Review 【Tacoma】 2017-08-19 03:50:39
If you’ve ever wondered what it would feel like to live in space, boarding the Tacoma would be a great way to find out (at least if you don’t mind dropping into the middle of a slowly-unfolding disaster). From the developers of Gone Home, this is another masterclass in environmental storytelling, filled with real people, not just characters, even if you only get to know them through what they’ve left behind. Their space station, too, has a personality of its own, not to mention some of the best views in the solar system. Tacoma may have a fairly standard sci-fi foundation, but the experience Fullbright has built on top of it is a memorable fable of humanity in the face of adversity.
The year is 2088, and the crew of the Tacoma are preparing to celebrate Obsolescence Day, the eighth anniversary of the day that advances in AI officially made humans obsolete. We still don’t quite trust AIs, such as the station’s benign overlord ODIN, to run things entirely unsupervised, though. That’s why the station still has a crew of six. Okay, seven if you count the official feline mascot and pet, Margaret Catwood. It’s hard not to feel that the crew are a bit superfluous, a point brought home early on by station commander E.V.’s struggle to list their achievements and find something that they weren’t simply told to do by ODIN. Even the party was organised by ODIN, down to sending out emails with recipes and instructions on how to make party hats. (Conical hats that I couldn’t help noticing looked a lot like dunce caps.) Despite all that, however, the crew are chatting happily and enjoying themselves. Right up until a sudden explosion rocks the station, leaving them stunned and on the brink of disaster.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. You play Amy Ferrier, a contractor and AI specialist who’s called to the now-abandoned station a few days later to retrieve ODIN’s physical “wetware”, the hardware component that makes him who he is, as well as download the station logs. It’s made very clear that you’re to get in, do your job, and get out, without poking your nose where it doesn’t belong. But where would be the fun in that? Especially with such an intriguing mystery to investigate: what happened to the crew, and why?
If you wanted to be glib, you could say that Tacoma is very much what the people behind Gone Home did next. In space. They’ve again designed an intricately-realised world populated with distinctive, relatable characters, leaving you to explore and play at your own pace. It’s far from being just more of the same, though. Aside from the sci-fi setting, which immediately lends it a very different feel and dynamic, it also features scattered augmented reality (AR) recordings, taken by the station’s sensors, of the crew at crucial moments. These bring up digital ghosts, walking and talking around you as you continue to poke about. The fact that they’re not perfect, realistic avatars, just person-shaped blobs of colour, somehow makes the experience all the more striking, emphasising that the vibrant characters you’re tracking are just recorded memories and not real live people in the room with you. Memories of people who aren’t even officially part of your mission, but who you can’t help getting to know and care about.
The world of Tacoma is absolutely stunning, presented in the same crisp 3D style as its predecessor, with some improvements to things like shadows and floating dust motes to add to the realism. The station follows a classic wheel-shaped design, with a zero-G hub running down the middle and the different modules at the end of spokes, rotating steadily to provide a feeling of gravity. There are leisure facilities, a botanical section, a medical bay, and engineering/network areas. It all feels very carefully thought-through, both in terms of the facilities and the interior design, which does a good job of softening the traditional metal paneling with more organic materials like wood and fabric. The rooms are also full of jaw-dropping observation windows, showing you views out into the void with the rest of the station gently gliding past. At times, I’d just stop and take a moment to drink it all in.
If the station feels like a hybrid of practical engineering and an upscale hotel designed by IKEA, that glossy marketing brochure perfection is brought straight back to reality by its occupants and their reassuringly messy habits. Each crew member has their own living quarters and an office, and they’re all packed with personality. One’s taking painting classes and was in the middle of painting a bulkhead mural, while another’s Britishness is put front and centre by the picture of London Bridge on his wall and the terribly polite letter to his mother in a drawer. He’s also into jazz and theatre (going by the playbills). There are books, photographs, discarded food cartons, even toiletries in the bathroom, and all of them can be picked up and played with. Add in the many emails and IM conversations the crew have left behind and you’re given startlingly detailed, authentic-sounding portraits of people with their own hopes and dreams, struggles and guilt.
The soundscape is as carefully curated as the rest of the world. The baseline is a steady background of ship sounds, like the air conditioning, booted footsteps, groans, whirrs and hums. On top of that, though, each crew member clearly likes to play their own tunes, providing a distinctive backdrop to each AR recording. Some, like Clive’s vintage jazz or Natali’s rock, are quite catchy, while others are more like muzak. (The toilets, in particular, all have the option to play musak, presumably for privacy.) One memorable moment is an AR recording of E.V. just sitting on the bed with her guitar, playing “Is that all there is?”.
The voice work, likewise, is great. The atmosphere is very tense for much of the game, and the actors do a good job of playing people who are stressed but forcing themselves to keep it together: you can hear the emotion, but they don’t chew the scenery. Clive is reserved but (thankfully) not caricatured British, while Natali sounds perky and energetic. E.V., meanwhile, is always striving for a professional tone that inspires confidence in her leadership while still showing that she cares. The station’s AI, ODIN, is also a notable presence with his gravelly voice and calm personality.
The interface is minimalist and VR-inspired, although oddly this isn’t actually a VR title. You start out on your own ship with no obvious interface at all, just a first-person view that you can control with the mouse and WASD keys. I thought I might get disoriented when I reached the zero-gravity hub section, but it’s actually pretty intuitive: just press forward to fly in the direction you’re looking. When you’re looking right at something you can pick up or manipulate, a small labelled bullseye appears and you can then left-click to perform the appropriate action. Once you make it on board the Tacoma, your first task is to put a pair of “ardware” AR discs just below your ears. These have three functions, the first of which is to add an overlay that identifies rooms, puts signposts on the walls, and identifies the objects you pick up.
The second function is to provide you with an “AR desktop”, which you can toggle with the TAB key. This brings up a series of icons, floating in front of you, that you can click on to show messages from your employer, a map of the station, and a few other things, with the items you click on appearing off to the side so you have to look around a bit to read them. At various points, you can also access the crew’s desktops in a similar way.
The last and most distinctive function is to show you the AR recordings themselves. When you walk into an area where a recording is available, you’re prompted to press space to view it. Any crew members in the area appear as wireframe skeletons fleshed out with bodies shown in graduated colour, going from nearly white at the top of the head to more saturated at the feet, and each is colour-coded based on their job. They also have icons on their backs, and looking directly at them brings up their name and job title on the AR display, just to make absolutely sure you know who you’re looking at. The recording then starts to play, as if they’re there with you but can’t see you.
Each recording is pretty short, only two or three minutes, but because most of the crew are usually present, having their own individual conversations, there’s a lot going on. Thankfully, you can pause, rewind and fast-forward the recording using a bar at the bottom of the screen. I found myself following one conversation through, then rewinding, looking around, and playing back through again following somebody else until I’d seen everything. It’s a wonderful way of presenting quite complex environments and interactions in a manageable way, especially since the interactions, and the people involved in them, ebb and flow.
At various points, the recorded crew members access their AR desktops and, if you’re standing close enough when they do, you can click on them to gain access yourself. The station’s logs have become corrupted, so not everything’s accessible, but this is another way to get to know them and find out what they’re thinking. To help you find everything, the points when desktops are opened are marked on the bar, with the appropriate icon flashing when they’re actually open and an open folder hovering in front of the relevant character.
A small complicating factor here is that when one of the crew opens a door in the recording, you’ll still need to open the door yourself, and some of the doors are locked with passcodes. As with Gone Home, there are essentially no puzzles, just the occasional need to hunt for a passcode or key. These aren’t hard to find, particularly for the seasoned adventurer, but they do help to guide your progress and make sure you see the story in the right order. And speaking of progress, your employers need you to download the logs from each section (or at least pair of sections) in order, and just to make sure you do, all the other hatches are sealed. That’s for the best, though: the story wouldn’t make as much sense experienced out of order.
As you wander the Tacoma, you can interact with most of what you see, picking up one item at a time, spinning it around by dragging with the mouse and zooming in by right-clicking. Since this is about exploration, not puzzles, most of these are there simply for atmosphere, so not having a conventional inventory isn’t really an issue. Instead, you’ll find yourself, for example, picking up a book, reading the dustjacket, and then putting it back. There are also basketball hoops waiting for your zero-G slam dunk, a pool table with balls waiting to be potted, and fallen letters that can be returned to a sign, among other distractions. It felt both fascinating and slightly ghoulish to be poring through people’s lives like this, but – like every aspect of this artfully-designed experience – it helped to draw me in and make me a part of what was going on.
If Tacoma has a weakness, it’s the slightly-cliched underlying plot. This isn’t a long game – about 2-3 hours for most, depending on how much of a completist you are – so the story is more a matter of broad strokes than intricate detail, but even so it’s one that anyone who’s seen more than a handful of sci-fi movies will have heard before. None of that matters, though: it’s hard to feel that you’re just going through the motions when you’re surrounded by the people who are caught up in it, struggling and fighting and refusing to give in. It particularly got to me when, towards the end, I was getting to know the crew so well that I started to anticipate how they’d react and what they’d do, even down to the way they’d phrase their messages.
The world-building is likewise a mindful interpretation of a standard sci-fi trope, with divided nations (Amy hails from the California Republic) that are starting to play second fiddle to corporations that run their own universities and have turned Loyalty into an actual currency. While some campaign against abuses (E.V. is a staunch unionist), others just try to keep their heads down and make the best of it and, again, it’s the groundedness of their reactions that prevent this aspect from feeling tired.
As the credits rolled on Tacoma, I was left feeling thoughtful and slightly dazed, as I let go of my friends from the past three hours and tried to readjust to the real world. The few small plotting issues pale in comparison to the sheer immersiveness and power of the experience, from the gorgeous graphics, innovative AR features and dramatic space vistas to the quieter, though no less intense, moments with the crew. It’s an experience that will stay with me, one I know I’ll be revisiting again in the future, and it comes heartily recommended to anyone with even a passing interest in good storytelling.