Trapped on a space station 2,000 miles away from Earth with no air supply and no way of calling for help. That’s the premise for The Fullbright Company’s upcoming first-person exploration game Tacoma, and no, it doesn't exactly ooze originality. But this is the studio behind 2013’s Gone Home, a game that used an equally hackneyed setting to subvert gamer’s expectations and deliver an engaging and subtle narrative about people, the passage of time and the hidden stories behind everyday objects. It’d be foolish to think that Tacoma doesn’t have plenty of its own wit and texture hidden in plain sight.
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Here, the tropes come in the form of artificial gravity, an omniscient on-board AI called Odin, and regular nods to a powerful corporation that might be pulling the strings from behind some curtain or sliding metal door. After 15 minutes with Tacoma, it was this aspect that presented itself most strongly. Much as Gone Home convinced me that I was walking onto the set of a suburban home invasion thriller, Tacoma’s setting calls to mind the likes of Silent Running, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Moon - suffice it to say, something wicked this way comes.
Except that wicked something has already been and gone by the time you board the Tacoma lunar transfer station. Your job, as private contractor Amy Ferrier, is to board the station and find what happened to its crew of six. However, rather than combing through household minutiae in order to piece together a story, here your primary investigative tool is a seemingly endless bank of recordings made by Odin of interactions between crew members, all captured as 3D holograms that you can pause, fast-forward and rewind at the press of a button.
The first time I come across this mechanic is in an area of the ship called the Tacoma Dome, an observational area the crew have taken it upon themselves to rebrand as the actual Tacoma Dome in Washington. As I float through the doors I’m confronted by two digital blurs and the option to recover AR data, which turns the static blurs into two distinct characters: E.V. and Sareh. Sareh is blue, tall and slender, while E.V. is shorter, pudgier and purple. They’re discussing their upcoming crew rotation, and whether they’re looking forward to returning home or not, weighing up the conditions the Venturis Corporation has them working in against their ability to somersault through the zero-gravity passages of the Tacoma. It’s touching and relatable, but there’s a sombre edge to it laid on by the fact that it’s being played out by two digital holograms that were living people only three days prior to you coming across them.
I follow the figures down a personal elevator, which serves as a ferry between gravitized and non-gravitized areas of the station, and end up in a conference room overlooking a communal area. Inside E.V. is trying to give her yearly report to Venturis Corporation, but she disappears behind a door while I’m reading her personal emails from the interface she’s pulled up to read her report notes from. Interacting with the door brings up a password panel and it’s immediately clear that all I have to do is rewind the recording and spy the password from where she points her fingers.
My reward is yet more background information, this time from a screen E.V. uses in her office, but before I start digging through the information E.V. and I are interrupted by a tremendous rumble. Real and terrifying for E.V., but appearing only as a digital disturbance to me. She runs out into the communal area where the other five crew members have assembled. What I fail to realise until some minutes later is that I would have stumbled upon a different character’s scene had I wandered into the kitchen instead of the conference room. While I’m mulling that over, grossly distracted by a funny-shaped skillet in the kitchen, over in the atrium all six crew members and Odin are discussing and debating what just happened and what to do about it.
50 hours of breathable air remaining and no external communications seems to be the crux of it, but again I’m too busy reading the personal emails of AI specialist Natali Kuroshenko, who is red, short, and thin, by the way. There’s also a space toilet to examine in great detail, a pantry full of space food to pick up, examine and drop on the floor someplace else, a holographic cat in the conference room that I didn’t get a chance to check up on to see how it reacted to the tremor, and some Obsolescence Day decorations to finish putting up for the absent crew, even if the fictional holiday was three days ago. And what about the lanky, yellow chap standing next to E.V. - what’s his story?
Had the demo not been so tantalisingly short I wouldn’t have pushed on any further, but instead pored over every last detail in that room, both in terms of space and time. That’s a characteristic it shares with Gone Home: every room is a treasure trove of mundane artefacts waiting to be picked through and pieced together. Granted, Tacoma makes certain aspects more literal, bringing its characters to life like actors in a play, but it’s still all about peeling back the public and private profiles of its characters and studying everything from as many perspectives as possible.
Tacoma is gentler and warmer than its sterile setting would have you believe. While it may well happen later on, it’s hard to foresee Odin breaking out its best singing voice for the chorus of Daisy Bell or for a portal to hell to open up a la Event Horizon. The interest and focus here is on the crew of the Tacoma and how they interact with each other and react to the disaster that’s threatening their lives, and there’s scope there for a heart-wrenchingly human tale.
Whether the rest of the game will be as cohesive, smart and engaging as Tacoma’s opening 15 minutes remains to be seen. It’s certainly distinct from Gone Home, but after the impact that seminal slice of walking simulator made on its peers, Tacoma has to be different, and in its setting, mechanics and immediacy it is. Personally, I’m relishing more time aboard the Tacoma to sift through more digital theatre and gawp at all the hilarious space utensils. I just hope that the mysterious catalyst for the ship’s abandonment - if the ship even is abandoned, that is - doesn’t end up stealing the spotlight from the characters who are living, or who lived, that scenario out.
Looking forward to discovering what happened on the Tacoma? Let us know in the comments below.