Indie Shortieland: Tacoma

The gaming buzz on my social media timelines the past week or so has been pretty much all Tacoma. And with obvious reason: It’s the latest opus of Fullbright, they of the superlative Gone Home. As part of my general non-disclosure agreement with any and all games news I haven’t read much about Tacoma, but I have learned a few things: That it features gameplay much in the vein of Gone Home, that it has a character either called or named after Odin, that it’s set in space, and that people say it takes about three hours to complete, start-to-finish. Obviously, the latter seems like silly exaggeration, and after playing it for myself this weekend, I can confirm that that number is nowhere near accurate.

I completed it in two and a half hours.

It should be obvious that I can’t really use my regular review pattern with a game like Tacoma. Not only is it primarily narrative-driven, which is always a dicey prospect, but if I did my usual ‘I’m playing through the first half hour or so and what is this’ shtick, that’d essentially spoil outright almost a sixth of the game. I do want to talk about what made Tacoma work for me as it did, though. So you all get a Shortieland. I know you were probably clamoring for another 7000-word epic after last week, but I hope we can all agree that it’s for the best I leave some of this game intact.

(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low. Mechanical, high-ishl.)

(Game source: Bought it myself


Tacoma is a genre definer.

In more ways than one.

There’s a term people bandy around when discussing games like these, your Tacomas and your Gone Homes and your Dear Esthers and your Everyone’s Gone To The Raptures, and that term is ‘walking simulator’. I don’t like that term. A lot of people don’t: It’s obviously meant as a disparagement, by implying that ‘all you do in these games is walk around and look at things’ — something that’s categorically false. But then what should we call this class of games? A good game genre title should grab the attention in some way, and convey in some way what a game you put in that category is about. What’s the point, otherwise? A first-person shooter is a game where you shoot things, from a first-person perspective. A platformer probably involves some sort of moving action on platforms. In a role-playing game you explicitly play the role of a character, instead of being a disembodied player presence.

When thinking about Tacoma and predecessors, a term I keep coming back to is ‘Narrative Exploration Adventure’.

It’s more exciting than I make it sound.

When I say ‘Narrative Exploration Adventure’ (or ‘NEA’, which I think rolls off the tongue pretty alright), the word ‘Exploration’ pulls double duty. On the one hand, ‘Exploration Adventure’ invokes that games in this class are generally centered on the exploration of a physical space. In Gone Home you rummage through your childhood home, in Tacoma you explore an abandoned space station, and so on and so forth. The core of what you could equally disparagingly call ‘actual gameplay’ in these games is generally found here: Challenges lie in figuring out where to go next and how to get there, with obstacles being in equal parts ‘obfuscation’ and ‘locks’. Which, incidentally, immediately puts the lie to the old chestnut that ‘you don’t do anything in Gone Home‘: I remember really having to figure out how to get around the place.

You’ll note the subtle keypad in the distance.

But more than that, the focus on ‘Narrative Exploration Adventure’ should be on the first two words. ‘Narrative Exploration’. NEAs are characterized by a particular approach to storytelling where you essentially explore the narrative space during play (concurrently with the physical space). They all start out with the player in a relative position of, let’s say ‘unburdened by prior knowledge’ instead of ‘cluelessness’. And over the course of gameplay, they provide you with opportunities and tools to piece the narrative together.

Actually, now I’m making it sound too passive. Let’s be more direct there: The core of NEA games is the player engaging in the active act of constructing a narrative space from game input. There is a pre-existing narrative space, but unlike other game types where that narrative is dispensed to the player at particular intervals and not always reliant on their actions or choices (i.e. the dreaded info-dump), the core of NEAs is that the player must actively figure out the story, with limited or no direct input from the game itself. This can take many forms: Giving the player audio logs to listen to or books to read is an example, but you can also think of virtual objects that the player can see and interact with, graphical elements and texts that aren’t necessarily meant to be read up close, and even the design of the physical space itself.

‘Not necessarily meant to be read up close’

I think a lot of the derision for NEA games comes from the fact that this sort of focus is hard to translate into ludic achievements and goal states. You don’t ‘win’ Gone Home by learning everything you can about your sister, you ‘win’ by reaching the final room, triggering the end cutscene. There’s not a whole lot of traditional ludic engagement, and if you judge it by those metrics, then yeah, it’s not gonna be very interesting. ‘Walking simulator’, indeed. For people who played Gone Home as intended, reaching that final room was a tense climax, a final resolution of revolving plot lines finally collapsing into a potentially dreaded truth. And that was after finding the resolutions to the dad and mom stories, which in their own ways were woven through the house. It was a good ending to a good game, if you judge it in terms of narrative exploration and player engagement. Which you should. You don’t see a lot of people giving Call of Duty games flak because it might technically be possible to let your NPC friends do all the shooting. That’s not what the game is about.

Whew, okay. Now that I’ve spent five paragraphs explaining my rationale behind a new game genre — Narrative Exploration Adventure, NEA, tell your friends, start using it now and you’ll look like a cool trendsetter — maybe we can finally dive into talking about what makes Tacoma one of the most exceptional NEA games I’ve ever seen.

Fact one: It has an AI character that gives out instructions to make party cards, hats, and cake.

It starts off so strong immediately. You, in a spaceship, approaching Tacoma Station. I said just now that NEA games focus on active narrative construction; In Tacoma, that goes for both the storyline narrative of ‘what happened on this station’, and the larger worldbuilding narrative, ‘what future world space is this all taking place in’. The introduction deposits key information pieces right out the gate. There’s space travel on an individual scale. There’s a space station, and it’s not too far from earth. AIs exist, and one of them’s on the station — and another one is helping you fly your ship. Your name is Ami. You’re a contractor for a company called Venturis Corporation, and you’re here to retrieve data pertaining to an incident that happened recently. All of this is conveyed in the first five minutes.

Again: Little of it is actually said. The game never stops to say ‘Minny is an AI’, or ‘you’re so close to Earth that it’s still visible, meaning this station is either in some form of far orbit or near the Moon’. But all the same, it *is* *communicated*.

And it looks so good. Can we take a moment to appreciate how graphically impressive this game is?

Look at this active lighting reflection! It shimmers in real time!

Physical space-wise, Tacoma is an incredibly impressive example of level design. The spinning station hub in particular really got to me, nearly giving me vertigo in a way that I haven’t felt since watching Gravity. The other spaces (under artificial gravity, thank my poor stomach) use highly limited real estate to tell a clear and convincing story of life aboard the Tacoma space station. Everything is small and cramped, and hyper-functional: Every room has an immediate purpose, and the layout of the station is such that every crew person’s living quarters are almost immediately next to their work stations. But simultaneously, every space looks inhabited, real and lived-in. Party remnants in the mess hall. Personal effects in the gym lockers. One person’s bedroom is clean and minimalistic, another cluttered and messy, littered with half-written letters. Two people share one bunk, which has been converted into a small apartment; when you later find the other person’s assigned bunk, it’s been converted into an impromptu storage room. That sort of thing. It conveys at once ‘Yeah, I could see how a space station would be designed this way’ and ‘Yeah, I could see how people would acclimatize like that’.

Even without other people, there’s so much in the space to see and explore, so much to tell you about this world. Posters of fictional boybands. Written letters to friends and family members. Shoddily-made political leaflets. Corporate manuals on loyalty and advancement. Just by walking around here, you can already get a sense of what a hopeful semi-dystopia this world space occupies.

This is practically a worldbuilding information *bomb*.

But then, of course, there are people.

Just not in the way you might think.

I think Tacoma is going to be remembered and praised for a lot of things, both in the design and storytelling spaces, but for my money its smartest and most interesting innovation is the AR gimmick. Basically, your character has access to audiovisual Augmented Reality, which in certain places lets her access full-space recordings of certain sections of the station. Or if you want less technobabble, you can look into the past. All major areas (and most minor areas) have a recording like this you can access, usually between one and five minutes long. For instance, when you just board the station, you find a three-day-old recording of two people talking about life on the station. In the mess hall, a three-day-old recording captured six people in their ‘Obsolescence Day party’. When these recordings play, holographic outlines of the people in them are overlaid in the actual space. Nothing else, just the people. And then you can watch them, and listen to them, as they play out their past actions in real time.

You’re not forced into any of this, or locked in place or anything. You can choose to see and hear as little or as much as you want. It’s a very voyeuristic feeling, to be honest. Or, more accurately, it almost feels like being a ghost.

Don’t know if Roberta here intended for me to overhear this.

This idea is so clever I would hug it if I could. That segue doesn’t make sense, but listen: It’s that clever. First, in general, visually interactive audio logs are super clever. I know audio logs get a bad rep for being shitty info dump devices, but Tacoma avoids this in part by making the logs something you can experience. Seeing the colour-coded people representations go about their business inside the real space, and hearing their voices… Makes it all feel very ‘real’. What’s particularly cool is that you can see the real space underneath all this, which forms the physical present to the recorded past. As one example, inside one supply closet, one plank has been broken off, with cans and supplies spilled over the ground. That’s not something that necessarily has meaning… Until you watch the recording of the two married people working in that supply closet, and then turning to each other, and…

But what I love even more than the basic recorded holograms idea is how it makes use of the spatial reality of the station. You can’t be everywhere at once. Even during the second recording, the party recording, the six people are divided into four groups. And you can only realistically listen to one group at a time. Well, at first: Later in the recording they all convene for that aforementioned party. Just the fact that you are actually in the space, and that it matters that you are in the space, is amazingly cool to me. And, of course, since this is a recording you’re watching, you’re free to pause, rewind, and fast-forward at any time. So maybe you watch the party from the perspective from Bert and Nat first. Then when it’s done, you rewind, and watch EV, until she joins the rest. Then rewind again… You get the idea.

My absolute favorite moment in all of Tacoma, and this going to sound quaint and silly but that’s how it is, came from a recording in the hydroponics area. I won’t go into specifics, but early in the recording, one person, let’s call him ‘Andrew’, decided to ‘quickly check downstairs’. He wasn’t the one I was following, so I filed him away for later reference. I followed my chosen people until they walked out of the recording space, then waited for the timer to run out… Then, ten seconds before the end, Andrew walks back up, going “Okay, I’m ready to talk about thi… Oh, I guess everyone else left.” It was such an impossible voyeur moment to catch, one person running into a disappointing situation that literally shouldn’t be possible with ‘me’ being ‘here’. It stuck with me.

This is a dumb and meaningless screenshot and I love it to bits.

(If you do follow Andrew, of course, you’ll learn that he had a quick chat with Sareh first. And while Sareh rejoins the earlier conversation quicker, following her shows that she has a quiet panic attack between chats with others, getting through with the help of Odin. And so on, and so forth, for all characters.)

And as if that all isn’t enough, Tacoma makes interesting concessions to established ludic wisdom by hiding time-critical information in these segments. During recordings, crew members can open their fancy AR desktops (you yourself have one at all times) to read things, make voice calls, or goof off, whatever you do with computers. You can ‘hack into’ these recorded AR desktops to get access to more information. The game shows a visual indicator for each recording of when each AR desktop is opened during each recording, complete with character colours to show who you should be trying to find. Which is not always as easy as just rolling back to start, as some characters only enter the scene until later.

This scene has everything. Clive has his AR desktop out, and in the recording he’s clearly holding a glass of some kind. He curses as he drops the glass, and if you investigate the spot in real space, you can clearly see a stain — Guess he didn’t clean it up as well as he should’ve.

The information you learn this way mostly has the same value as the information you learn from recordings, and from objects, and from a few desktop computers you can access: It’s worldbuilding. Tacoma slowly, carefully paints a picture of a world where corporations have significant power, where ‘Corporate Loyalty’ has enough weight to count as fiat currency, but where the Unions simultaneously hold enough sway to guarantee human involvement in orbital jobs. For a starter. There’s so much more to learn here. There’s a few areas where this information is more behind lock and key (either in a keypad sense or in a literal ‘find the key and bring it to the lock’) sense, but it’s never a progression barrier. It’s just always stuff you’ll want to learn. Wait, which person here has heart murmurs? And what are the consequences of that for…

Speaking of progression blockers: One final thing I enjoyed enough about Tacoma to babble about it is that, even moreso than Gone Home, it does away with traditional ludic progression ideas. Everyone can beat Tacoma, as long as they can travel through a digital space. In fact, if you want to, you don’t have to engage with the world and the narrative recordings at all! On paper, your mission is this: Go to three marked locations, plug in your PC, and then wait for forty minutes or so while the data transfer completes. Then find the AI box and bail. That’s all you ‘have’ to do. If you want to roleplay some sort of stodgy professional, it’s totally possible to just park your butt next to the transfer stations and wait it out. Nothing forces you to explore. Which, in turn, grants the exploration… I keep coming back to the word ‘voyeur’, but that’s just what it is. Nobody’s forcing you to peek into these peoples’ private lives, overhear their conversations, and slowly piece together what happened on this space station the past four days. You’ll do it because you want to. Because that’s why you play these games.

At least, I’m *pretty sure* you can just wait it out. It’s possible that the initial percentage boosts are just a trick, and the game actually does expect you to go everywhere. In that case, it’s a convincing trick: I was sure I was doing this because of my own intentions.

There’s more I could be talking about here. I want to gush more about Tacoma‘s visual and aural design, and about the extent to which its world-building makes the story come alive and the place feel convincing. I want to talk about who everyone’s favourite character is, and why Nat is a shoe-in but also the correct answer. I need to point out how cool it is that the Tacoma crew is diverse and interesting and comprised of well-written people in well-written relationships with well-written problems, and that the story fulcrum is essentially the age-old question of freedom versus safety, except spun in a subtle way, and that it’s super cool that all characters use sign language to type in AR, because that just makes sense.

Instead I’ll just say that, if you want to see what NEA games can do — what Narrative Exploration Adventures can really — shell out twenty bucks, reserve between three and four hours, and take a trip around Tacoma. You won’t regret it.

Jarenth doesn’t know if he’d be happy in a space station, but in more ways than one he probably could be. Depends on the wifi. Imagine life in orbit with him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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