[NOTE: There's going to be MAJOR SPOILERS here for Gone Home's big twist and MINOR SPOILERS for Tacoma's story—leaving it limited as possible. Viewer discretion is advised.]
The commercial & critical success of Gone Home feels like a relic a different epoch altogether—though the alt. media polarization remains encased in ice. Whereas once feeling like a vanguard along with The Stanley Parable back in 2013, walking sims have become a dime a dozen. A lot of exciting stories with various mechanical tweaks have come since then, making any surprise that much tougher. And this is what Tacoma falls into…somewhat. While still building upon the investigative blueprint of before, Fullbright's sophomore effort—though not bereft of surprises—can't fully escape from the fading new-car smell that's invaded the genre since its inception.
The story takes place upon the Venturis-owned Lunar Transfer Station named "Tacoma." The player-character is Amitjyoti Ferrier (Amy for short), a hired contractor meant to both retrieve the on-board AI and investigate what occurred to the human workers via restructured AR simulations. The preliminary assessment points at a hull rupture from oncoming debris; there’s a ticking clock for the Tacoma crew.
Keeping in tow with immersive sims, Fullbright's environmental storytelling is once again a highlight. And it shouldn't be all that surprising. Like many other developers inspired by Looking Glass Studios, level-crafting takes an approach more intended on producing a believable, realized world rather than segmented challenges that increase in difficulty for the player to overcome. And while there's more of a structured through-line here than in Gone Home that emphasis is doubled in creating this sci-fi world.
From beginning to end, the world-building is consistently engaging. As the starting hook of a potentially-rogue AI always leering over became background, the political and economic situations of this diverse cast is emphasized via scattered files and environmental queues. This hazarded future showcases some interesting concepts that's led to their situation: the final phase of corporatist hierarchical structures, the downfall of currencies replaced with accrued loyalty to said corporation, and the response unions have made. It's quality speculative fiction. One of the best small touches is the Tacoma crew celebrating 'Obsolescence Day' when the inciting incident occurs. To put in context: it's a day literally meant to celebrate unions maintaining human-powered stations despite them being, well, obsolete compared to their AI counterparts. This little detail not only humanizes the six crew mates but also ties in thematically.
That kind of thorough-yet-succinct approach bleeds into each of the characters as well. Replicating Gone Home, there's several environmental objects and light puzzles to logic which gradually reveals these disparate personalities onboard. Similar frustrations seeped into the world-building are communicated through the characters too: the doctor dealing with corporate-harassment for *x reasons*, familial frustrations of striving to be the breadwinner while away ninety percent of the time, a married couple retrofitting their bunk because Venturis assumed one-person beds was the universal expectation, and more neat details. There's so many interesting dynamics to consider. On top of that, the nick-nacks scattered throughout provide personal touches of each person's habits and ambitions. The best way to tie this up: it's surprising to me that over a year on I have more fond memories of color-coded skeletal figures and their ticks than many AAA games' characters & high-res models.
Where the praise comes to a head is in its structure; not to say the plot itself is bad, but rather expected and constraining. Although the limited runtime does no harm in examining each character, the plot moving along can't help but hit a set path: go from X part of station, then Y, Z, until hitting a few twists at the conclusion. And said twists leave...just a bit to be desired, you could say. As I stated, I want to try minimizing spoilers here so I'll try to put a subdued SPOILER below:
[Begin SPOILER for Gone Home and Tacoma]
You know how Gone Home’s conclusion subverts expectations by suggesting a tragic suicide but ends on a feel-good note of Sam & Lonny absconding on their own? Tacoma is in a similar vein of concluding that hurts its impact—unlike how Gone Home shames the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope with intention. And I don't begrudge the meaning behind it here; however, it just doesn't have the same ring to me. In a way, the buoyant denouement for the Tacoma crew feels like a defanging of the more incisive & blistering overtones seen throughout.
While I've concluded with spoilers, I should say the final moments before credits also harm the sense of self-authorship the game did so well in building up. One of the best aspects about Gone Home was in utilizing player expression within the walking sim template. Kaitlin Greenbriar, the player, had no pre-defined character leaving her to her own devices in an empty mansion free to throw everything around in the living room while being extra careful to set everything back in place in her parents' room. That unstructured approach made it much more surprising when unraveling the main story, plus some in-game winks from the devs predicting player behavior.
Nevertheless, Tacoma's story never seized in piquing my interest; plus, such a compact game covering so much ground earns due deference.
Beyond the dialogue or exposition Tacoma's setting informs so much about the world. In an age where open worlds can be so expansive that Ubisoft spokespeople can spout imaginary kilometers of play space, it's nice to see when developers go all out on density and interactivity within such a limited area. The art-style compliments this confinement too within the little details: spacing, the text for each area, the shapes of AR-rendered individuals, and more. There's some pretty good technical chops to consider too, especially the visceral sensation as always feeling like you're in space. It's the small things like playing with gravity or the plethora of windows reminding you of the station you're currently occupying. Great visuals overall, only harmed by some annoying performance issues.
Sound also succeeds at giving this a lived-in feel. Not only limited to one voice actor, Tacoma's ensemble did a great job of vocalizing their lines for the needed emotion. Carl Lumbly’s dry, stentorian delivery for ODIN booming in did a great job of selling the 'rogue AI' aspect borrowing from 2001's HAL but with vocal nuance. Keeping to Fullbright's penchant, the soundtrack is dualistic: borrowing a few licensed tracks to play along with more jazzy sci-fi tunes for the OST. Sound design does an adequate job in accompanying this sci-fi world as well.
Gameplay is less of a reinvention but instead reinterpretation of Gone Home's penchant for playing amateur detective. There's still discovery via found objects, but the main thrust comes in watching AR videos (typically running 4 minutes) and rewinding over and over to view each perspective. It's taking the expectation of audio log collectibles and reincorporating them in a way that feels full-bodied. There is something so interesting in replaying, re-replaying, and re-re-replaying these slices of the Tacoma crew as they're going through their day-to-day lives or figuring out how to avoid calamity.
It's also a great way of providing more authorship to the player. Since you have to be within a certain limit of these characters to listen, there’s demand to mentally map where certain people are at one time and putting their stories together. If one's not interested in a certain character, players can forego learning about them. But another hook is in having time-limited AR displays tied to a certain character within that scene. At different moments, a certain character will have a heads-up display for you to select for examining semi-corrupted computer files.
[BRIEF SEGWAY: The computer files brings me back to something else reminiscent in Gone Home: disguised brevity. I’m still shocked as to how limited Kaitlin Greenbriar’s lines are after having gone back to play Gone Home years later. Similarly, the amount of half-finished e-mails is exorbitant yet doesn’t feel such. It’s as though you’re in this grey area of hankering for more info dumps whilst feeling satisfied with the window you’ve been given.]
That's the crux of the gameplay with a few minor puzzles scattered about. Granted, it's another walking sim taking from that template but it does a great job of burrowing its own niche, its own character. I don't want to overemphasize it to that of Firewatch's level of involvedness vis a vis the walkie-talkie and map orientation, but it is another template I'd love to see get more attention. Instead of relegating exposition to picking up another audio log, what happens if players can replay an audio/video log of an entire community, emphasizing interactive storytelling even further? That's the thing that sells Tacoma as being more than just another walking sim.
Despite having a similar loop, a knock against Tacoma would be the more rigid structure. I’ll still see people complain about the speedrun method of Gone Home being available at all times, potentially letting a newbie jump right to the ending. But the design philosophy behind that is so interesting! It presented a more freeform implementation of sleuthing: free to leave lights on, messy-up rooms, and possibly clean others. Despite the option to throw stuff around there’s less impetus to do so in the segmented corridors of the Medical wing or Tech wing; which feel even further apart since they're hubs with discreet loading screens. Coupled with the more antiseptic setting, this heightened linearity hampers the most underappreciated element from Fullbright’s previous.
As with Gone Home, value is going to be a sticking point for many. Twenty dollars used to be a shock for a game of this length back then, but that's become more expected now. From my experience, I will say the length felt a bit longer than Gone Home and there are more small bonuses to appreciate. If those appeals aren't enough for you, I'd suggest waiting for a sale. Until then, I find it to be a title worth that price point, though harmed slightly due to such a constrained length harming the plot structure.
Tacoma may not excel past its predecessor in some ways, but I'd be remiss to consider this a "sophomore slump" by any metric. Perhaps it's in the nature and genuine surprise Gone Home delivered in its time that makes it tougher to venerate Tacoma to the same extent. Nevertheless, Fullbright succeeds in making another sincere game that holds your attention throughout—most often through its interesting world & charming characters.
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