How do you follow Gone Home?
If Dear Esther revealed the potential of exploration-focused games, Gone Home demonstrated their power. The player experienced discovery and transformation only by surveying the remains of domestic implosion. There was neither a supernatural artifice to drive engagement nor traditional gameplay-driven objectives to obscure and depress a narrative. Gone Home’s singular focus and fearless plot was an inflection point for an entire style of design.
The new problem was time. In the four years since Gone Home’s debut, exploration games have twisted and turned in distant directions. Firewatch juxtaposed close communication with explicit isolation. What Remains of Edith Finch induced flashbacks and embraced superstition. Jazzpunk and The Stanley Parable entwined humor with boundary destruction. With any follow-up, the small team at Fullbright was competing against forward progress in their own field. Where do you go?
To space, obviously. Tacoma takes place in the year 2088 aboard the titular lunar transfer station, Tacoma. You assume the role of Amy Ferrier as she boards the deserted space station to recover on board data and find out what happened to its six missing crew members. Escaping the safety of the planet is a conspicuous removal of boundaries, but every science fiction-fueled bid Tacoma makes is matched by relatable human sympathy and charismatic social benchmarks. Fullbright raises the stakes by elevating their message; a space station just happens to be the ideal vessel.
Tacoma is abandoned, but it isn’t empty. It’s exactly as the crew left it just a few hours before, albeit in the aftermath of catastrophic misfortune and hasty (presumed) evacuation. The place is a mess, as evident by sections in disarray and personal items, notes, and electronic transmissions scattered across its visage. Tacoma, as a vessel, contains room for each crew member’s specialty as well as private quarters for all of their personal effects and interests. It also has a record number of space toilets, which was aesthetically mundane but damn it obeys the basic reality of habitable human space.
The next page is where Tacoma twists to leave its signature. Before boarding the station, Amy attaches an ARdware device to her person. This allows her to view augmented reality and intercept (damaged) recordings made by Tacoma’s on-board artificial intelligence, Odin. Specific moments in time are now accessible, allowing Amy to view a recreation of each crew member’s interactions and activity. Two-to-three minute sequences are orchestrated like puzzle pieces, allowing the player to follow a variety of trails between people and through nearby rooms. You can fast forward, stop, and rewind at will, erasing any opportunity to miss information.
While this mechanic shares a kinship with Dontnod’s work in Remember Me and Life is Strange, its compass is aimed in a different direction. Particular positions in a room reveal distinctive information, pulling the curtain back on interpersonal conflict and challenges unique to each specific crew member. Witnessing it all coalesce across tightly strung narrative is the beating heart of Tacoma. These sequences are also, from a purely technical standpoint, impressive in their operation. It’s a mobile storyline with opt-in participation, and it trusts that its points will be compelling enough for the player to seek out every thread.
With the exception of Amy, character development is reliant on environmental storytelling. Empty space wine bags, synthetic cigarettes, and doomed paper hats signal an abandoned party as easily as internal memos, private correspondence, and the celebrity fascinations of 2088 are beacons of a personal life. Tacoma’s augmented reality sequences intensify this progression, allowing Amy to intercept a crew member’s transmission during specific moments in a playback sequence and look through their messages, photographs, or other personal information.
Open inside of Tacoma’s operation is the clear social progress of 2088. The inclusion of diverse body types, distinctive nationalities, unique names, and open sexual orientation infuses the greater world with optimism and pride. Tacoma doesn’t necessarily go out of its way to showcase these aspects of its characters, but rather assumes them to be normal and operates them in parallel with its own objectives. Character portraits in augmented reality are different and specific colors, but it’s no accident that they also compose a rainbow. Tacoma works in harmoney, and its Roddenberrian approach to the status quo is quietly valuable.
Representation matters, but conflict still seeks to drive the plot. The nature of The Venturis Corporation, the outfit that owns the space station and like half the planet, is Tacoma’s emerging conundrum. An additional layer is added with 2088’s reliance on Odin and its relationship with the missing crew. Tacoma’s depiction of corporate malfeasance doesn’t hit quite as hard as its stance on A.I. engagement, but it’s a suitable vehicle for the wheels necessary to spin the plot.
Brevity may be another point of contention. When I first finished Tacoma, I was taken aback by its three hour runtime. I canvassed the entire station and read every last document, but it felt like an abridged experience. I wanted more of those neat augmented reality sequences, and more opportunities to watch them seamlessly blend together. It’s not that I didn’t want it to be over, but rather expected more connections to Tacoma’s plot and characters.
It was only when I looked at my notes and sat down to write this that I realized how much Tacoma accomplished in its economy. All six crew members (seven if you count Odin) are given a premise, an arc, and a satisfying conclusion. A utopic social vision and apprehensive conglomerate hell are dueling backdrops against a global meditation on the complexion of artificial intelligence. I also know what toothbrushes of the future and contemporary pop idols look like. Tacoma is densely packed with substance across every surface it sees fit to bear.
And that’s all ignoring Tacoma’s gorgeous rendition of a futuristic space station. Its take on science fiction isn’t hard, but it is feasible. Work stations operate with practicality and shudders and shades provides opportunity to gaze at (or ignore) the depth of space. Tacoma is sterile until its playful, heightened by the presence of its crew and the artifacts they left behind. A remote space station is camouflage for logical limitations, but it’s hard not to be impressed its confines.
That attention to detail is also felt inside of character interaction. One particular sequence dragged Andrew Dagyab over a wayward pipe, and much to my surprise he took care to step around it each time. It’s hard to get personality out of faceless, monochromatic models but the strength of Tacoma’s voice work and determined animation make it easy on the player. You don’t have to see their faces to know how they feel.
It’s all a gamble on whether or not players will be able to recognize and appreciate Tacoma’s resourcefulness. The ease of play and the absence of barriers opens accessibility but risks traditional engagement. I get not seeing this as a positive and I don’t think it’s an invalid way to interpret Tacoma’s aspirations. I also don’t believe Tacoma wastes any of its (or your) time, which is a singular achievement in the videogame space of 2017 and especially those that focus on exploration. Tacoma’s purpose and operation isn’t hiding.
Where do you go after Gone Home? To an abandoned space station. Alongside impetuous corporate interests. And in between a curious A.I. Tacoma’s facade floats between charming futurism and abrasive, old-fashioned avarice. This may seem like inhospitable space to explore the depths of benevolence, but the power of identity and humanity are alive and well supported inside of Tacoma’s twirling science fiction architecture.