Tacoma is a science fiction drama of survival experienced as a video game. Playing as a contractor named Amy who is recovering the artificial intelligence (AI) from a space station in 2088, you encounter the specters of its vanished crew through fuzzy recordings of their colorful silhouettes. Some of these voyeuristic scenes, retrieved from a fragmented augmented reality technology on the station, are from months ago, others are just hours, and each adds to a heightened sense of dread about their fate.
The recently released game was created by Fullbright, the studio behind the popular 2013 Gone Home. Where Gone Home had players navigating an empty house in the Pacific Northwest, piecing together the narrative of its absent family, Tacoma is set in a more isolated home. You can dig through the crew members’ belongings in their air-locked rooms and messy gym lockers, read their private messages, and eavesdrop on their interactions with the AI, called ODIN. There are key codes to find and doors to unlock that can add to your understanding of how the six-member crew dealt with the station’s sudden lack of oxygen.
Or, you can simply stand there and wait for your AI data to download, then go back to your waiting ship. How much you want to witness in Tacoma is entirely up to the player, as it unfolds more like a work of theater than a game. Indeed, co-creator Steve Gaynor told Rolling Stone that the developers were inspired by Sleep No More, the long-running immersive theater piece based on Macbeth staged in New York and now Shanghai. As in Sleep No More, character arcs can be observed in loops as you activate and rewind the recordings, following individuals as they break off from the group. There’s even a sly nod to one of Sleep No More‘s haunting musical moments, with a character strumming a lonely version of the Peggy Lee hit “Is That All There Is?” on a guitar.
Yet Tacoma falls short in a real emotional connection with these stranded characters, especially as its deus ex machina ending (helped by the god-like AI) resolves everything a bit too neatly. Perhaps I prefer my sci-fi more dystopian than utopian, but I was hoping that some of the darker threads would have more complex endings, such as a doctor’s decision to not tell a coworker about her grim chances of surviving cryogenics. There are ominous footnotes of gene screening for children, the corporate control of this station’s staff, and the automation of work, and they remain only an undercurrent to the plot. It also could have been interesting to give your character a decision at the end on the future of the AI, using the information gathered in the story to consider what that choice means for humanity.
Nevertheless, it’s a worthwhile game for pushing the narrative potential for digital storytelling, much as Fullbright previously did with Gone Home. Floating somewhere between interactive fiction and walking simulation, Tacoma asks for a few hours of your time to engage with its slow pace, unraveling how this space station came to be populated with digital ghosts.
Tacoma is out now for PC, Mac, Linux, and Xbox One.