Video game narratives have made great leaps in recent years, and much of that is thanks to games that don't necessarily push the limits of the game aspect of the medium. Perhaps these games are best described as interactive narrative experiences, although some call them walking simulators (a term that has a slight derogatory inclination, but also does a decent job of describing the challenge they present and the main gameplay mechanic).
The Fullbright Company made a name for themselves with Gone Home, pushing the known boundaries of environmental story telling, and for their next game, Tacoma, they wanted to explore themes like artificial intelligence, worker's rights, relationships, and how people cope with pressure and stress. What better place then than a space station with its limited space, reliance on AI, and the potential for disaster.
The player (Amy) arrives on Tacoma (that's the name of the space station) after the crew has left due to some kind of catastrophic trouble that you're unaware of as you arrive. You're in the dark as to the fate of the crew, but your mission is to retrieve AI data from the station. As you go about extracting the AI data from various quarters you'll also see recorded scenes of the crew play out as holograms in front of you. You can follow them around, some times multiple conversations are playing out in different parts of the section you're exploring, and there are opportunities to peek inside the personal files of the crew members to learn more about their communications and thoughts. There are items to interact with, cats to find, and easter eggs to explore, but as expected the gameplay itself is very streamlined in order for the narrative to take centre stage.
By moving around the station, collecting the data, and watching these scenes (forwarding, rewinding and stopping them at your convenience), and perhaps most importantly observing your surroundings (including the items the crew have in their rooms that help you get to know them) a narrative is assembled. It may sound a bit fragmented, but the core narrative is actually very succinct and effective in its presentation. You're watching events unfold that took place a few days up until a good number of hours before your arrival. It's well told, but ultimately it leaves you feeling a bit detached from it all. Clearly, a deliberate move, but it is a double-edged sword and the payoff for this detachment isn't unveiled until the very end, as you'd expect from a Fullbright game.
There we've said it. There's a twist, or perhaps a couple towards the end, and as a whole, the narrative brings up themes that will make you think. It's one of those games that you'll probably process for a much longer period of time than the two hours or so that it takes to finish (you can obviously take your time and explore the surroundings more, or rush through the main narrative, it's your choice). The beauty here, though, is in the work that has gone into setting up the living quarters of each of the six crew members and their communal areas.
In terms of visuals and presentation, Tacoma does a great job. The colour-coded holograms are easy to follow, and there's plenty of visual splendor to take in while you're onboard the station. The voice work is tremendous and it's the quality of the performances that really make the holograms appear as if they were real people with real emotions.
One overriding theme of Tacoma is that of big brother and personal integrity. The crew members are constantly monitored and recorded, and they've made peace with it. It's part of the job. Playing the game you can't help but feel that you are invading their personal space as you read their chat logs, emails, voice chats and look through their belongings. You're privy to uncensored private emotions, tender moments (there are two romantic couples among the crewmates), moments of desperation, and the more mundane. Not knowing what actually happened to the crew only makes this feeling more intense. This feeling of invading someone's privacy, along with the feeling of being a bit disconnected to the narrative and events, does detract a bit from the level of immersion we experienced. A trade-off for delivering a worthwhile message.
A thought-provoking game then, that's perhaps not up there with the likes of Fullbright's own Gone Home or Giant Sparrow's What Remains of Edith Finch, but it's certainly worth a playthrough if the genre and subject matter appeals to you. It is said the devil is in the detail, but that's also where you'll find the brilliance of Tacoma.