Tacoma Review: Found in Space

Perhaps more than anything else, Tacoma is proof that a decent story, brilliantly told (which Tacoma is) is far better than a brilliant story, decently told. The follow-up to their debut masterpiece, Gone Home, Tacoma demonstrates that Fullbright are still in a class by themselves when it comes to creating environments that feel believably lived-in, and that offer up insights into characters in ways that ring true and don’t feel artificially constructed for the benefit of the player.

Tacoma’s confident understanding of how the smallest details can quickly and effectively reveal character is evident almost immediately. As Amitjyoti “Amy” Ferrier, you have just flown your tiny spacefaring vessel to Lunar Transfer Station Tacoma. As you prepare to board Tacoma, you jokingly instruct your shipboard AI, the delightfully chipper Minny, to not let anybody scan your ship while you’re gone. “O-kayyy!” Minny replies. “O-kayyy,” Amy repeats, half to herself, in a way that’s understated, not at all mocking, and that suggests Amy is taking a bit of comfort in Minny’s particular, familiar quirks of personality, before venturing into the unknown that awaits on the other side of the airlock.

Amy has arrived at Tacoma to recover its shipboard AI, Odin. Odin is the extremely valuable property of the Venturis Corporation, which runs Tacoma as a waypoint for the transfer of cargo between Earth and the moon. When you arrive, the six-person crew has apparently just evacuated, though the circumstances behind their sudden departure aren’t immediately clear. Luckily, a malfunctioning augmented-reality surveillance system has stored enough of the recent occurrences aboard the station that, as you make your way through Tacoma to recover Odin, a picture of what’s occurred in the last few days comes into focus. It’s the process of piecing together this narrative, and especially of developing an understanding of who these people are, that makes Tacoma such a pleasure to play.

Sometimes the skill with which a game achieves something is most fully revealed in contrast to games with similar aims that failed, and I couldn’t help but think of The Chinese Room’s disappointing Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture while playing Tacoma. Both games try to engage us in the lives of people who appear before us as ghosts, whether those ghosts are technological or metaphysical in nature. But Rapture’s efforts ring false; its characters are never pushed beyond shallow collections of character traits mechanically going through the motions of a story, and their onscreen representations as nearly identical, indistinct, glowing echoes of the past make it all the more difficult to become attached to them as individual entities. By contrast, Tacoma’s characters are wonderfully specific, real-seeming and visually distinct from each other. They feel like people caught up in a crisis, and although the characters are full of depth and nuance, one never senses the game straining to convey it. It all seems to emerge organically from the environment and the circumstances in which the characters find themselves.

That’s not to say there’s nothing dazzling about the storytelling skill on display here; there definitely is. As you watch the augmented reality recordings of Tacoma’s crew interacting, you can rewind and fast-forward at will, and some of these scenes involve all six members, converging together, splitting off, having private conversations or personal moments of anxiety or grief, then reconvening into the greater whole. The first such scene involves the crew gathering for a party; you might at first listen in on Clive’s conversation with Andrew in the kitchen, then rewind and head down to a nearby pool table where Sareh is discussing her search for human connection with Odin. That’s not to mention the simultaneous actions of crew members E.V., Roberta, and Natali, and the narrative choreography we witness as the threads of these characters’ lives split and reunite is truly masterful. It’s all the more masterful for feeling subtle and natural, for being concerned first and foremost with illuminating our understanding of these people, rather than with impressing us with its technical brilliance.

It’s at this party that you discover the nature of the crisis that has resulted in the crew’s absence: space debris strikes the station, damaging Tacoma’s oxygen systems and leaving the crew with a supply of breathable air that won’t last more than a few days. What’s more, the station’s communication systems are also knocked out, leaving them stranded, forced to devise their own desperate means of escaping to safety. It’s a classic pressure cooker situation, and Tacoma ratchets up the suspense as you gradually uncover what happened in the hours and days following the impact. But through it all, the game maintains a focus on character first and foremost; it’s never about the crisis, so much as it’s about the individual, specific people trapped in the crisis, and how they respond to it.

The game envisions a future in which discussions like the one I’m having right now no longer need to happen, because everyone’s humanity is fully recognized.

Tacoma arrives almost exactly four years after Gone Home, and the differences between the games reflect, perhaps inadvertently, shifts in gaming culture that have taken place in that time. For me and many others, Gone Home felt like a revelation, a window into a world that could exist, but didn’t, where I as a queer woman might regularly see myself reflected and represented in the medium that I’d loved for so long. Set in the mid-90s and incorporating the passage of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” Gone Home was a game focused on queer people that was specifically about conflicts rooted in their existence as queer people, and it was released into a 2013 gaming landscape in which some people vehemently condemned the “political agenda” of a game that dared to recognize the basic humanity of queer women and tell a story about them for a change. Sam and Lonnie had to hit the road in the hopes of finding a place that could truly be home to them, and two decades later, we still know too well what it is to not be seen as fully human; our stories not seen to be as worthy of being told as those about cis white men, the very telling of our stories still sometimes met with some degree of fear and rage.

Tacoma feels bold not just in its speculation about technological advancements, but also in its assumption of a present in which stories with a cast of six people and nary a straight white man in sight can elevate everyone’s humanity. So often when I express the need for broader, better representations in games, I’m met with a response that’s some sarcastic variation on “Sure, why don’t we make a game about a queer black Muslim bisexual trans woman?” As if such a character is inherently less human, less deserving of being the center of a story than a straight white cis man.

Tacoma features a black woman, a Muslim woman, and a queer Asian man, among others, and the humanity of every character is incidental, fully assumed and fully granted by each of the others; the game is full of conflict but none of that conflict is rooted in the specifics of anyone’s gender, race, or sexuality. The game envisions a future in which discussions like the one I’m having right now no longer need to happen, because everyone’s humanity is fully recognized. I look forward to the day when we no longer need to praise a game, film, or TV show simply for who it dares to be about, but although Tacoma imagines such a day, and although we need visions of what that day might look like, we’re not there yet.

Tacoma may imagine a future in which people are no longer oppressed or marginalized along axes like race, gender, and sexuality, but that doesn’t mean its vision of the future is utopian. The Venturis Corporation is a cold, capitalist enterprise, and Tacoma knows that a world in which we are all equally liable to be exploited under capitalism is not a truly free world. Gone Home was a simpler narrative, with a simpler thrust: everything you discovered about its two central characters tied in directly to the game’s central conflict. The threads of the story were neat and clearly focused. Tacoma is a little messier, its threads less unified, more frayed, less narratively impactful but more legitimately lifelike.

Of course, the game has a plot, one that generates suspense, contains a moral dilemma, builds up to a gut-wrenching revelation, and features a character making a bold decision that puts them in tremendous danger. However, not every insight into who these people are, what they want, or what they’re struggling with in their personal lives feeds elegantly, powerfully and cathartically back into the central narrative, as it did in Gone Home. But it doesn’t have to, because Tacoma knows that elevating the essential humanity of individuals is, in and of itself, a rebuke to the inherently inhumane and dehumanizing aspects of capitalism. These people exist in a system which does not see them as people, but the entire experience of Tacoma is one of revealing their humanity.

And what a pleasure that process of revelation and discovery is; how it trusts us, how it engages us in the process. Any game can tell you things about its characters, but Tacoma trusts you to do the work yourself. This is a game that risks the possibility that you might miss so much of what it works to accomplish, because if it didn’t take that risk, the feeling that you’re actively discovering these things yourself would be lost. It lets little details suggest the full picture rather than painting the full picture for you, and that means that at times you may come to false conclusions, misreading the motivations of characters. Gradually, though, you really get to know these people, and reassessing and correcting your perception of events only makes piecing together the story more rewarding. One of my favorite examples of a meaningful detail that suggests a larger picture comes when one character, trying to set up another with a friend of hers back on Earth, tells her crewmate that her planetside friend has a zero-G bonsai garden. Ya gotta admit, that sounds pretty hot.

In coming to know these characters, I came to like some more than others, but to care deeply for all of them, most of all Sareh, the crew medic, perhaps the loneliest member of Tacoma’s crew, but also one who, in Odin, has found someone she can talk to about her loneliness and her search for connection — a relationship that is, of course, its own kind of meaningful connection. With Gone Home and now Tacoma, something of a Fullbright ethos is emerging, and it’s rooted in relationships, efforts to humanize characters, and a championing of compassion and love as forces that, when taken beyond feeling and into the realm of action, can and do make the world a better place. I won’t go into specifics about Tacoma’s ending, but I will say that it feels, like so many of the best endings do, like a beginning, like we’re right at the point where maybe, just maybe, the creation of a better world is truly possible.

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