Fullbright’s latest outing Tacoma is more focused than their previous entry Gone Home, telling a more traditional story. While the crux of the game is about solving a digital mystery, the introspective and human elements are still the driving force. The result Is a game that plays on genre expectations in unique and thoughtful ways.
The game takes place on Tacoma; a privately-owned, deserted space station. Your job is to piece together the fate of its crew, and recover a highly valuable artificial intelligence. The setup is standard sci-fi fare, but it takes a back-seat to the interpersonal drama of the characters.
As you explore the station, recordings of events will play out in in 3D space, with simplified geometry and primary colours representing the crew. While the characters aren’t afforded many polygons, Fullbright brings them to life with the strength of their writing; their goals, quirks, and shortcomings are all surfaced organically in conversations. That humanity is driven home by their subtle body language, as characters walk and gesture in uniquely identifiable ways.
More than that, these scenes are incredibly complex, and – to my knowledge – the only time we’ve seen something like this in games. Characters share conversations, and then splinter off to other rooms and engage in new talks, before re-joining the original ones. There’s a dynamism here, and it helps elevate the lonely steel corridors of the station into a hive of activity. The characters aren’t plot points; they’re people who worked and lived together.
Thankfully, you don’t feel like a fly on the wall during these dialogues. You can manipulate and scrub through them like a tape recording. Offhand remarks and disparate scenes are given new context, as you peek into the crew’s archives; their chat logs, emails, and browsing history. Following characters will reveal how they interacted with the environment, like inputting a door’s passcode. Tacoma makes you feel like a digital detective, as you trace the threads of a broad social web of relationships and motivations.
But one of the most impressive things about the game is its world building; it’s quirky, and terrifying in its familiarity. Corporations are the government, where proper-noun Loyalty is traded internally to get ahead. Universities are run by eerily-close analogues to companies we see today. Everyone is a contractor, with no fixed position. The presentation surrounding this is confident in its telling too; there are no lengthy dumps of exposition, and you won’t be inundated with technobabble. The personal stories of the characters intertwine with these elements, grounding them and making them easily digestible.
The pessimism of the world doesn’t trickle down to the cast though, and it’s for the best – we’ve seen stories like that in other mediums ad nauseum. Tacoma always reminds you that its characters aren’t extensions of genre tropes. The game also bends a lot of the expectations we’ve seen in these types of stories, which is refreshing. It’s about the bravery and resolve of its crew. It doesn’t fetishize their shortcomings, nor does it make those flaws the fulcrum of their downfall.
Tying this all together is a clean visual style. A lot of the art deco leanings have been trimmed back from the game’s original reveal; it’s still there, but hidden behind the more utilitarian nature of the station. The real standouts are the crew quarters though, which look suitably lived in. The placement of books, food, and knick-knacks tell you more about a character than any amount of expository text ever could.
The intimacy of these micro-environments is brought into stark contrast with the scale of the station. Throughout any of the windows, you can peek out and see the megastructure, with its rolling steel rings. Tacoma is welcoming one moment, and intimidating the next.
On a more technical level, the PC version does have its problems. Having a fight stick plugged in caused my camera to perpetually rotate, while pausing and staying in the main menu would sometimes crash to desktop. If you’re going to step away from your keyboard, I would recommend just letting the game idle.
Tacoma tells a traditional story, but that shouldn’t be taken as a negative. The developer plays on genre expectations, and builds a cast of relatable characters. It celebrates their lives, their experiences, and their shortcomings. It’s embedded in a cynical world, but they use that to explore the hopeful aspects of humanity.
Keith received a digital copy of Tacoma from Fullbright for review.