Fullbright (formerly The Fullbright Company) entered the indie scene with 2013’s Gone Home, a narrative adventure game in which players explore a deserted family home to learn what happened while they were away. For their second outing, Fullbright takes players to the stars with Tacoma, a game where you explore a deserted space station to find out what happened to the crew. If these games sound similar, it’s because they are — at a fundamental level, they share the same basic premise and gameplay structure. But Tacoma is more than just “Gone Home in space.” It is a well-realized narrative experience that rewards players willing to seek out the little details of its world and cast of characters.
You play as Amitjyoti “Amy” Ferrier, a subcontractor hired by the Venturis Corporation to board the eponymous Tacoma and recover the station’s artificial intelligence, ODIN, after an accident forces the 6-person crew to evacuate. The station uses an augmented reality system to monitor the crew and allow them to interface with everything from key systems to the sinks and toilets in bathrooms. As Amy moves from compartment to compartment, she is able to view previously recorded conversations between crew members via this same AR system, which in turn allows players to piece together what happened and how the crew managed to escape. The plot of the game is fairly standard sci-fi stuff, although there are some twists toward the end that shake things up a little. It’s the stories of the crew — all the little bits and pieces you put together from AR recordings, emails, texts, and various items found on the station — that really make the game shine.
The crew of Tacoma are a diverse bunch representing multiple races, faiths, and gender identities. The station administrator is a black woman, the medic is a Muslim, and the mechanical engineer and network specialist (both women) are happily married — to name a few. You learn this, and more, about the crew, but these identifiers are never presented as anything other than normal, which is refreshing. As you explore crew quarters and recover data from their AR desktops, you find clues about their pasts, and each nugget of information you uncover serves to widen your perspective on who these people are and what their world is like. These “aha” moments are absolutely my favorite part of Tacoma.
It’s good that the game does an excellent job with its small cast of characters and the small slice of the world that is Tacoma station. Because exploring these characters’ lives and the events on the station is pretty much all you do in the game. The station itself is comprised of a central, zero-g hub around which three rings spin in order to create artificial gravity. You move from one ring to the next and explore the modules housed on each as you wait to download AI data. Every module has at least two AR recordings that you can recover and view as long as you’re in range. Recovering these recordings spawns AR wireframes that represent the bodies of the crew and the audio of their conversations. The wireframes are very basic, displaying little else other than a crew member’s body shape, name, job, and a unique color you can use to quickly identify them. Despite their minimalistic design, the wireframes can be surprisingly expressive; they are capable of showing subtle movement and thus emotion, like one crew member placing a hand on another’s shoulder in order to comfort them.
There are two interesting elements to these AR recordings. First is that, as with any other type of recording, you can pause, rewind, and fast forward at will. This gives players a great deal of control over how they view these recordings, allowing them to do things like repeat certain segments to watch from different angles or fast forward through huge chunks of time to find one particular moment. This is important because of the second element of these recordings: simply put, people move around. The crew may start in one place at the beginning of a recording, then split up into different compartments to hold multiple, concurrent conversations. The dynamic nature of these recordings means that you’ll often be rewinding or fast forwarding as necessary to view all the different branches of a given scene, and seeing how these complex sequences play out can be pretty fun.
Other than the AR recordings, however, you’ll spend your time recovering data from the crew’s desktops, or rummaging around their personal quarters for various paper documents and other objects to shed light on their various histories. Occasionally, you’ll have to use what you’ve found in the world to get the combination for a door code (or just watch a crew member input it during an AR recording), and there are also a few locked storage compartments that require you to hunt down keys to open them. But that is the extent of the gameplay in Tacoma. There’s nothing bad about this if you know what you’re getting into, but those expecting anything more involved may be disappointed.
Graphics-wise, Tacoma is more than competent at what it sets out to do. It won’t knock your socks off or tax your graphics card with its vistas, but there’s still something compelling about the lived-in environments you walk through. From a crew member’s office that is strewn with doodled-on post-it notes, to another’s quarters where an entire wall has been painted over to create a work of art, the living and working spaces on Tacoma can often tell you just as much about the crew as the objects you find in them. The UI of the various AR menus and documents is also quite attractive, and there’s even a cool utility to these displays for those playing the game in the any of the eight supported languages: AR signage automatically changes to your selected language, and anything you view in the real world that is written in a different language is automatically translated and presented as a dynamic overlay.
On the sound front, the voice acting is great. Each crew member has a distinctive voice, which helps a great deal when the only other thing you have to tell them apart is a color-coded wireframe. Unfortunately, you pretty much have to be looking straight at characters in order to clearly hear them. This is a bit of an annoyance when you’re dealing with multiple characters moving around an environment, but it’s by no means a deal breaker. There’s no real music outside of a few songs you hear crew members listening to in the AR recordings, and none of it stands out much, but that’s not a huge problem in a game like this. Indeed, the quiet serves to emphasize the emptiness of the station and makes you pay more attention to what you discover as you move through it.
Finally, a word about performance and control. The game ran smoothly for me in most areas, but the transitions between the central hub and the three rings were always accompanied by a marked slowdown and even some screen freezing. This is no doubt because of the game loading the next area in the background, but it does break immersion just a tad. I had very few issues controlling the game via keyboard and mouse once I turned the sensitivity settings up, but I strangely found the short zero-g segments to be markedly trickier to control when I plugged a gamepad in. Of course, I may just be spoiled by the amazing zero-g sequences in Arkane’s Prey, so this is a minor issue.
Tacoma is a short game. You can get through it in under three hours, and even my more methodical playthrough only took me about seven. But Tacoma is also a well-done narrative adventure, with a diverse cast, good art design, and an interesting twist on the audio log mechanic that is so overused in a lot of modern games. I do wish that some of the narrative threads had been extended a little longer, for both the crew and the dire situation they find themselves in, but I’m still ultimately satisfied with the story I got. If the length and the $20 price tag don’t bother you, Tacoma is worth checking out.