Sam Brooks reviews the latest from Gone Home hitmaker Fullbright: a meander through an abandoned space station called Tacoma.
If you hated Gone Home, stop reading this now. You’re not good enough for these words and you should go and learn how to get feelings from your videogames like a good honest nerd who also gets feelings from their tabletop games and their comic books. Then come back and read this review, you dead inside corpse-man.
If you loved Gone Home, also stop reading this. You should go play Tacoma right now. Go and live in that game for the two-to-three hours it immerses you in a world and a group of characters that feel real.
If you don’t fall into either of these groups, keep on reading.
The new game from Fullbright, the company who brought you Gone Home, takes that game’s notorious slow-and-deep focus on an empty house and the troubled family unit that lives there, and applies it to a space station in the far-enough future in Tacoma. You play a character who has to investigate what went down at a now-abandoned space station, interfacing with the AI, investigating the quarters and replaying events from the days leading up to it being abandoned.
As you would assume, because this is a video game and a piece of fiction, things are not all they seem on the space station. What the game actually ends up being about is figuring out what everyone on the space station is up to, diving into troubled pasts and even more troubled presents, and slowly piecing together how these particular personalities vacated the station.
More often than not, the gameplay consists of walking around the station, which has a gorgeous design that splits the difference between System Shock’s obvious horror and Mass Effect’s 80s sci-fi homage. You come across scenes and events played out not by actual people but by hazily rendered shapes and full voice-acting, and piece together more information. Sometimes the game throws an easily surpassable roadblock in your way, like a literal locked door. It’s usually as easy as rewinding a scene to find out what code a character put into that door, but it’s enough gameplay to make you feel like there’s a genuine investigation going on and like you’re not just pressing play on a bunch of scenes.
The meat of the game is actually teasing out little details, like medical officer Serah’s anxiety when she’s by herself and her complete brave face for the crew, and the semi-covert relationship between network engineer Nat and mechanical engineer Berta. Calling it character-driven implies there’s sense of momentum behind the game; this is more character-dwelling. Every now and then you get a chance to see what the crew’s personal quarters are like, and these little scenelets end up being the most humanising parts of the entire game, whether it’s the commanding officer EV playing ‘Is That All There Is’ by herself in her room or the upsettingly poetic Andrew trying to get better at video games in his room.
Tacoma isn’t telling a big story, and it’s not trying to. Like much science fiction, it ends up touching on the relationships between humans and AI, and our continued reliance on technology. More interesting, it spends some time on how technology and business intersect, and the humanity that’s lost when that happens.The crew members stuck on the Tacoma are flailing as much against the bureaucracy that kept them there as workers as they are now the shit is going down.
Where the game is most impressive is the details it gives to its characters. In this way it takes a lot of inspiration from its spiritual predecessor, Gone Home. But where Gone Home relied almost entirely on found documents like letters and other little documents, Tacoma gets a lot out of hazy re-enactments of events. A big part of the gameplay is coming upon scenes that slowly advance the plot, like the crew members figuring out what to do in their pretty dire situation
It’s not a perfect game – the pacing of the game is a little bit off and the plot resolves itself in a jarringly similar way that Gone Home did, removing the stakes we’ve been given and tying everything up in a neat bow. But as with Gone Home, the great strength of Tacoma is the way it gives us a cast of characters and a tense situation, and then diving into how these characters respond to that situation.
That seems like damning a game with faint praise, but in a games industry where well-observed characters increasingly feel like they’re far and few between – and believable, engaging plots even rarer – a game like Tacoma is a welcome treat. We’re invested in these characters in the short time we get to spend with them, and they feel enough like real people (or at least approximations of the same) to feel compelling. These are just six people trying to get by at work; they throw parties, they forget their PINs, they hate their corporate bosses.
This relatability is helped along by some of the best voice-acting I’ve heard in a video game in a long time. The way these people talk and interact feels like a group of people who have spent way too long together and knows the ins and outs of each others rhythms. Again, it seems like I’m damning with faint praise, but it’s amazing how many triple-A video games can’t even get this right.
This all speaks well for Fullbright’s future, and it makes me want to see them do a bigger game with this same attention to detail and Real Human Problems™, one with a wider scope and the thematic material that they’ve clearly got the chops to deal with. These two games tap into something unique that video games let us do – allowing us to dig around in somebody’s life and psyche to figure out how they tick. In real life this is reserved for conversations or maybe Facebook stalking, but there’s something gratifying (and maybe also problematic) about turning an investigation into a person’s life – their damage, what makes them tick – into gameplay, even gameplay that is as loosely ‘gamey’ as this one is. It’s what Fullbright does best, and is doing better than anybody else on the market. I have a feeling the Fullbright style will eventually have a profound impact on gaming, helping to change how we engage with video games and the people who inhabit them.
But for now, Tacoma’s a perfectly pleasant and even alarmingly affecting meander through the lives of some relatably complicated people stuck on a damn spaceship, and that’s a beautiful thing.
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