It’s been nearly four years since I spent a sweltering summer night fixated on my computer screen, exploring the sprawling Greenbriar mansion and uncovering its many hidden secrets. Piecing together journal entries, answering-machine messages, notes on the refrigerator, and piles of paperwork, I was soon able to paint a vivid portrait of the family who called this suburban Portland estate home. Nearly every item strewn throughout the house told part of an increasingly poignant story—and by the time the game reached it’s cathartic conclusion, I was left stunned and silent, convinced that I needed to share this experience with as many people as possible.
I wasn’t alone in being completely blindsided by Gone Home, the 2013 debut from Portland-based video game developer the Fullbright Company. The game’s realistic and meditative story resonated with gamers and non-gamers alike, and it helped pave the way for likeminded indie studios to showcase narrative-driven adventures. Bringing thoughtful characterization and detailed worldbuilding to the forefront proved that games could tell deeply moving stories while forgoing the use of heightened action sequences and mind-bending puzzles. As more developers expanded upon the concept, the initially disparaging term “walking simulator” was eventually embraced by those looking for more of what Gone Home offered.
With their long-awaited follow-up, Fullbright leaves behind Gone Home’s ‘90s Portland nostalgia and sets course for Tacoma in the year 2088. No, not Tacoma, Washington (although the city and its dome are amusingly referenced), but rather a sprawling, abandoned lunar transfer station floating somewhere between Earth and the Moon.
You play as Amitjyoti “Amy” Ferrier, a technician tasked with boarding the Tacoma in the aftermath of an unexplained disaster. Your task is to recover ODIN, the station’s highly developed but malfunctioning artificial intelligence system, and our employer, the Venturis Corporation, has provided a set of guidelines for carrying out the recovery process via Amy’s slick, augmented reality interface. The vague-yet-strict nature of the task at hand is suspicious enough to warrant a slight feeling of unease as you dock with Tacoma and enter it’s zero-gravity hub, but you’ll need to explore each designated section of the ship if you want to get to the bottom of it all.
When it comes to telling a story, Tacoma uses the futuristic sci-fi setting to its full advantage. Shortly after boarding the space station, you discover ODIN has conveniently preserved a handful of holographic projections tracking the crew’s movements and conversations. Some of these recordings date back months, while others were captured just days before your arrival, providing you with a glimpse into the morale of a crew facing a life-threatening predicament. All six crew members (and one crew cat!) are represented as color-coded silhouettes, and while the ghost-like figures lack detailed features, they're all realistically proportioned and animated, which goes along way toward making them lifelike embodiments of the characters they represent.
While interacting with each of these recordings, the player can pause, rewind, and fast-forward through them. This becomes a necessity if you wish to digest every bit of a scene’s spoken dialogue, as the projections tend to inhabit entire branches of the Tacoma space station. Characters walk from room to room, branching in and out of private conversations with one another, interacting with the ship’s environments, conversing with the AI, and keeping in touch with friends and family back home—so it's up to you to manipulate each scene in order to make sense of the overarching picture. It all makes for a compelling way to tell a story, far more elegant than the the traditional “uncover the audio logs” approach that quiet exploration-based games have leaned on in the past, and it’s here that Fullbright takes Tacoma well beyond any unwarranted “it’s just Gone Home in space” quibbles.
The preserved data also grants the player access to individual crew members' workstations. Poking around each desktop plays a big part in fleshing out each character’s backstory, with tabs displaying everything from chat transcripts and open web browsing tabs to social media profiles and online shopping histories. Fantastic writing and a clever usage of “corruption” within these partially preserved desktops means that paging through the screens never feels like an overbearing information dump. More importantly, the info gleaned goes a long way toward fleshing out each crew member. If you enjoyed all the snooping in Gone Home, you’re going to relish this aspect of your experience aboard the Tacoma.
You spend so much time in Tacoma following threads of banter and conversation that it’s often easy to overlook the game’s excellent soundtrack. Credit to Fullbright for keeping things local and including three songs by Portland-based noise-rock outfit Floating Room, all of which are used to punctuate particularly emotional moments in the game. Elsewhere, strong sound design and delicately composed background music set the scene without feeling overtly sci-fi, while subdued mood music can be found trickling in and out of earshot, especially while messing around in Tacoma’s impressively detailed space lavatories.
Like Gone Home, Tacoma is proof that Fullbright's knack for environmental storytelling is second to none. One of the highlights of Gone Home was getting to know the Greenbriar family by investigating every nook and cranny of their living spaces, and Tacoma continues this trend by giving you access to living quarters and offices for all six crew members. Paraphernalia tied to a humorous boy band is scattered throughout the station, while detailed artwork, books, and pamphlets all do their part to build a world beyond the walls of the Tacoma. The lounge area boasts an interactive pool table and dartboard (complete with an image of the much-maligned Venturis CEO plastered over the bullseye), while a Settlers of Catan knock-off sits, ready to go, on an adjacent coffee table. It’s clear Fullbright had fun creating and dispersing these objects around the environments, and it’s well worth going through the trouble of investigating each item before tossing it aside. Just like with Gone Home, you’re able to fill in sizable chunks of backstory if you’re willing to overturn a character’s living quarters in search of a few small details.
Tacoma is proof that Fullbright's knack for environmental storytelling is second to none.
Following the game's sudden—but deeply satisfying—conclusion, when it finally came time to leave the Tacoma, I wasn’t quite ready to part ways. The three hours I spent exploring the space station left me with a desire to learn even more about each crew member and their off-station lives—a testament to how well Tacoma is able to develop its characters in such a short amount of time. Meanwhile, I'm still thinking about some of the bigger-picture questions raised by the game, regarding loyalty to corporations and the looming role of AI in our lives. In other words, Tacoma made a lasting impression that’s going to stick with me for quite some time—and with an experience like this, that's about the best thing you can ask for.
Developed by the Fullbright Company
Now available on PC, Mac, Xbox One