Tacoma is a good game, but there's just a hint of rails...
You enter a space station. You have a job to do, and a limited time to do it. Some sort of retrieval operation. That’s all you know.
This is the premise of Tacoma. You enter a lonely setting and interact with the environment to learn about the people who used to inhabit it, making it feel populated through their lingering memory.
Describing Tacoma reveals a lot of similarities between it and its spiritual predecessor, Gone Home. Although Fullbright actively tried to ensure Tacoma was not simply ‘Gone Home on a space station’, the similarities between these games make it incredibly difficult to avoid comparing them.
I adore Gone Home for many of the same reasons I enjoyed Tacoma. You wander through a space that you feel distant from - that unnerves you with its emptiness - and yet you feel an intimate closeness with the people who walked through the space before you, simply through interpreting what they left behind.
But Tacoma also alters this model in some significant ways. It increases the distance between your character and the location you’re exploring by making you an outsider who is entering the space station for the first time, removing the ability to learn details about yourself alongside the other characters. However, simultaneously, the game increases the closeness you feel to these other characters by allowing you to interact with more than just their personal possessions.
When you board the space station, you are able to access an augmented reality network, which supplements the objects you investigate with (sometimes partially corrupted) recordings of the crew members, encouraging you to follow the various characters as they chat with one another, revealing the twists and turns of the overall narrative, as well as the relationships they share.
In some ways, this evolution of the environmental storytelling techniques used in Gone Home allows Tacoma to tell a more detailed story, while still allowing the player to experience that story at their own pace. But it definitely makes the experience feel more linear; although both games feature stories that the player cannot change, there are clearer plot points in Tacoma and the player is guided through them more explicitly, and in a particular order.
That’s not to say Tacoma’s story isn’t fascinating. The way it explores a potential future - filled with debates around artificial intelligence, and the sentience of these systems, as well as whether humans should be replaced by computers in workplaces - touches on a lot of relevant issues. And the diverse personal narratives that populate the space station are also interesting - I enjoyed following the relationship between Nat and Bert especially, learning more about them as I watched the different pieces of the story unfold. It was refreshing to see so much diverse representation within a game that isn’t focused specifically on these themes - people working on Tacoma were of different ages, races, cultures, religions, genders, and sexualities without it having any impact on the game itself.
But while the AR recordings are designed to give more depth to the story as you fast forward and rewind your way through them, I still found exploring the environment itself more interesting. Listening to the characters explicitly reveal what was going on - including why the crew were no longer aboard the space station, and thus why I was there - was sometimes disappointing. While I see why these elements were included - and how they help Tacoma differentiate itself from Gone Home a little more - I wanted to ‘figure out’ the answers to those questions myself, rather than be told.
The disconnect between the ways the environment and the AR system work together to tell the story in Tacoma makes me think that the game is a little uncertain about the experience it wants to give its players. In many ways, it is trying to give players an interesting space to explore, with as much freedom as possible. It wants players to interact with objects, learn at their own pace, and come to their own conclusions. But then - jarringly - it also wants to tell players explicitly what the answers are, and tell a linear story with little room for interpretation, and no choice around its resolution.
On their own, I love both of these approaches. I love beautiful worlds that I can explore, analyse, and interpret in my own ways, just as I love games as a medium for telling linear stories. I don’t think every game needs to offer its players ultimate freedom, but for a game that leans heavily on environmental storytelling techniques, I was let down by Tacoma’s insistence that there was only one way the story could resolve, and very little room for interpretation.
But I still enjoyed my time aboard Tacoma. The narrative was interesting, relevant, and diverse, and had all of the mysteries and reveals that you need to keep you engaged until the end. But while the player is supposed to feel like an outsider aboard the space station, that distance can also make you feel like an outsider within the game. I only wish there was a little more clarity around how the innovative narrative techniques used in Tacoma work together to tell its story - and how they include the player in the journey.