Just like Fulbright’s last effort, the deceptively small Gone Home, Tacoma is a game that will seem straightforward only in its premise: A corporation sends a freelance retrieval expert out to the namesake space station in order to retrieve the abandoned spacecraft’s artificial intelligence, as well as gather the ship’s Alternate Reality logs, which describe the last three days of the crewmembers on board. But to reference that old Roger Ebert chestnut, what Tacoma is about isn’t nearly as vital or impressive as how it’s about it.
The ace up the Tacoma’s sleeve is its AR-log storytelling, which allows the player to walk directly into a scene among the holographic ghosts of the station’s crew and bear witness to the lives of these individuals leading up to the events that left the spacecraft abandoned. It’s a storytelling method we’ve seen before but never implemented to such an immersive and large-scale effect. Here, multiple characters and their activities organically intersect in a large area of the space station, where a motivational speech by one of the ship’s administrators might lead the player to follow said administrator’s hologram back to his or her office. Once there, you can hear the administrator confide the dismal truth about his or her job to a loved one—a tender moment that might be interrupted by a catastrophe on the other side of the station that can be followed and played back with the press of a button. Alternately, the player can poke around the administrator’s office for more personal details before rewinding to follow another group’s conversation.
The game’s pedigree as the product of the people who made Gone Home is obvious. The casual weariness that defines the “used future” sci-fi aesthetic in Tacoma also defines its characters, an important element that far too many sci-fi works tend to neglect. The game presents us with the fine details and detritus of lives well lived: who’s working out, who’s reading (and what books are being read), whose medical history may cause a problem, who left lovers behind on Earth—and all the endless variations therein are beautiful in their diversity. Freed from cinema’s narrative shackles, Tacoma luxuriates in the experiences and history and minutiae that inform every second of how the space station’s crew reacts under extreme circumstances.
Indeed, the circumstances do get extreme, but Tacoma is so one-track-minded about the words and deeds of the station’s crew that the game’s tension goes ignored. A life-threatening event is witnessed early on, and while the fact that the crew is in danger is made clear, the immediacy of that threat seems to take a backseat to the smaller conversations that would hold a more action-focused narrative together but here act as the whole of the text.
Tacoma raises heady topics during its short playtime stemming from said threat, but even an obsessive playthrough—in which you explore every nook and cranny, examine every object, and witness every AR log—will leave you quaintly curious rather than breathless. The game leaves behind a slew of unanswered questions, a pervasive sense of need-to-know-ness that it doesn’t satisfy, even though the main narrative through line is most certainly resolved by the time the credits roll. In addition, said narrative is quite predictable as far as old-school sci-fi tropes go, albeit very well executed, with one particular area’s data, at the core of the ship’s AI, providing a complete record of stone-cold corporate decision-making at its most distressing, on par with some of the more terrifying futurism at the heart of Horizon Zero Dawn.
It’s hard to find the nerve to rail too much against a game that excels where others, even in the first-person exploratory genre, have managed to flail and falter. Tacoma is a master class in interactive character work, in the art of giving you the tools to experience a fascinating place through others’ eyes. Its narrative momentum is a mildly clumsy thing, tripping on its own feet, but it’s only because the game has such undeniably brilliant ideas on its mind.