We could all use a little time at PAX South from time to time.
I’m just gonna get ahead of this right away and say that Tacoma is a tough game to review, maybe the most difficult I’ve ever had to. That’s not a reflection on the quality of the experience – you can see for yourself that I think it’s actually pretty damn good – but rather, a reflection on the fact that Tacoma is such a difficult game to tackle. It’s a game that kept me enthralled while playing, yet left me with a feeling in the pit of my stomach that I’m not sure I totally love by the time it was all over.
It’s 2088, and Amy Ferrier has been contracted to board the recently-abandoned space station Tacoma, in order to retrieve the ship’s sentient AI, Odin, and collect whatever data remains on the station’s corrupted systems. It’s as simple a setup as it gets, and, mechanically, Tacoma is equally straightforward. Players venture between various areas of the Tacoma space station downloading video files, recovering corrupted data here and there, and once in awhile, interacting with Odin. There’s nothing especially revelatory about any of this, but being able to scrub back and forth along the timeline of a recording to follow it from different character’s viewpoints is a cool concept, and while the majority of the corrupted data is not recoverable, the strong writing pulls you along into wanting to get everything you possibly can.
I really can’t stress enough just how well Tacoma builds its world and characters. It’s a short game, taking about two hours to get through, and yet, by the end of it, I felt like I knew exactly what the state of the world was, and like I’d spent much longer with the crew of the station than I actually had. It’s a future very different from our present; items you pick up around the station bear different languages on their packaging, the crew hails from countries that mostly don’t exist yet, and the overwhelming feeling you get is that, in this world, Singapore is the world’s number one superpower. Indeed, the political landscape of Earth in 2088 is alluded to multiple times throughout the course of the game, and for the most part, it’s woven into the narrative with great subtlety.
Each of the six crew members feels like a distinct person, and what’s more, they’re all people you wish you could spend more time with. You have no physical interactions with these characters, rather you’re tasked with downloading what’s left of the station’s largely corrupted data recordings to piece together just what exactly happened on board. You never actually interact with anyone other than Odin, and yet, by the end you know exactly who they are, how they look, where they come from, what their relationships are, and generally, what they hope to achieve. You know all about Nat and Bert’s history, their recent marriage, and their ability to tackle the impending doom with which they are faced. Sareh, the ship’s medic, is also a standout character, as you follow her agonizing over whether to adhere to safety protocols, despite knowing at least one crewmember is unlikely to survive such a procedure. It’s fantastic character writing from the team at Fullbright. We’ve seen enough games in recent years force-feed us characters who don’t speak or feel anything like real people, even after spending many, many hours with them, so for Tacoma to flesh its cast out so well in such a short space is incredibly impressive.
As good as all that is, though, the writing also happened to be the source of the game’s biggest failing in my eyes. While the narrative is told brilliantly well for 95% of the experience, and seems to come together really nicely towards the conclusion, it’s the very end that threw me for a loop. Maybe that’s partly my fault; I only picked up the most tertiary awareness of what the final moment of the game addresses. Without getting too far into spoiler territory here, it seems somewhat likely that players who don’t go around examining every little thing as I did could be left slightly blindsided by the game’s wrap-up. Even so, it’s by no means a moment that completely ruins the game, it’s just something that perhaps could have been handled slightly better than it actually is. Considering how tight just about every other aspect of the storytelling is, for Tacoma to just throw something out there that has been otherwise treated as superfluous worldbuilding seems a little misguided. It surely wouldn’t have taken all that much effort to tie things together a little better; and it would certainly have added some gravitas to Tacoma’s ending in the process.
There’s nothing really noteworthy about Tacoma from a technical standpoint. It runs well, and maintains a steady framerate throughout, although the game did hard-crash on me the first time I walked through the final door, and struggled on a subsequent attempt at the same point. It autosaves constantly, so I didn’t lose any progress, and it’s a bug that will almost definitely be ironed out by release, but it’s still worth noting. Tacoma’s not an especially great looking game either. Don’t get me wrong here, it looks totally acceptable, with some decent textures and a pretty slick sci-fi aesthetic that complements the writing admirably to help flesh out the world, but there’s nothing about the way the game looks that especially wowed me, either.
What really matters though, is that Tacoma tells its story with near-faultless nuance and skill. Save for a slight blemish at the end, it’s a consistently engaging near-future sci-fi drama with a likeable cast of characters and tremendously well fleshed-out and refined sense of place and time. Is it as good as Gone Home? No, probably not. Is it going to win detractors of Fullbright’s previous work over? Incredibly unlikely. Is it still a must-play for anyone who enjoyed the company’s preceding output, or who just wants a damn good story? Absolutely.