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Tacoma is a theatrical take on sci-fi games from the creators of Gone Home

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Tacoma game

The Fullbright Company staked out a very distinct space with its 2013 debut Gone Home, a domestic slice of life set in 1990s Oregon. Its next project, Tacoma, couldn’t look more different. Tacoma takes place in the year 2088, on a space station of the same name. At first glance, it’s a return to the genre roots of Fullbright’s co-founders, who previously worked on the Bioshock 2 expansion Minerva’s Den. But it’s also shaping up to be a clever, sophisticated new take on game narrative.

While Gone Home’s setting was unique, it focused on traditional elements of video game environmental storytelling, indirectly delivering its story through notes, tapes, books, and objects around an empty house. Tacoma is more like a play, or more specifically, an immersive theatrical production in the vein of Sleep No More. In the game’s fiction, an augmented reality system captures the every move of six crew members, who are represented as brightly colored silhouettes. When your protagonist arrives, the station is abandoned after a major malfunction, but these recordings remain. Her ostensible goal is to simply to recover data, but in the process, players will experience the drama of the characters’ last days on board.

Unlike in theater, though, players are in control of the recordings. So while lots of things might be going on at the same time, it’s possible to see each dramatic moment from multiple perspectives. In the preview Fullbright is showing at GDC, for example, the crew gathers to celebrate a station holiday called “Obsolescence Day.” If you stand in the center of the living quarters, you’ll see two people talking as the whole team assembles around them. If you pause and rewind, you can visit the kitchen at the same moment in time, where another two decorate a cake to the specifications of the ship’s artificial intelligence, ODIN. Rewind again, and you could watch yet another crew member playing pool in a side room, before heading up to join the rest. If characters pull up their own AR displays, you can pause to grab the contents, finding emails or reminders.

Tacoma game

The core idea here is extremely familiar for a video game: something bad happened, and players show up just in time to pick up the pieces, reconstructing the story as they progress. In BioShock and its predecessor System Shock 2, players even see “ghosts” that look a lot like Tacoma’s recordings. But those were effectively linear mini-cutscenes. Here, characters’ relationships become part of the station’s architecture, their movements interlocking. In a few of the more overtly game-like parts, the recordings become little puzzles as well: you can get through a locked door, for example, by rewinding to see a character enter its code. The mere existence of the recordings is also an important part of the story. Characters know they’re under constant surveillance, and they aren’t necessarily happy about it.

Tacoma’s biggest challenge, however, will be that its setting is so familiar. Gone Home garnered a lot of praise for exploring an ordinary family’s life, and for its references to popular culture, including a quasi-soundtrack of Riot Grrrl songs. But with Tacoma, Fullbright needs to prove that this isn’t simply another game about an abandoned space station. Tacoma Station is beautiful, but it also looks a great deal like the setting of System Shock 2 — it’s got the same lived-in but slightly sterile feel, with interior design that switches between industrial corridors and homey spaces with manicured greenery.

What seems unique about Tacoma, beyond its storytelling technique, is that ordinary interactions and domesticity in “abandoned space environment” games usually end up overshadowed by inhuman horror. There’s a disaster of some sort at the end of the Tacoma demo, but it feels more Apollo 13 than Alien — something that will draw us deeper into characters’ relationships rather than aborting them. The payoff here is high, but it’s more challenging to pull off than a straightforward horror game, and arguably even tougher than writing something like Gone Home, which had the immediate benefit of novelty and nostalgia on its side. If Tacoma is too plot- or goal-driven, it will squander the storytelling possibilities that its core mechanics offer. If there’s not a strong enough narrative arc, it will be an interesting writing exercise that leaves players wandering aimlessly.

I like what Fullbright has shown us, though, especially because Tacoma’s spaces exhibit the same delightful attention to detail as Gone Home’s. At one point, I discovered you could swap around the letters on a “Happy Obsolescence Day” sign. When one of them stopped sticking to the paper after several moves, Fullbright co-founder Steve Gaynor told me it was because I’d worn out the adhesive. It was a little touch that anticipated something a player might do, and delivered an unexpected moment of realism. Later, I noticed a hologram outline of a cat in a corner — when a jolt shook the station, it briefly dissolved into a staticky blur of motion, then went promptly back to sleep.

So far, what we’ve seen of Tacoma is the equivalent of a book’s first chapter. It’s too early to say whether it will live up to its promise, and break out of the cliches it’s working with. But either way, Fullbright has the skeleton of an excellent story, in a format I’ve rarely seen before.

Correction: Gone Home was released in 2013, not 2010.