Spiritual successors seem to be the go-to method for following up a successful debut among indie developers. While actual sequels to Hotline Miami and FEZ are either canceled or earn mixed receptions, the likes of Transistor, SOMA, and INSIDE suffer only minor drops in quality from their predecessors and establish themselves as great games in their own right. Four years after the release of Gone Home, it’s Fullbright’s turn to continue this pattern with Tacoma, a curious little project that will inevitably be derided by everyone as “Gone Home in space”. While it certainly doesn’t deserve to be dismissed out of hand that way, make no mistake: this game was hit harder by the sophomore slump than most of its contemporaries.
Of course, to talk about Tacoma, you have to talk about the game that it grew out of. Gone Home was an environmental exploration game that presented itself as a creepy horror title before gradually revealing itself to be something very different (I’ll try to avoid explicit spoilers, but it’s kind of difficult). The game was beloved by critics and open-minded players, but it caught some ire from those that just wanted the creepy horror game they were expecting. And more undeservedly, its progressive agenda made it a prime review-bombing target for the people who would go on to back Gamergate. I have to admit that the handling of this elephant in the room was the thing I was most interested in seeing Tacoma attempt, and its method for doing so is brilliantly cheeky.
By setting this title in the future (specifically, an eponymous orbital space station in 2088), Fullbright has simultaneously distanced themselves from the current sociopolitical climate and doubled down on their progressive attitude. The story partially concerns itself with a social question that isn’t actually an issue yet, but almost inevitably will be. Additionally, four of the six members of the station’s crew are female (as is the player character), three are homosexual, and one is Muslim; a refreshing alternative to the rather homogeneous casts from other games. All of this is presented without commentary, and if you have a problem with any of that, Fullbright probably doesn’t want your business. This sets the stage for two of Tacoma’s strengths: sympathetic, humanly flawed characters and an unusually frank depiction of the future.
The vision here is neither utopian nor dystopian. It optimistically presents a worldwide melting pot of coalition nations that have apparently made significant strides in breaking down racial and sexual barriers. But it also touches on cynical sci-fi mainstays like wealth disparity and corporate ubiquity, to the point where most currency has been supplanted by a nebulous “customer loyalty” commodity. Additionally, it’s refreshing to get a futuristic soundtrack that isn’t composed of soulless techno, and instead imagines unthinkable genre mash-ups like a vaporwave boy band. Similarly realistic is that there’s no one piece of technology that dominates everyday life as is often the case in science fiction. There are powerful AIs, heavily integrated augmented reality systems, and cryogenic stasis pods, but all of them merely serve the plot rather than dominate it.
The plot is excellent, by the way; it’s a shame it’s relayed so poorly. The opening sees the player character dock with the space station with instructions to retrieve the ship’s AI in the wake of some event that forced the crew to evacuate. It continues with the sci-fi horror clichés from there, sectioning off parts of the station that you don’t have permission to enter and informing you that all of your movements are being monitored and recorded. Of course, anyone who knows anything about Fullbright knows that the follow-through for these plot elements is going to be something entirely different. The developers attempted to compensate for this inevitable hurdle by introducing another layer of misdirection, but in doing so, they also introduced the game’s most glaring flaw.
Unlike Gone Home, where the mystery of what exactly happened at the Greenbriar house propels you forward until you’re able to become invested in other things, Tacoma provides an explanation for the derelict vessel extremely quickly. It may be obvious to experienced players that there’s going to be more to find here, but that’s only because of external factors; the game itself loses all intrigue in that moment. The next couple of hours consist largely of observing fragmented recordings of the crew interacting. Managing the timeline of each recording in order to catch all of the interweaving conversations and glimpses of characters’ media usage is an interesting mechanic, but the devs have the whole scenario backward. Character attachment is supposed to be used to enhance existing entertainment; growing attached isn’t entertaining on its own.
This midsection is boring, and I don’t use that word lightly. “Walking simulators” of this nature get a bad rap for their minimal interactivity, and while it’s true that they’re unlikely to be gripping from start to finish (unless the designer’s name is Davey Wreden), the good ones usually exhibit thoroughly exploited level designs. Tacoma, meanwhile, has a problem with unused space. The fact that a lot of the character details you can uncover don’t actually affect the plot is frustrating enough, but there are several rooms or parts of rooms that don’t even offer that – they’re just full of irrelevant junk. Most unusually, each crewmember gets their own AR recording separate from the “main” ones, but they rarely reveal anything beyond “this person has a hobby”, so I’m not sure what their purpose is.
A lot of this hurts to admit, because I’m a perennial defender of this genre, and despite everything wrong with it, Tacoma frequently illustrates why. The development resources freed up from not having to work on the construction of puzzles or complex combat systems were clearly redirected towards other things, allowing the setting to be made as beautiful and believable as possible, with a level of detail and handcrafted content that’s just not feasible in most products. Furthermore, all of the voice actors deliver superb performances, and simplified gameplay mechanics mean there are no control problems to contend with. However, a rarely recognized weakness of the form is a need for an inventive presentation to make up for lack of gameplay innovation, and without the sheer surprise of their previous work, Fullbright didn’t provide enough of that here.
Tacoma delivers a refined experience on every level except one: engagement. Unfortunately for it, that’s the most important level. It’s exceedingly rare for a game to have such solid narrative, flawless technical polish, and excellent artistry behind it, only to be let down by not being very interesting to play, but here it is. The exploration game format has only grown stronger as a storytelling tool, and the downgrade to a less drastic genre bait-and-switch wasn’t inherently ruinous, but it set the product up for a warped structure that it never fully recovers from. The result is a game that earns my respect but not quite my recommendation.
This review is based on the PC version, which we were provided with.
Tacoma's top-notch story and presentation are arranged into an inappropriate structure that will dull the experience, even for fans of exploration games.