Picture this. It’s the year 2088 and there’s a problem on board one of Earth’s space stations. You don’t know what has happened (to the station or the crew) but you’ve been paid by the Venturis Corporation to investigate. You step foot on the Lunar Transfer Station Tacoma and you are greeted by total silence. The absolute silence of an empty space station.
This is how Tacoma starts. The protagonist, Amy Ferrier, begins a journey through the station to uncover the truth of what happened here. I won’t get into story spoilers but within the first 10 minutes of exploring the station you realise that some serious drama went down.
As you arrive, you pick up augmented reality (AR) technology that lets you see recordings of the crew that the station’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) has saved. These recordings, which show how the crew moved and acted as well as what they said, allow you to see exactly what happened to the Tacoma crew. They also serve as the main way in which the narrative is guided throughout and will be the image that most people who haven’t played the game are familiar with; different coloured outlines going about their business on the station. They’re exceptionally well done.
These recordings usually last around two minutes and involve the whole crew coming together for a little bit of that time at least. Most of the time different members will break off into couples (or alone) and continue the conversation in private. You need to rewind and fast forward a few times to follow everyone through each recording and get an accurate picture of what has happened.
As well as see recordings of past conversations, your AR also allows you to interact with the AR desktops in each crew member’s office and their personal desktops which they occasionally have open mid-recording. Neither of these are crucial to the main narrative but you become so invested in the lives of these people you’re watching that you feel like you want to snoop to learn more about them. Take Nat and Bert for example, the station’s JOB and JOB who also happened to be romantically involved.
I really wanted to dig into their lives to discover how they met and what they cared about. A little digging and I saw that Nat seemed to have a massive obsession with Rubik’s Cubes (and I assumed from that she is a child of the 80’s) and Bert was passionate about fine art. Not to mention the quirks of their relationship which came through in every scene in which they were together. It takes real skill to portray characters that feel so real and Fullbright should be commended for this.
It’s quite a short game. You’re not likely to spend more than three hours playing it in total. You task is essentially to log all the data on the station by going through the station in a certain order. It’s a little frustrating that you’re guided through the four sections of the station in the order the game wants you to play them – it feels a bit artificial but I can see why it needed to be that way to tell the story. The developers obviously wanted you to witness what happened in the order it happened (for the most part).
Given that you’re witnessing colleagues and friends during a crisis, there are some powerful moments that you get to see. Most of these take place with the individuals in question speaking to Odin, the ship’s AI. Seeing someone breakdown is made even more significant when they’re voicing what would usually be their inner most thoughts out loud to a sentient robot. It’s interesting and shows a grasp of human nature that you don’t often see in games.
Real life is everywhere on the station. As well as offices, you have the crew’s living quarters to explore too. They look (and feel) like they’ve been lived in. Fullbright did such a good job of making the old house in Gone Home feel real and they’ve lost none of their skill here. It feels like this station belonged to these people. So much so that after an hour in the game you’ll spot a mug in a random room and realise who left it there – usually because of the subtle clues that indicate it was a certain person, but sometimes because you just feel like you know who did it.
Even the little jokes left behind don’t feel out of place. For example, the station’s cat is called Margaret Catwood, after the famous Canadian poet Margaret Atwood. To some this might not mean anything but to those who know Atwood they’ll see the developer subtlety pulling at the string of this world they’ve built to mirror the themes of the game. At the same time, it’s not unbelievable that the crew could have called the cat this.
While the game is adept at telling a story, I didn’t feel the ending had the emotional payoff I was expecting. I know it’s unfair, but I can’t help but make a direct comparison to Gone Home, the developer’s first foray into the gameplay as narrative genre (more commonly called Walking Simulators). If I remember the impact Gone Home had on me, especially its spectacular ending, I can’t say that Tacoma had that pay off. Sure, the last 20 minutes or so was exhilarating and I really cared about what happened to the crew, but there was no overwhelming emotional payoff to the whole story. It’s only a shame because the potential was there – it just wasn’t fully capitalised on.
Tacoma looks nice but not fantastic. The graphics engine hasn’t moved along a whole lot since Gone Home and it could look a little sharper. Its style is distinctive – the AR and the recordings likely wouldn’t be confused for any other game but does it stand out? Not a great deal. They’ve clearly tried to make the crew’s personality come out in the music that is played throughout the station too. Music is played through AR speakers with each radio station reflecting the personality of the person that it belongs too. It’s an interesting concept but it doesn’t play out great and I can’t help but few the whole experience would have been improved with no music at all. It would have heightened the sense to loneliness and isolation on Tacoma.
It really saddens me that a game with this much potential was marred by serious technical issues but I can only review what I played. I reviewed Tacoma on Xbox One and there were some major issues which prevented me from enjoying it as much as I should have. The main issue, which I know others have had too, is with the initial screen before you even get into the game. You are told to press ‘A’ to start but the game doesn’t register the press.
To get this to work, I had to sign out of my Xbox account, disconnect the console from the internet, disconnect my Kinect and sign out of the Xbox app on my phone. I then needed to hard restart my Xbox. Only then would the game play. I popped out to the shop around an hour into the game and my controller disconnected to save power and I had the issue again when it asked me to press ‘A’ to reconnect. In addition to this I had near constant screen stutters as the game struggled to run (especially on transfers between parts of the train station). The game was playable, but it required so much work around that it couldn’t help but leave a bad impression on me.