It’s always tough when you have to try to top your own acclaimed work. In 2013, developers Fullbright released a little adventure game running on the Amnesia engine called Gone Home, which proved to be a massive success whose impressive approach to deep story story and minimalist gameplay ended up influencing the indie game scene even to this day (albeit to the dismay of those who dislike these new breeds of “walking simulators”). Fullbright have another first-person adventure game to finally act as a follow-up, this time ditching the past setting of 1995 for the vast reaches of space in the near future. Can lightning strike twice with a new setting and a different experience or are we looking at a one-trick pony?
Taking place in the year 2088, you play as Amy, a contractor arriving at the Tacoma space station in order to retrieve the data aboard. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the crap has hit the fan on the station due to a recent collision with some debris, and using some augmented reality gear, it’s up to you check out the recordings of the six crew members plus ODIN, Tacoma’s AI, so that you can eventually piece together what happened and achieve your goal in the end. While you can just try to do your job and retrieve the data as efficiently as possible, it turns out that there may be more than a few secrets to uncover as well…
With a cast of only six crew members and a floating artificial intelligence (minus the background characters glimpsed through various documents that provide some world-building), this means that we have a small group of people to work with, but that also means each of them receives a lot more focus. Naturally, you never interact with any of them in person, only glimpsing color-coded semi-wireframe “ghosts” of these people as audio of their conversations plays over their actions, but each person ends up being a fascinating individual in their own way. Some of them have their own demons, be it handling the current crisis or their own issues back on Earth, and some are happily married and trying to remain optimistic, but they all create an interesting lot with great performances behind them to boot. The only exception is Amy, who falls a bit flat due to her only getting characterization at both the beginning and the end.
The way you also view these recordings makes for some fascinating gameplay as well. How it works in Tacoma is that certain areas will allow you to load the crew’s interactions from a certain time, and everything that happened in the area is played back. The catch is that all of the characters don’t just stay in one place, and you can only hear whatever is in earshot, meaning that to move around with the characters as they talk. And with characters coming, going and talking in different sections, you get to rewind and fast forward these segments when needed in order to capture all of the pieces from different angles. The end result isn’t just a mere audio log, but rather a way to vividly experience several different takes on a current dilemma in every way possible, which makes for some captivating stuff.
The same playback also has various markers indicating when you can view various messages and discussions that individual crew members are bringing up on their own AR devices. As mentioned earlier, it’s a neat way to get more world-building in the game, alongside combing every room and crew cabin for various documents, literature, photos and such. It also provides valuable opportunities to get confidential information that may be useful later on…which sadly only happens rarely. True, Tacoma is a game more about experiencing a story rather them solving puzzles (heck, only two parts in the game actually require passwords), but it does feel like it’s under-using a part of its strongest mechanic.
It should also be noted that Tacoma is gorgeous, with the space station being nice and colorful, and a ton of detail put into every bit of space-age architecture and futuristic prop. It even goes the extra mile for little details such as fingerprints revealed on clipboards when placed in the right light or Capri-Sun-style condiment bottle that flop around when examined. It all helps create a world where you can actually see how this small group carved out a genuine home, not just a workplace. The relaxing and enjoyable tunes that get piped in also help, creating the mood of a ceremonious walk among the majesty of the stars, to get a little flowery.
Tacoma does have one major flaw that may drive some away, and that comes with the fact that it’s a narrative-focused first-person adventure game, and thus it has a flaw that’s as common to the genre as it is to atmospheric 2D horror platformers. In fact, it’s been so common lately that I’ve had to resort to describing the flaw in riddle format just to keep any criticisms of it from going stale: “What is the last name of the Canadian actor best known for their roles in films such as Innerspace, Mars Attacks! and Father of the Bride?” And in the time it took you to go to IMDb in order to figure out the answer, you would have already made it through about a fifth of Tacoma.
Of course, it’s the quality of the journey that matters more than the time you spend on it, and as mentioned earlier, Tacoma has enough captivating characters with their own engrossing personal stories to make for an impressive journey, with an overall narrative that leads to a well-earned dramatic reveal…that then sadly leads to an ending that sort of just flounders, meaning this journey’s destination wasn’t exactly its strongest point.
Without giving anything away, Tacoma seems to end on a bit of an anticlimax. Now, Gone Home also ended on an anticlimax, but that was sort of the point. The ending was a massive subversion of everything you believed about that game and what you thought you knew about it, and it’s a big reason why the game still remains highly memorable to this day. Tacoma’s ending is also a subversion, but the problem is that it feels like it really only subverts the stakes created near the end of the game, not so much everything that came before it, and even comes across as a bit of a deus ex machina. It’s basically trying to pull off the same trick as its predecessor, but while it’s still a neat twist, it doesn’t have quite the same impact (a sentence that could arguably be applied to the game as whole, in fact).
Tacoma doesn’t match the excellence of Gone Home in the story department, but nonetheless manages to provide a quick yet engaging adventure. The central mechanic of being able to listen in to several different discussions from a variety of different directions and perspectives makes for something incredibly fun to play with and helps provide insight into a (somewhat literally) colorful cast of memorable characters. It’s an impressive little spacewalk and Fullbright should be proud of this little band of misfits that they created for their titular space station.