|Platforms||PC (reviewed), XBO|
|Release Date||August 2, 2017|
Tacoma is a first-person, narrative-driven science-fiction experience that sends players to the year 2088. Taking on the role of Amy, a sub-contractor sent to recover an artificial intelligence from the Tacoma station following an unspecified disaster that has left the station abandoned. While you’re downloading the relevant data for your corporate overlords, you’re also given the opportunity to explore the station and find out what happened to the crew via AR holographic playbacks detailing the incident.
Tacoma is Fullbright’s second game. While I desperately wanted to avoid referencing the excellent Gone Home while writing this review, I feel like it’s important to note how much of an evolutionary leap Tacoma is from its predecessor. This sophomore effort builds on everything Fullbright brought to the table with Gone Home – expanding the scope of its environmental storytelling in natural and brilliant new ways.
It probably seems strange to focus so deeply on gameplay mechanics in a game that is, by design, incredibly light on them. But it’s Tacoma’s core mechanic that shines through here. Upon entering the titular space station you put some AR devices on your head that are tied into Tacoma station. Thanks to the corporation that owns the station basically recording absolutely everything that happens, you’re able to see bits and pieces from what went down and learn the fate of Tacoma station’s crew.
It’s this mechanic that presents players with a brilliant new way to interact with Tacoma’s narrative. Essentially you walk into different hubs of the station – each hub contains a piece of the story and you view it like a recording. The six characters (plus the AI) are brought to life as coloured, wireframe models in front of you and you can play, rewind and fast forward through each scene.
What makes this a really compelling way to learn Tacoma’s story is in the nonlinear way you can piece together the narrative. Different characters will be in different parts of each hub, having their own conversations. They’ll also move about, join in other conversations and their actions can sometimes have affects on conversations in entirely different rooms. You’ll hear a crash in one room, for example, and then be able to see what caused the crash by replaying the scene from a different location.
It’s something that could only possibly work in a video game. And it’s a brilliant way to tell a story while still giving the player some kind of agency. You end up rewinding scenes and following different characters around, seeing snippets of other conversations that you’ll glimpse fully later. It’s a really cool way to peel the layers off the story and find out what’s going on in a unique way.
The only slight issue is hearing conversations properly in those rare instances they’re happening right next to each other. There are some mild puzzle mechanics built into these AR recordings, usually revolved around gleaning codes for locked doors. It’s nothing too complicated – you either need to watch someone input a code or recover the data from their personal AR display as they use it in the playback. Nothing very taxing at all.
It’s a shame that this awesome gameplay mechanic wasn’t married to a more compelling story. Tacoma’s narrative is very standard, easily predicted and is just kind of boring. A lot of this is down to the running time – there’s not much meat on Tacoma’s bones. You can be in and out of the main narrative in around two hours, which isn’t a problem in and of itself. But those two hours don’t leave a lot of room for much in the way of plot or character development.
Despite the gravity of the situation, there really don’t feel like there are any stakes in Tacoma’s primary dilemma. A bad thing happens, the crew work to fix the bad thing and then there’s a very abrupt ending. The story ends up feeling like a series of events rather than a piece of cohesive, dramatic fiction. It’s okay but nothing more and I feel like if Tacoma had taken its time to properly draw out its central narrative it could have been a lot more compelling.
It’s in the smaller moments of character development where Tacoma finds moderate success. The cast are, for the most part, quite likeable and easy to root for. Seeing them interact when they’re not talking about the potential doom that awaits them is where you’ll find the game’s best moments. Here Tacoma combines its AR recordings with Fullbright’s patented environmental storytelling to really let you get to know its cast.
Each section of the station is essentially dedicated to a different member of the crew. Between watching the AR recordings and snooping through their stuff you’re treated to glimpses of who they are as people – their backstories, their ambitions, their hopes and their tragedies. If more focus had been put on this and less on the main plot Tacoma may have been a better overall experience.
Instead Tacoma introduces a solid roster of characters into a brilliantly realised way of viewing and interacting with a story, but wastes both on a narrative that is unfortunately fairly dull. And because this is an interactive narrative experience, Tacoma doesn’t really have anything else to fall back on. It’s an okay time that introduces a great new mechanic that I want to see more from in the future, but the experience itself sadly falls short.