Discover what happened to the crew of an offline space station.
PC Release: August 2, 2017
By Ian Coppock
At first glance, Tacoma‘s premise of investigating the whereabouts of a missing space crew doesn’t sound novel for a sci-fi narrative. Hell, how many dozens of other video games begin with the protagonist following up on a distress signal? Even though Tacoma‘s starting point sounds as pedestrian as can be for a science fiction story, that doesn’t mean that the game should be overlooked. A studio that picks a common story starting point can still breathe fresh life into the concept by changing its conventions. Tacoma is many things, but conventional is not one of them.
Tacoma is the sophomore effort of Fullbright, an Oregon-based studio that debuted onto the indie scene with 2014’s Gone Home. Gone Home remains one of gaming’s most polarizing titles (both for its design and its taboo subject matter), but Fullbright still succeeded in creating an alluring mystery game. Gone Home had a strong atmosphere, masterful voice acting, and is arguably the most refined “walking simulator” on the market.
Fullbright has built upon what it innovated with Gone Home in its production of Tacoma. Like its predecessor, Tacoma is much more focused on story and atmosphere than action, and also prioritizes letting players explore every nook and cranny of the game world (kleptos take note). Unlike Gone Home, Tacoma is also more focused on science fiction than nostalgia (what with its rather conspicuous, super-cool space station) but is no less adamant in its attempts to evoke emotions from the player.
Tacoma begins when player character Amy Ferrier arrives to the titular space station Tacoma to investigate the whereabouts of its crew… all of whom seem to be missing. Her main objective is to explore Tacoma and retrieve the brain of ODIN, the station’s resident AI. Because ODIN doesn’t really feel like talking to strangers, the only way for Amy to find out what happened to Tacoma’s crew is to look for clues in each of the station’s modules.
At first glance, players could be forgiven for labeling Tacoma as “Gone Home in Space.” Like Gone Home, Tacoma begins with the player character arriving to a new location and discovering that its usual inhabitants are missing. Like Gone Home, it’s up to the protagonist of Tacoma to explore her surroundings in a particular order and piece together the story of why no one’s around. For all of the visual difference afforded by Tacoma‘s shift to space, the Fullbright formula is still at this title’s heart.
Amy’s main means of Sherlocking around the station are to tap into its surveillance tools and listen to recorded conversations. Most rooms on the station allow players to see a past conversation between Tacoma’s crew and pause, rewind, or fast-forward the chatter as necessary. Amy can also hack into each crew member’s holo-smartphone device to retrieve documents and private messages. Once Amy’s gathered as many past conversations as she can find, players can move on to Tacoma’s next module.
The conversation tool is a neat little novelty for witnessing past interactions. Crew members show up in the tool’s viewfinder as neon mannequins, and players can find out what they need to know by following them around and listening in. Sometimes players will need to witness several conversations happening simultaneously. The only drawback to this mechanic is that because Amy is apparently deaf in one ear, any character she’s listening to will immediately mute if she’s not right behind them.
Tacoma‘s voice acting is legendary. As with Gone Home, Fullbright succeeded in finding some top-notch voice talent for each of the game’s characters. Between the game’s voice acting and its solid character writing, each of the station’s six characters feel quite human (despite showing up in Amy’s viewfinder as glowing golems). Players who also feel like doing a little gray hat gumshoe-ing can learn the secrets, hopes, and fears that each character hides behind their high-tech veneer. The Tacoma’s crew is not video gaming’s first space crew, but it’s an especially lovable bunch of humans.
The one voice acting decision that’s surprising about Tacoma is how the game uses the talents of Sarah Grayson, who returned from voicing Sam in Gone Home to lend her voice to Amy in Tacoma. Unfortunately, she gets, like… three lines of dialogue in the entire game. Perhaps that’s all she wanted to do or had time for, but it’s a shame that the actress who delivered such a tear-jerking performance in Gone Home didn’t get more audio time in Tacoma. Oh well. Good thing the rest of the cast is still stellar.
Besides listening in on conversations between space ghosts, the other leg of Tacoma‘s gameplay is good ole’ rifling through drawers and reading embarrassing anecdotes from personal diaries (y’know, the usual for mystery games). Tacoma is not the biggest space station in the galaxy, but each of its environments are flooded with interactive objects and hidden notes. Tacoma borrows Gone Home‘s item mechanic of being able to examine an item and then let it snap back to its resting place, rather than having to throw it and hope that it doesn’t break a lamp. Item physics; who needs ’em?
Each environment in Tacoma is also replete with bright colors and well-honed textures. The game looks sharp and sleek; not just because it’s a space station, but also because Fullbright successfully leverages contrast and gorgeous lighting. The game’s level design is the International Space Station on steroids; sure, there are some constricting corridors, but players can also explore neatly packed complexes of offices, living quarters, and even a tea garden. For all the talk that’s been made of Fullbright borrowing from Gone Home for this game, the studio succeeds in leveling up its level design.
Tacoma looks nice and its level design makes for a fluid package that no player will get lost in… but the options menu underlying all of that niceness could stand some fleshing out. There are some token options for resolution and graphical fidelity, but they make the error of tying several visual elements together under one option. These options don’t stop players from having a backup plan in case Tacoma doesn’t run, but they may also experience the occasional crash while playing the game; especially during the transitions between modules.
Crashes and limited options are about all that can be said against Tacoma‘s performance on PC, though. The game runs well. It keeps an even-keeled framerate and its module transitions (conspicuous as they may be) are pretty quick. Hopefully Fullbright has been quick to patch any other issues that have come up; the company has been active on Tacoma‘s Steam community page and worked diligently to bring the title to Linux (rejoice, Linux Ultra Race).
Between Tacoma‘s dialogue design and its strong emphasis on exploration, the game is an exemplar of what Fullbright calls “environmental storytelling.” Rather than playing an active role in the narrative, players get to explore its aftermath and piece together their own conclusions from the many clues strewn about. It’s a design style that initially flies in the face of the idea that players are at the heart of video game narratives, but ends up still letting them be a part of the story after the bulk of it has played out.
This style of storytelling doesn’t suit all tastes. It can invoke the feeling that the player is just a passive observer rather than the driver of the story. Something to consider, though, is that players can still piece together a played-out story at their own pace, which can alter what conclusions are drawn about the narrative. Besides, especially in the case of Tacoma… who’s to say that the entire story has already played out by the time Amy’s arrived? The narrative certainly doesn’t hurt for emotional weight, either.
Because of its ambitious voice acting, believable character development, and preference for environmental storytelling, Tacoma successfully shakes up the distress call trope endemic to so many other games. It stands out from its sci-fi peers because players still get to make their own conclusions about the narrative even though they’re arriving after the bulk of it has already played out. Tacoma‘s storytelling style also lends it a thick mystery atmosphere, one that players everywhere would be remiss to not try for themselves.
You can buy Tacoma here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.