Like Gone Home before it, Tacoma’s intriguing setting and compelling storytelling largely supersede its relatively light gameplay. Fullbright’s sophomore outing trades the nostalgia of the 1990s for a fascinating, mildly unsettling, near-future space setting. As a lone contractor, mega corporation Venturis hires you to visit the deserted space station Tacoma to retrieve the ship's AI, ODIN. But the intrigue in that task pales in comparison to learning the captivating stories of Tacoma’s distressed crew, who disappeared after an accident. Tacoma’s mission doesn’t always fire on all cylinders, but its highpoints in characterization help carry it to the moon and back.
Tacoma’s story unfolds by watching decrypted scenes of the team recorded using augmented reality. A simple polygonal model represents each person. Think of it like watching a holographic ghost, with characters distinguished by designated colors and physiques to compensate for a lack of physical details. The age of recordings range from a few days old to several months or even a year. Witnessing past celebrations, emotional turmoils, and intimate moments stirred up emotions ranging from optimism, foreboding, and, at times, even voyeurism.
These genuine feelings stemmed from the well-written dialogue and stellar voice performances from the likes of Carl Lumbly (Alias, Justice League) and Greg Chun (Overwatch, Nier: Automata). Tacoma’s crew feel like actual, relatable people trapped in a horrific situation, not just NPC’s spouting lines. Connecting players to each team member are the familiar personal burdens each carry: Tragic personal losses; the pressures of appeasing a high and mighty family; coping with professional failures; long distance parenthood. The ways those stresses influence their responses to the larger situation feels logical and nuanced, as do the emotional interactions between characters.
The sympathy and endearment these performances generate act as the driving force behind exploring every inch of Tacoma. You don’t need to see and hear everything to finish the game but I wanted to. I felt compelled to read every email and pick up every object in the hopes it would shed more light on these people. Before long, my motives shifted from a purely objective curiosity to legitimately hoping the crew had survived their predicament. That emotional connection also adds weight to the otherwise predictable and well-worn revelation about the nature of the disaster.
Tacoma’s alien setting makes picking up garbage feel more worthwhile than it did in Gone Home. I lived through the 90’s, so I inspected objects in that game primarily for nostalgia. With Tacoma, Fullbright presents an almost eerily plausible future with unique ideas such as corporate loyalty becoming a form of spendable currency. AI’s advanced enough to pen their own autobiographies (seriously) are trusted to oversee major operations like hospitals and residential blocks, guiding and advising the humans within. This future is both exciting and terrifying, but you’ll miss out on much of it by ignoring the random junk around you. I enjoyed having an incentive to rummage through trash bins.
From a gameplay standpoint, recordings have a neat investigative quality due to a rewind and fast-forward mechanic. Replaying scenes to catch important details reminded me of combing through videos in the indie hit Her Story, especially using older conversations to add context to more recent ones. I would have liked for recordings to demand a little more deductive skills in gathering info, but I get that Tacoma wants to tell a story and not hang players up on puzzles. On that note, problem-solving in general never comes close complicated; you’re typically just looking for codes to open doors. Even still, Tacoma offers more active involvement than its predecessor, and that’s ultimately a good thing.
In a nice touch of realism, several recordings feature multiple conversations occurring simultaneously in different areas. Additionally, characters may enter or exit discussions in progress. Thus, replaying scenes multiple times and following different team members around is a must if you want to experience the full narrative scope. A fun nosiness comes from watching a scene, seeing someone walk away, then replaying the scene again and following that person to see what they’re up to. Overall, this conversation system feels like a cool and smart spin on interactive cutscenes, especially for this genre.
Tacoma possesses more complicated gameplay than Gone Home, but you still wouldn’t be off-base if you said it only consisted of walking around and eavesdropping on NPC’s. While that might seem shallow, the wonderfully written characters bring value to that experience. Tacoma largely succeeds in presenting a fascinating world worth exploring, backed by novel storytelling mechanics. Your stay is brief, but once you get to know Tacoma’s crew, you’ll be glad you stepped aboard.
Tacoma was reviewed on Xbox One and is also available now for PC.