The year 2013 marked the debut of Gone Home – the inaugural project of The Fullbright Company. The team, based in Portland, Oregon, was founded by one Steve Gaynor, who began his work in the industry as a tester for Sony and Perpetual Entertainment before designing stages for BioShock 2. Gone Home was a resounding critical success. The most notable piece of praise it received was from Polygon when critic Danielle Riendeau awarded it a perfect, ten-point score, calling it a “quiet triumph in storytelling”. Despite its universal critical acclaim, Gone Home struggled to find an audience outside of its proponents due to its short length and lack of gameplay.
Despite its overall mixed reception, Fullbright would use their success to fund their next project. Keeping true to their Pacific Northwest roots, they conceived a story taking place in a home in Tacoma, Washington. However, they backpedaled from this idea when they felt it to be too similar to Gone Home. While Gone Home sold itself as a slice-of-life story told within a video game, their next product would incorporate science fiction elements by being set in a space station. The team would name their game Tacoma as a nod to its original setting.
Tacoma was originally announced at The Game Awards in December of 2014, though it wouldn’t see its release until August of 2017 due to their playtesters’ feedback. Released across various platforms, Tacoma received favorable reviews. Eurogamer notably ranked it twenty-second on their list of the best games of 2017. Despite its favorable reception, Tacoma went on to sell fewer copies than Gone Home. Mr. Gaynor himself attributed its modest performance on the sheer number of games released in 2017, believing by that it was harder for indie titles to break out into the mainstream by then. Regardless of the exact reason, they realized Tacoma wasn’t the success story on the same level of Gone Home. Was it truly a step down from their thunderous debut?
Analyzing the Experience
WARNING: Due to the nature of this game, spoilers are unavoidable.
By the year 2088, hypercorporations have had an indelible impact on society. Their innovations brought the concepts of space travel, orbital habitats, and artificial intelligence (AI) – once merely keystones of speculative fiction – into reality. Recently, an incident has occurred on Lunar Transfer Station Tacoma, which is owned by the company Venturis. The lens by which the player experiences this game, Amitjyoti “Amy” Ferrier, has been tasked by Venturis to retrieve ODIN, the AI onboard Tacoma. By the time she arrives, the station has been long abandoned. It is therefore up to her to piece together what transpired three days prior.
Like Fullbright’s debut effort, Tacoma is what is known as an environmental narrative game. That means it forgoes any notions of gameplay in favor of letting a story unfold organically. If anything, Tacoma goes a step beyond Gone Home in that it doesn’t even have a traditional inventory screen. Instead, Amy has in her possession an augmented reality (AR) device that allows her to access the various technological interfaces she comes across. This device is instrumental for her to retrieve the AI data from each section of the Tacoma space station. It is used by embedding it into the respective wings’ terminals. Considering the sheer size of the data that must be downloaded, the process is rather lengthy. One could simply stare at the progress bar the entire time, but because doing so at every juncture would take roughly nine hours, it is not advisable unless you are exceptionally patient or have the capacity to leave your machine running for that long unattended. Alluding to the adage that a watched pot never boils, the device downloads relevant data at a much quicker speed should you choose to explore the Tacoma on your own.
Superficially, Tacoma is highly reminiscent of System Shock. Both stories involve the protagonist exploring an abandoned space station. You won’t exactly find any crazed, homicidal mutants roaming around, but you do get this sense that something has gone seriously wrong. Personal belongings and other items have been hastily strewn around the station, and you will not encounter another human being in your journey. System Shock, along with its spiritual successor series, BioShock, used audio logs as a substitute for character interactions. Through them, you could get a sense of what life was like before the event that resulted in this sudden mass exodus.
The story of Tacoma is presented to the player in a similar fashion, though it enhances the concept. Whereas System Shock was content to let players read or hear the musings of the doomed crew, Tacoma shows you their actions. Making use of its AR interface, you can see polygons representing each crew member and monitor their actions during a given point in time. You can even rewind and fast-forward the simulations as need be if you missed a certain piece of dialogue. Naturally, the game follows in the footsteps of its inspirations by having key information conveniently erased in the moments leading up to the most relevant reveals.
Like Gone Home, what I admire about Tacoma is that it handles its themes organically. Many of the crew members are LBGT, and the writers never feel the need to draw attention to this fact. Even the protagonist has an ambiguous gender identity, which is reinforced by ID cards not displaying the bearer’s sex. It was a sign of how much social progress had been made between 2013 and 2017 that such a development could be treated as a fact of life. In fact, I would go as far as saying that these themes were handled better in Tacoma. Gone Home was a weak effort because it relied on its themes to distract viewers from the snippets of weak writing that ultimately undermined its own message. The way Tacoma handles them therefore allows it to be the progressive piece Gone Home ultimately failed to be.
You will eventually learn the disaster that befell Tacoma is a bit more mundane than a megalomaniacal AI attempting to turn crew members into mutants to do their bidding. Instead, it was a meteor impact that caused the situation to take a turn for the worse. As such, while you can learn of secret codes from observing the crew members’ actions, you won’t find anything especially juicy rifling through their personal belongings other than further insight into their characters.
One aspect of Tacoma that very much lines up with contemporary efforts would be the distinct anti-capitalist stance the narrative takes. Venturis president Sergio Ventuli is the quintessential corrupt executive. He will stop at nothing to gain the support of the public – even if it means staging an unfortunate accident to kill off his employees. In this regard, I give the writers credit for not falling into the same trap as their fellow satirists. While there isn’t much to Ventuli’s character outside of his corrupt nature, his motivations do hold up when analyzing them diegetically. His plan, though unconscionable, is still ultimately a means to an end. This makes his corruption far more believable than if he simply killed off the Tacoma crew for the fun of it.
Ventuli has few qualms effecting this plan, yet it does seem to be a little much for even someone as amoral as him – inhuman almost. If anyone had these sentiments, they would be rewarded for their perceptiveness when they learn it was not, in fact, conceived by a human. Venturis had programmed a second AI, JUNO, as a way of maintaining their corporate strategy with maximum efficiency. This AI’s complete lack of ethics makes it the ideal conduit by which the anti-capitalist allegory is delivered. Indeed, putting JUNO in charge has worked a little too well, and the executive barely exerts any control over his own company.
Anyone even passingly familiar with science fiction pieces popular in the 2010s might observe the presence of ODIN and JUNO and pigeonhole Tacoma as one of the dime-a-dozen satires warning people of the dangers of artificial intelligence – evoking similar sentiments as System Shock or Ex Machina. Tacoma strings players along with this basic premise before taking a few steps back and revealing it to be only half-true. As you’re visiting the individual stations of Tacoma, you realize that ODIN is firmly on the side of his fellow crewmates. He doesn’t let a petty thing such as his superiors’ orders get in the way of doing the right thing. When the station is sabotaged and the communications system is knocked out, he gives the crew members a string of clues for them to reactivate it and send out a distress signal. By staying true to his orders and helping the crew at the same time, the story successfully invokes the zeroth law of robotics proposed by famed science-fiction author Isaac Asimov.
A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
As a result of ODIN’s interference, every single one of the crew members were able to escape the Tacoma with their lives. Just the fact that Tacoma approaches the subject of artificial intelligence without the need to fearmonger made it a breath of fresh air science-fiction desperately needed in 2017.
In the end, Amy successfully retrieves ODIN’s physical core. By this point, Venturis is attempting to save whatever remaining face they have left; as long ODIN exists, so does evidence of their wrongdoing. By destroying or reprogramming him, they at least have a chance of covering their tracks. However, fate has other plans. As Amy is pulling out of the station with ODIN, she reveals herself to be a member of an AI rights activist group. She intends to hide ODIN on an extraterritorial station. Knowing of the unpleasant alternative, the AI accepts Amy’s proposition.
How I feel about this twist is a little complicated. On one hand, it partly resolves what I consider to be the fatal flaw of the environmental narrative game. When playing these games, seldom were you experiencing a story firsthand. You were instead invariably piecing together a far more interesting story that happened to someone else. In addition to blatantly violating the basic writing principle of “show, don’t tell”, it robs the player character themselves of any kind of purpose. It’s entirely possible to make the protagonist of a story a supporting character to the real focus, but it isn’t a storytelling device that works as well in this medium. Being an interactive medium, it is usually better to cut out the middleman and experience the real story for yourself. British developer The Chinese Room was responsible for codifying the environmental narrative game with their debut effort, Dear Esther. However, the fourth game they worked on, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, is said to have had an especially bad case of this disconnect – to the point where even fans of the genre criticized it for its lack of player-character agency.
Amy’s reveal at the end of Tacoma manages to solve this problem by effectively giving the player two stories to parse. The first, obviously, would be the disaster that befell Tacoma in addition to ODIN’s efforts to save the crew. The second, which is the one you directly experience, is the undercover agent who successfully smuggles ODIN out from under Venturis’s nose. In efforts such as Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, there is no second story. You’re only shown faint glimpses of a story that the writers actively refuse to tell.
Unfortunately, as great as this plot twist is, it too has a glaring execution issue. While it may have attempted to solve the problem involving protagonist agency in environmental narrative games, it ironically demonstrates that the genre is not an efficient way of telling a story. For many people, this plot twist comes completely out of nowhere. Amy doesn’t have much of a reaction to anything beyond the opening sequences, so there is little chance for her character to develop. She does have a friendly banter with her own AI, but to extrapolate that she is a member of an activist group from these interactions requires a gigantic leap in logic. This is especially true given that one could easily make it to the end of the game without knowing the group in question even exists. The documents that foreshadow their existence are surprisingly well-hidden, and, of course, anyone who elected to simply wait out the nine hours of downloading time wouldn’t have known about them either.
I appreciate the fact that telling a story in a video game is difficult. You simply cannot account for what a given user might do, so well-crafted story beats may be lost on someone who inadvertently goes off the rails. However, Tacoma doesn’t even make the token efforts to ensure players receive all the necessary information, rendering the goodwill from these pieces of writing hollow. As flawed as Gone Home was, the writers ensured you were told everything you needed to know through specific scripted events. The environment was then used to supplement the story you were being told. Meanwhile, experiencing Tacoma is akin to reading a two-hundred-page book with thirty pages dedicated to the story and the remaining 170 serving as an appendix. It’s a shame because the story of Tacoma is far more ambitious than that of Gone Home, but because it is a victim of its own genre, it too represents a serious waste of potential.
Drawing a Conclusion
Tacoma is interesting in that, despite being released by a lauded company and assessed by a group of people who had nothing but praise for the environmental narrative game, it somehow failed to make the same impact. The critical reception still leaned positive, but, unlike Gone Home, few considered it a masterpiece. This is a bit strange because, for all of its faults, Tacoma is a stronger effort than Gone Home. It goes out of its way to address the genre’s biggest issues, and even ends up rebelling against the most overused, trite science fiction clichés of its day in a way few contemporary filmmakers had the audaciousness or talent to pull off. Not only that, but the writing in Tacoma avoids the same mistakes as Gone Home, with its central ideas landing far more effectively and not coming across as the video-game equivalent of the infamous motivational poster of a cat hanging on a wire.
Despite the many problems I myself have with the environmental narrative game, I do admit that I found the story beats of Tacoma intriguing and the manner in which the story is presented is legitimately creative. However, at the end of the day, it still doesn’t fully escape the fatal trappings of its genre. Like Gone Home before it, paying twenty dollars for a non-game that wouldn’t even last an afternoon made it an exceptionally difficult sell. Otherwise, the biggest mistake Tacoma commits, and the primary reason why I find it so difficult to recommend in spite of its good story beats, is that it unintentionally makes a case for its own genre’s obsolescence. Like other environmental narrative games, it can enthrall those already onboard with the movement, but if you are even the least bit skeptical, you can safely give this one a pass knowing you did not miss out on an essential experience.
Final Score: 5/10