together from separately recorded voiceover sessions. 

Character 1: I agree. It’s an unbroken, unnatural back-and-forth.

Related: I accidentally pitched Fullbright a truly terrible Gone Home sequel.

Aaaand scene. People don’t talk like this in real life, nor do they in Tacoma. It’s profoundly refreshing. In Fullbright’s newly-released narrative adventure, you explore an empty space station with the help of a digital surveillance system, which has tracked and recorded all the pivotal moments from the ostensibly absent crew’s journey.

You can play back, rewind, and fast-forward conversations, people-watching via augmented reality approximations of the crew as they go about their business. It’s almost like taking in a performance capture session, except that here you can pass through the environment in four dimensions, observing the scene from different angles and different moments in order to build a fuller picture of events.

“We have mechanics that allow you to focus on one person in these scenes, turn back the clock, and then focus on another one,” Fullbright writer and designer Steve Gaynor tells us. “We can have all these overlaps in structure like you would encounter in real life – the player can focus on things in the order that interests them. That’s what we’re trying to do with Tacoma.”

Tacoma conversation

There’s a reason the naturalistic dialogue in Tacoma isn’t common. Where Tacoma casts us as a voyeur, looking on as others drive its story forward, most games make the player the protagonist and focus on them.

“If you’re making a cutscene that has one perspective, or if you’re hearing characters talking over the radio, it kind of has to have an order,” Gaynor says. “It has to be more traditionally structured. I admire the scenes in movies where people are talking over one another, and it feels real. But in a lot of media, it’s really hard to represent, because it just turns into noise.”

Often, it’s impossible to take in everything that’s being said in a given time period aboard Tacoma’s space station. Piecing together the plot involves processing that information piece by piece, just as you might have rifled through the dense family library in Fullbright’s previous game, Gone Home. It’s the soap opera reimagined as an archeological dig – and writing it has been a learning experience, even for a team with BioShock credits.

Tacoma Steam

“It was a cool, interesting challenge,” Gaynor says. “We can say, ‘This character’s in the office, this character’s in the pool, this character’s over here, and they all need to end up in the same place’. You’re making a bunch of smaller scenes that all have to stay on the same timeline and meet at the right time.

“We’ve never written stuff that was built that way before. Honestly, I don’t think many people have. It’s a pretty weird set of constraints. It’s cool to see all this come together in these major scenes.”

With a writing process so reliant on meticulous planning and good spatial awareness, you might suspect that Fullbright could write a great murder mystery. In fact Gaynor cites Clue, the ‘80s Hollywood adaptation of the classic board game, as another story where events happen in parallel off-screen. But Tacoma is perhaps most reminiscent of M.A.S.H., the movie that Robert Altman shot in wide frame and recorded with hidden radio mics to enable overlapping dialogue.

Tacoma PC

Like Fullbright, Altman recorded the sounds and images of his subjects while resisting the urge to steer the camera – a technique that has been compared to both voyeurism and history painting. In Tacoma, it has allowed Fullbright to give their characters a little more breathing room, despite their predicament on board a lunar transfer station. All that game dialogue needed to feel real, it turns out, was a bit of space.