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Tacoma isn’t a groundbreaking story, but it’s a great moment for video game storytelling

Tacoma game

Tacoma, the just-released exploration game from Gone Home studio Fullbright, relies on some very familiar tropes. A salvager named Amy Ferrier shows up on an abandoned space station run by an inattentive corporation, piecing together what disaster has befallen its crew, with the help of an unnervingly philosophical AI called Odin. As my colleague Andrew writes, it doesn’t have much room to flesh out its premise, leaving us with strong archetypes but not enough substance. But no matter how flawed Tacoma’s story might be, it’s a fantastic example of how to tell one.

Tacoma’s central system is a fresh and unique cross between cutscenes and audio logs: two video game narrative cliches that have been abused to the point of parody. (It also builds on the non-interactive “ghosts” that relive their last moments in BioShock and System Shock 2, both major influences on Tacoma.) In the game’s fiction, these “logs” are actually fragments of augmented reality surveillance footage, recording the six-person (and one-cat) crew as colorful silhouettes. In a given space, you can rewind and fast-forward through a one- to five-minute scene, dated anywhere from a few hours to a whole year before your arrival. Characters follow independent paths, having separate conversations at the same time, and they occasionally pull up augmented reality displays that you can mine for emails or conversation threads.

I’ve compared Tacoma’s playback mechanic to immersive fiction like Sleep No More, where participants wander through slices of multiple, parallel stories. But having played the game, that’s not quite right. In fact, what’s interesting is how much the game embraces purpose and completion rather than meditative wandering — without ever ordering players to do more than walk between levels.

Technically, Amy’s job in the Tacoma station is just plugging a hard drive into each ring and waiting for data to trickle in. (According to Fullbright co-founder Steve Gaynor, you can complete the game by standing almost entirely still.) When you enter a room, though, the heads-up display immediately tells you if there’s footage to recover. While you can hunt down minor environmental details, the glowing silhouettes immediately indicate what’s important. You can follow every character and see exactly what they touch and who they speak to, and the controls alert you whenever one of them has opened an augmented reality display, so you can make sure to read their mail, every piece of which adds a meaningful thread to the story.

Tacoma doesn’t send players around collecting notes and trinkets for their own sake, although it offers a few achievements for certain tasks. Its discrete scenes and guideposts encourage tight pacing, instead of asking players to sift through a gestalt of environmental props. Certain games thrive on slowness, including Gone Home, which is about a young woman haunting a world she no longer quite recognizes. By contrast, Tacoma is essentially a survival thriller. Its constant pausing and rewinding reinforces the sense that a lot of things are happening very quickly, and the player’s job is to parse them out.

And with a clear goal, that process of parsing becomes remarkably compelling. By the second or third scene, I found myself working out the most efficient way to experience the narrative. Was it more interesting to run through one character’s entire arc and rewind for another’s, to jog between them in short bursts, or some combination of the two? This never felt perfunctory or callous, because it’s a logical way for Amy herself to behave.

The system also offers a kind of interactivity that doesn’t rely on branching paths, something that often results in more gratuitous padding than compelling fiction. You’re never under the illusion that Amy can change the recordings, but she has to actively participate in them, deciding which parts are important and observing how the station’s technological ghosts interact with her present corporeal world.

And by giving the player control, Tacoma lets you decide what’s worth repeating. The pleasure of replaying a scene is a bit like re-reading a book; with the benefit of hindsight, you can catch the significance of details that you overlooked, or spend more time on passages that you skimmed the first time, in your rush to see what happened next. The game’s brevity also makes this feel more feasible — at only a few hours long, it’s self-contained enough to easily revisit.

Exploration games don’t feel as groundbreaking now as they did when Gone Home was released in 2013, and Tacoma station isn’t as unique as Gone Home’s quiet Pacific Northwest home. But I hope Fullbright can apply its new formula to a far stronger story, the same way that French studio Dontnod built the excellent narrative game Life is Strange from a system in its flawed predecessor Remember Me. If Gone Home helped convince people that games could tell serious stories, Tacoma shows that they can tell elegant ones, too.