Fullbright’s first release, Gone Home, failed to grip me as much as I hoped it would. The gradual exploration of the Greenbriar’s home had you assembling together a story through boring audio logs and environmental cludes. It felt too familiar to techniques used in AAA games to deliver narrative and the story didn’t resonate with me. I appreciated what it tried to build, but found the house felt rather empty and cold by the end of the game.
Takoma addresses all of the issues I had with Gone Home. The sci-fi setting, the dynamic way the player experiences the story and more sharply written and defined characters all help to build an experience I enjoyed a lot more. Far from letting the success go to their heads, Fullbright sat down and examined how to build something more ambitious and it paid off.
The big conceit of the game is that you are sent to an abandoned space station to recover that space station’s AI. Along the way you recover augmented reality recordings of the crew captured by the space station. And these recordings can be manipulated and walked around in real time. You can fast forward or rewind and since the cast of characters are in different corners of the same space having different conversations, you’ll have to do this to get all the details.
This is a much more exciting and dynamic way to experience the story. Instead of wandering about listening to audio logs you’re actively watching this version of what happened play out in front of you as you walk about the space and people drop in and out of conversations, break off to talk to someone else or leave and come back. Each little conversation is another thread to follow. It also means you’ll have to explore the space to find who went where and what they are talking about.
Yes, there’s still a lot of exploring the space and seeing and reading things to put pieces together, but here the stories are more fleshed out and feel like they have an interesting payoff by the end. Learning the past of a character or discovering why they did something feels like peeling back another layer and dimension of the dynamic of this space crew.
The sci-fi setting also gives the game a space to play more with structure, themes and genre expectations. Class politics, artificial intelligence, corporate expansion, automation of the workforce and more become ideas that Tacoma weaves into its tale to make a story that is both an interesting sci-fi yarn on top of being an involving human drama.
And yet as much as everything comes together, I’m not sure I’d call Tacoma great. There are these interesting teases and moments of revelation, but as the scope grows, the characters don’t always get fair treatment. Certain individuals have satisfying and memorable conclusions while others don’t quite lead to a payoff.
In the end, Tacoma is worth experiencing as an exploration sci-fi story. It packs a fresh idea for delivering story while also telling a solid sci-fi tale. Fullbright still needs to work on fleshing out its characters as with a group this small each character needs enough meat to make digging into his or her past worth the effort. It’s refreshing to have more games like this in the world but there’s still a lot of room for improvement.
© James Blake Ewing 2017