Tacoma does not exist in a vacuum. It is about an investigation in the vacuum of space, but it is also a game that takes place late in the timeline of so-called walking simulators. That is an important consideration because it both makes the more esoteric bits feel far more refreshing and frustrating, though it is nearly always fascinating to behold.
Much in the same vein of Fullbright’s premiere (and overwhelmingly influential) game Gone Home, Tacoma puts you in the shoes of a young woman exploring an abandoned space to figure out just what happened. In this case, you are Amy Ferris, a contractor hired in the year 2088 to explore the Tacoma space station and assemble the crew’s logs to find out where they went. It’s a great foundation to once more throw you into solitary confinement, surrounded by the words and consequences of others.
Amy has some tech that makes it a bit more interesting than in other forensic narratives, though. With the help of an onboard artificial intelligence and an augmented reality system, Amy is able to rewind and watch in real time the conversations of the station’s crew as well as indulge in the more classic voyeurism of reading chat logs and emails. It’s a strange and sumptuous experience, taking on the role, in a sense, of a ghost simply observing other ghosts.
It’s a neat mix-up of more traditional storytelling in these sorts of games. These conversations and observations often happen simultaneously with other ones. You can enter a room and wind up bopping between three distinct chunks of interpersonal and singular intent, giving you a more immediate understanding of moment-to-moment timelines and leaving the grander sorting to your own brain.
This mechanic further pushes back against convention (the same convention that Fullbright cemented four years ago) in that it’s not always about collecting clues in these moments. In fact, it rarely is. Trained instinct would have you believe that every word is imperative in leading you to the next conclusion like in Her Story, but it’s more like it’s a single continuous and unbroken story.
As with the best stories, worlds exist without the narrative, and you are getting more and more of the world with each vignette, even if you are not getting more and more of the plot as well. It’s fascinating in the way that you are an outside observer to the notion that you are not always the hero of the story. These people are not always altogether the center of the game just as you as a person are not the center of the world at all times.
This can end up being a bit frustrating, however, in that some parts of the game can feel meandering and misguided, even as you relinquish the impulse to constantly rewind and obsessively analyze each conversation. And regardless of what you glean from the talking, you almost always make up for the most notable gaps by reading logs and whatnot. The game even aids you in discerning as much by color-coordinating the playback timeline.
But that aid itself can also be an impediment. Some of the more criminal scenes are protracted to a paralyzing degree, making the search for the AR avatar the color popup is indicating something more akin to a needle in a hollow, empty haystack. Worse yet, these hunts sometimes resulted in fruitless bounties, failing to build both the story and the characters, leaving you with a desire to just move on.
As a consequence, this left the game feeling at odds with itself. This is a forensic narrative that finally isn’t a completely solitary experience, occasionally fooling you in believing you are chumming it up with these crewmembers rather that merely observing. But because of the empty feeling you get from some of these scenes and investigations, the game also comes across as somewhat antisocial, as if it were keeping you away from the real truth of the matter.
The parts that do work, however, work splendidly. The diversity of the crew is remarkable and memorable as each of their unique layers and folds blend into one another to construct a terrific tableau. And when the game combined these character facets with larger story beats, it is at its undeniable best. The station medic Sareh Hadmadi talking with the station’s AI is incredible, as is the botanist Andrew Dagyab’s reasons for undertaking this risky endeavour.
The game tries to barrel towards the end as most of its genre tend to do, attempting to add momentum and urgency to the heap as the conclusion begins to unveil itself. But it may have stretched itself a bit too thin with the broader reach of a whole crew’s worth of desires and feelings rather than following a single thread that weaves itself through other people’s lives.
The bits that wrap up successfully are overwhelmingly impactful by the end, but the parts that are left hanging are substantially nagging rather than pleasantly enigmatic. There is, however, another wayward suspicion upon completion that a second playthrough will be an additive experience, and it’s something I fully intend to go through with. As it stands, though, Tacoma is a refreshing game of its ilk that manages to both grab and bore in new ways while still trading in Fullbright’s now trademark ability to make people the star of the game.
+ Subverts aspects of the walking simulator genre wonderfully
+ Builds some terrific characters and plot moments
+ Smaller, quiet moments are tremendously impactful
– Fails to infuse some components with purpose
– Leaves certain threads hanging in unsatisfying ways
Final Score: 8 out of 10
Game Review: Tacoma
Release: August 2, 2017
Available Platforms: Xbox One, PC, macOS, Linux