The Fullbright Company, a Portland-based independent studio, was founded by several veterans of Irrational Games who worked on the “Minerva’s Den” DLC for Bioshock 2. Fullbright tends to make well-written, richly imagined games where you explore a detailed story at your own pace, by piecing things together from what’s been left behind.
Fullbright’s games are immersive and interesting — but they’re usually over in just an hour or two. That brevity was a problem for me with their debut title, 2013’s Gone Home, which is arguably a landmark of the medium for what it did with interactive storytelling — but which is, at most, half an evening’s entertainment. (Unless you plan to go online and argue about whether or not it’s a game at all, in which case it’s good for a lifetime.) That’s a hard pill to swallow for a base price of $20.
Tacoma, which is now available for the PlayStation 4, is in much the same vein as Gone Home, but features a story with a much greater scope, and a broader cast.
It’s 2088, humanity is slowly spreading off-planet, and you play as Amy, a subcontractor for the Venturis Corp. You’ve been hired to visit the abandoned space station Tacoma in order to retrieve its onboard AI. For some reason, three days ago, all human contact with the six-person crew of the Tacoma ceased, and while you’re waiting for your notebook computer to download the files you need, you’re gently encouraged to explore the station and see if you can figure out what happened to the crew. Or, if you’d prefer, you can stand there and watch a progress bar increment for about 30 minutes in real time. Why not solve a mystery instead?
Tacoma is another entry in the “walking simulator” sub-genre of adventure games, in that it doesn’t really feature anything that can be considered a traditional challenge. There’s no way to die or achieve a failure state, and the closest thing to an obstacle is in figuring out how to open the handful of locked doors, lockers, and compartments scattered throughout the station, only one of which is actually required to reach the end of the story. The only skills that it tests are your persistence, patience, and attention to detail.
The rest of the game is texture: insight into the crew members’ lives, context for the setting, the weird little minutiae of human existence. A lot of thought has been put into what a near-future space station would look like, extrapolating it from current politics (most of North America seems to have split into co-existing confederations, with Washington joining up with part of Canada into the nation of Cascadia) and technology (the station derives much of its food supply from cloning vats, and you can pick up cans of cat food that proudly advertise they’re made from “animal-free meat”).
You do most of your information-gathering via the use of augmented reality, as the station is built to run off of it; text is automatically translated, buttons light up as you draw near, and the station’s security has automatically recorded its inhabitants’ lives with no particular thought given to their privacy. You can eavesdrop on their conversations via stored AR recordings, which play back in real time, depicting each character as a wireframe dummy and a distinctive voice.
There’s some suspense to be had in Tacoma, as you puzzle out what happened to the station members and where they might have gone, and that gently pulled me along to the end. There’s no attached sense of urgency, however, as everything was done and over long before Amy arrived. You’re free to explore, play with the station’s toys, shoot hoops in zero gravity, throw darts, and invade the crew’s privacy, all at your own pace.
The station has a real sense of place to it, complete with private jokes, messy offices, feuds over video game scores, and closely guarded personal secrets. There’s a peculiar alternate history to be gradually unlocked from context here, and several scenes gain a brand-new feel once you find some of the harder-to-reach bits of context.
All that having been said, even if you take your time, take things in, get all the trophies (some of which are somewhat elaborate), and unlock every door on the station, Tacoma is, at most, three hours long. The ending sneaks up on you right when it begins to feel like the plot is picking up steam, and while it has some pretty impressive twists in that last half-hour, it’s not something that rewards multiple runs through the game.
Also, like Gone Home before it, this is more of an easy interactive mystery than anything else, and anyone can complete it with enough patience. In fact, you can apparently complete Tacoma by standing in the entryway for nine hours and doing absolutely nothing. The journey isn’t just the destination here; it’s all that this game has to offer.
If you’re looking for a game to play with kids, or a gateway title for an older relative, Tacoma wouldn’t be a bad pick. There’s some profanity, but no real violence, and I could see even little kids having fun by running around in-game making a mess. It’s also an interesting world to spend some time in, just based on the occasional information you gain about life in Tacoma‘s version of 2088, and there’s a lot to be gained from it in terms of neat tricks in establishing a game narrative.
This is very much worth your time, but I don’t think it’s worth $20. I’d like to see Fullbright turn the same attention to detail and emotional storytelling to a more manipulable narrative, one where the player can make meaningful choices or affect the final outcome, to give their games more in the way of length, depth, and replay value. There’s nothing else quite like Tacoma on the market, but it’s way too short of a ride.