Reach for the sky.
Reviewed on Xbox One
For anyone who knows me, it’s no secret that one of my favorite games of all time is Gone Home. Although branded as a “walking simulator”, and highly criticized by gamers the world over, Fullbright delivered a story that was more emotionally compelling than most movies I’ve seen. This is a game that moved to tears; its breezy two-hour runtime packed with surprises, revelations and fond memories. Fast forward to present day, and we have finally been graced by Fullbright’s latest release, Tacoma. While not as deep and emotional as Gone Home was, Tacoma utilizes a new gameplay system which spices up its narrative and provides a unique take on the “walking sim” genre.
Tacoma tells the story of six astronauts whose space station runs out of oxygen, forcing them to work together and find a means to escape. Their struggles are witnessed by Amy Ferrier, the player character, who makes her way through the abandoned space station while collecting data. With the help of an AI program named ODIN, Amy is able to relive the crew’s interactions with each other in real time. Not much is known about Amy and not much is ever actually revealed. This parallels Katie Greenbriar from Gone Home, who you play as but barely know anything about. Once again, Fullbright’s narrative is deeply rooted in the NPCs, and it is up to the player to uncover their story.
Fortunately, the non-playable characters of Tacoma are incredibly likable and easily distinguishable—each of the six astronauts are represented by their own color, while every one of them has their own individual backstory and characteristics. My personal favorites were Natali Kuroshenko, the headstrong network specialist signified in red, and Andrew Dagyab, the straightforward-thinking botanist in blue. Both of these characters are struggling with their dedication to the mission and concerned with getting home safely, and are both attempting to hold on to their respective relationships. Andrew has his husband and son back at home, while Nat works alongside her wife, Roberta.
The non-playable characters of Tacoma are incredibly likable and easily distinguishable.
Note how both characters are in homosexual relationships, a quality which now seems to be a Fullbright staple. While at first, it seemed like a bit of diversity overload, I quickly realized that none of it matters in this game. The use of homosexuality in Tacoma is not there to set it apart from the crowd or to press any kind of agenda. In fact, the storytelling is so good on its own that the game simply makes it known that these characters are the same as everyone else, and never makes any effort to shove said diversity down the player’s throat. This may seem like an unnecessary detail to include, but I personally want to applaud Fullbright for their handling of a typically preachy facet of society; opting not to make a big deal out of it.
The crew members’ stories are unveiled in quite an unusual way, and it’s what makes Tacoma so captivating, albeit a little creepy. Through the use of ODIN and augmented reality, Amy can recreate scenes in specific areas around the ship; pausing, rewinding, or fast-forwarding through them to relive past events on Tacoma. These events can range from the linear narrative—in which the ship begins to lose oxygen and the team struggles to stay alive—to smaller moments like Nat taking a shower or E.V. lounging in her bedroom playing guitar and singing jazz tunes. It’s an interesting look into the lives of each character, yet you’re still able to delve even deeper, should you so choose.
Remember the “creepy” aspect I mentioned before? Well, during these living scenes, Amy can move around and look at the astronaut’s personal computers when prompted. This allows the player to look even further into each NPC’s backstory: eavesdropping on conversations, looking at their web browsers, and reading emails or text conversations. While it’s a bit unsettling to invade someone’s privacy this much, the attention to detail is simply incredible. Through these messages, you can find codes to unlock personal lockers and drawers, or discover otherwise completely hidden side stories that pertain to certain characters. One such story, involving Tacoma’s resident doctor, reminded me of the chilling secondary story about Katie’s father and his failed writing career in Gone Home.
Fullbright doesn’t get enough credit for the attention to detail within their storytelling. Yes, it’s all ‘just’ walking around a derelict spaceship, picking up objects and rotating them about. But there’s so much story hidden within these seemingly useless trinkets; always a method to the madness. Additionally, the entirety of Tacoma can be beaten with very minimal effort, as the story only progresses through data collection which, once plugged manually into the proper wall outlet, is automatically done in real time, without any involvement from the player. It’s a sad-but-true fact that the majority of Tacoma or Gone Home may seem lifeless to one who does not wish to explore and go against the norms, but those who don’t are surely missing out.
For those who do take a chance on these so-called “walking simulators” and opt to look around a bit, there is so much quality within this $20 package. This brings me back to my previous comment about a “linear narrative”, something that Tacoma, in all honesty, does not have. If the game is taken seriously (and played correctly) there is nothing linear about it. One of my favorite parts of Tacoma was the use of multiple storylines at once, in tandem with realistic voice proximity effects. In each scripted event, Amy is free to walk about and check in on every crew member within range. In one of the first scenes, a group is talking in one area, while one character can be found talking on the phone in his room, while another talks to ODIN in the locker room, and another talks on the phone with his son while exercising. It’s just a crazy amount of detail in one small scene, and it engrossed me with a wealth of story content that kept my interest piqued for the approximate 2 hours—before moving onto the next area.
Every character’s story is unique in its own way, with every plot line being uncovered as much, or as little, as the player desires. Outside of exploration and the ability to invade each crew member’s private life in the order of your choosing, Tacoma’s ‘gameplay’ is mostly non-existent. As in Gone Home, there’s a lot of looking around and picking up objects—but unlike Gone Home, this is kind of granular interaction doesn’t hold as much purpose. Trust me, you’ll frequently find yourself looking for the meaning of life in a multitude of pencils and mugs, to no avail whatsoever. It just starts to feel like filler, as the majority of the story is told through the privacy invasion mechanic, not by playing CSI in every office.
Every character’s story is unique in its own way.
Movement is fairly fluid, for the most part. In the main hub area, there is no gravity, and I found floating through space to be quite challenging. Obviously, not a lot of work was put into the “weightlessness” aspect of Tacoma, and it made progression through anti-gravity incredibly difficult and somewhat dizzying. While this should be a major downside in a game set in space, most of the game fortunately takes place in areas with gravity, so this is a minor issue in the grand scheme of things. Button usage is standard fair, “A” to inspect objects and interact, triggers to rewind and fast-forward through events, and “B” acts as a nearly useless crouch button. I found myself crouching maybe three times in total, and that was only when the story called for it. All in all it shows that Tacoma’s focus is on story, as gameplay is quite lacking,. But it has every right to be, as the narrative makes up for it tenfold.
Another high point of Tacoma, which also proves Fullbright’s attention to detail, is the stunning graphics and breathtaking vistas of its world. Obviously, the game takes place in outer space, and out every window there’s a moon, a planet, or a part of the giant titular space station. While these visuals are larger-than-life, and insanely realistic, I found myself more taken aback by the lighting effects in Tacoma‘s scenery. Every object that Amy picks up reflects light in one way or another, and as seen in one of the screenshots above, even the paintings on the walls reflect the natural light of space. I just found this to be an incredible detail that couldn’t go unnoticed, and I commend Fullbright on their amazing work.
My only major gripe with Tacoma is its lack of anything but story. I didn’t have any problems with Gone Home’s lack of gameplay, as its story was touching and powerful, and it moved along at a fairly quick pace. It was a nice three-hour romp through a suburban home, learning about a family and their struggles with everyday life. But Tacoma, being a larger game, should have offered up a little bit more content. Luckily there are some smaller puzzles that reward you with achievements here and there, such as one I acquired by reuniting two sanitizer robots together in zero gravity. For achievement hunters, these challenges call for extra exploration and more time in-game. Perhaps adding some actual puzzle mechanics to Tacoma, or providing a sense of failure to Amy’s mission would have made for a bit more enthralling experience. Tacoma doesn’t even have a primary antagonist, for the most part, aside from lack of oxygen, and the great depths of space as a whole. It just would’ve been nice to have a better sense of purpose on my journey, before the fairly climactic ending.
When the final minutes of Tacoma came, I found myself overcome with a wave of satisfaction. In the seven or so hours I had spent on this abandoned space station – now full of life and memories – I felt like I had really lived out months and months aboard it, just as its crew members once did. I went into Tacoma not knowing much about it at all, but I was excited to finally jump into another world created by one of my favorite game developers out there. I did not come away disappointed. Even though there’s not a whole lot of replay value, aside from achievement hunting or reliving the story once more, I wouldn’t mind doing it all over again—t was that intriguing. Tacoma may not have had me in tears, questioning everything I’ve ever experienced as a gamer, but it certainly left me content with its finale, and muttering an audible “brilliant” as the credits rolled.
I came away from Tacoma feeling thoroughly satisfied. While I did not find myself being moved to tears like Fullbright’s previous title, my mind was definitely pleased by its recent journey through the cosmos. Tacoma‘s memorable characters and gripping story honestly had me yearning for more every time I had to step away from the television, and I cannot wait to jump back in someday. Furthermore, I’m extremely excited to see how Fullbright can revolutionize the “walking simulator” genre even more with their next game. Wherever the story may take me next, I hope my emotions are prepared for what’s to come, and I hope it leaves me with the same smile on my face as Tacoma did.