Quite often, games fall victim to the reverence of their predecessors. It’s difficult to manage expectations, especially when the new title has been in development for a long time. So, it might not shock you to learn that Tacoma falls short in recapturing the magic that oozed out of Gone Home, Fullbright’s first exploration game. Tacoma offers an engaging and unique story-telling mechanic which complements an intriguing sci-fi narrative; it kept me involved from beginning to end. Unfortunately, the game struggled to grip me with the intensity that a deeper themed and more interesting narrative would have. It’s all just a little too predictable. In the end, the anticipation for something more, something no doubt due in part to the success of Gone Home, left me underwhelmed.
It’s unfortunate that Tacoma inevitably draws comparisons from Gone Home, but they aren’t the same game, and it doesn’t pretend to try and rehash a similar climax-building story. There isn’t any grand twist, and the game’s atmosphere doesn’t try to mislead the player; it’s a relatively straightforward run to the finish line. That being said, their resolve to not try and recolour their past success is commendable. And so, in a lot of ways, Tacoma improves upon the story-telling from Gone Home, to offer a simple yet effective gameplay pull. However, the game falls short of the most fundamental aspect of its existence; the strength of the story.
Don’t get me wrong, the story behind Tacoma is solid. It’s just not special. You’re Amy Ferrier, a subcontractor for Venturis organisation, who feeds you orders and directs you to retrieve Tacoma Station’s AI, ODIN. Despite getting the sense that Amy is aware of what has transpired on the vessel, the player must piece together the events of the recent past. Leaving the audience in the dark is a tactic employed (sometimes too) frequently in games these days, and while it doesn’t detract from the overall experience, Amy’s insider knowledge necessitates her lack of engagement in the story. Aside from some tiny, irrelevant pieces of dialogue, Amy’s character doesn’t convey emotion, uncertainty or eagerness to explore, which ultimately left me feeling entirely like a spectator rather than someone searching for the truth.
“Each of the six characters present unique personalities and inner turmoil which in the end, sat with me more than the overarching story.”
Though, livening up the rather rote storyline is a unique gameplay premise, which simulates an Augmented Reality (AR) version of camera recordings. As Amy, you explore Tacoma along a fairly linear path and enter areas whereby you can restore AR footage. From here, players can fast-forward, rewind, listen to conversations, and analyse individual’s data records. Each of the six characters present unique personalities and inner turmoil, which in the end, sat with me more than the overarching story. This aspect is enhanced by the crew’s quarters, which expand on small parts of their lives, and personal emails and messages which express conflicting thoughts and character development; none of these additional elements are very long or feel like a chore to read. While interacting with the AR, you’ll spectate a group conversation, and then follow individuals as they walk off to engage with others, or talk to themselves. It’s in these moments that I felt most in tune with the narrative; I wanted to figure out what they felt in private, before or after they had ‘saved face’ in front of everyone else. Manipulating the rewind gameplay mechanic to discover these small nuggets of information is refreshing compared to scrounging through letters or listening to audio logs.
The personalities that you get to know over this two to three-hour game are even more impressive due to the stark contrast of their AR representations. Each crew member is a colour-coded, polygonal silhouette, and despite this, I still felt a connection to them. Additionally, the design of Tacoma station is architecturally easy to navigate, which pushes the story along and never allows the player to feel lost as you explore where each character wanders off to, or proceed to the next area. However, the station in and of itself isn’t much to write (Gone) home about. It’s future’y, dark and claustrophobic at times, but other than that, it’s just a bit plain.
Not every game needs to have a twist. Not every game needs to have deeper thematic elements like Gone Home. Tacoma is a satisfying sci-fi story which is enjoyable to navigate and explore. The tools which help you uncover the fate of the crew and their evolving personalities kept me engaged from start to finish. However, as I look back on the narrative, I don’t foresee it sticking with me for much longer.