If you think 'walking simulators' are snobby non-games, I suggest you stop reading now, because things are about to reach a whole new level of pretentious up in here.
Tacoma is great theatre in video game form. (I did warn you, right?).
This latest title from the creators of Gone Home, like much theatre, has a heavy focus on its characters and explores their relationships and emotions in-depth. But Tacoma is also literally modelled on a kind of theatre.
Fullbright Company co-founder Steve Gaynor says Tacoma was partly inspired by the Broadway production Sleep No More – an example of interactive theatre, where the audience wander freely around a building while the production plays out in different rooms. The same one hour show is repeated three times in a row, so the audience can choose which storylines/characters to follow each time.
Tacoma applies this idea to create a new approach to the already divisive narrative exploration genre. It showcases a new style that is sure to greatly appeal to some and repulse others.
The game is set on the space station Tacoma, where you play a technician who has come to investigate the station just hours after the crew were evacuated due to an emergency. In the roughly three hour playtime, you explore the ship and recreate the events of the emergency by watching augmented reality representations of the crew. Each room offers several minutes of recording which you rewind and replay in order to follow the incident from the perspective of each character.
In terms of style, think more 2001: A Space Odyssey than Star Wars. Tacoma is slow and intellectual, like the literary science fiction of authors like Arthur C. Clarke. As a result, it is more thought-provoking than exciting. Even emergencies are approached with reason and emotional tension rather than action and explosions.
Like great science fiction, it uses subtlety in presenting its universe and themes. An example is the future it portrays, where corporations run a world in which people pledge themselves to companies in order to accrue a currency called 'loyalty'. It’s a premise that had the potential to be cringe-worthy in less skilled hands, but Fullbright handles it well, avoiding blatant exposition and instead building the fiction in subtle ways, such as terminal messages. A lot of this content you can blow past, but the ending is more gratifying if you take the time to discover and piece these background clues together.
At first glance, Tacoma appears quite similar to Gone Home. But, despite both being narrative exploration games with a similar aesthetic and style, they are differentiated by Tacoma’s focus on performance. After all, Gone Home doesn’t actually contain any live characters at all. Although you still wander through the map, picking up objects in order to learn more about the characters and world, the additional layer of watching performances makes it feel like something new and distinct from Gone Home.
These performances are the real strength of Tacoma. Fullbright has a warts-and-all approach to creating characters that makes them feel consistently genuine. None are good or bad, they are all equally flawed individuals who carry their own set of strengths and flaws.
You get to know each person through their interactions, so in a sense you grow as attached to the relationships as the characters themselves. Some story threads are more compelling than others, such as the relationship between the station's medic and its AI. This thread in particular demonstrates the best science fiction the game has to offer, exploring concepts of autonomy and free-will in an evocative and thought-provoking way.
Even the quieter threads go a long way in supporting the reality of the game. I was particularly compelled by the emotional reactions of the ship's botanist to the events around him. His freak-outs are totally believable considering the background information the game gently builds beforehand.
The success of these characters comes from both the writing and the performance of the voice actors. In keeping with the tone, the voice actors all deliver un-heightened performances that are reminiscent of how a group of flatmates might interact, passive aggressive bitchiness and all.
Not as effective, unfortunately, is the visualisation of the characters. As part of an AR projection, they are presented as coloured see-through outlines of their body shapes. The decision to portray them in this way rather than as fully-realised renderings with facial animations seems to be more due to technical limitations than artistic decision. As compelling and evocative as the characters are, they were undoubtedly held back by not having more fully animated models.
This problem is compounded by persistent frame rate issues throughout the game on Xbox One. Particularly when moving between areas, the game visibly stutters and lags. These two factors make it feel limited technically, and undermine the immersion that it works hard to establish in all other aspects.
First-person narrative exploration games are an acquired taste, and considering the theatrical approach of Tacoma, I don’t see it being the game to buck this trend. But if you love the quiet approach, the heavy concepts and character focus of literary science fiction, and theatre – like me – this is a very satisfying experience. Unfortunately, if you do not fall into this very narrow niche, there is a good chance it won’t be for you.