Tacoma Preview - E3 2017
A haunting space exploration
They call it the sophomore slump. While over the last decade we’ve seen numerous IPs explode into the video game scene with exciting new ideas and creative innovations, it’s been hard to find a second act that exceeded or even matched the initial offering. Developers like Jonathan Blow, Mike Bithell, The Chinese Room, or Dennaton Games burst onto the scene with exciting first games, then had their second efforts fueled by the hype of anticipation, only to launch with varied results. Enter Tacoma, the second outing for Fullbright, whose previous entry Gone Home was a Game of the Year nominee and a critical success. It will be interesting to see if Fullbright can deliver another engrossing exploration adventure.
From the trailers, Tacoma looks and feels like a very different game. It seems to owe far more to BioShock than Gone Home. That might be no accident, as Fullbright co-founder Steve Gaynor was the writer and design lead for the BioShock 2 DLC, Minerva’s Den. The dark and creepy mansion has been traded for a fluorescent space station. Creaking floorboards and discarded notes are instead a world of computers and airlocks. The only thing that remains from Gone Home is the disconcerting ambience that lingers through the empty halls of your location. There are no dead bodies, no signs of violence, but the quiet carries a heaviness that says plenty on its own.
I begin the game floating in zero gravity. My weightless body is propelled forward by pushing the analog sticks. Exploration in space isn’t anything new. Just this year, Arkane Studios’ Prey sent players wandering through an abandoned space ship, and last year the VR experience Adr1ft challenged players to navigate their way through zero gravity. But the motion in Tacoma feels like something all its own. While weightless, there’s a slow and deliberate pace that makes the movement feel difficult, like you’re moving through pudding instead of vacuum.
Much like in Gone Home, I find myself investigating the mundane clues left in the world built by Fullbright. Even at this slow pace, I find a basketball and hoops that are attached to the spinning walls of the station. Instantly, I can imagine the crew filling their free time playing the sport in zero gravity. I float to one of the hoops and drunk the ball, then I notice the scoreboard that shows the tally of the crew’s last game. I explore further and find red warning signs that blink all around me - data is corrupted, large portions of the ship are offline. Little moments like this lead to the bigger questions of Tacoma - what happened to these people?
The game then instructs me to pull up my AR interface. The next instant, my screen is filled with a glowing AR menu, providing files on the player-character’s history and why they were assigned to this job. Some data and options are canceled out, leading me to believe that while I’m investigating the happenings on the space station, I’ll also be discovering what the protagonist’s purpose is for visiting Tacoma.
After closing the AR menu, the only open door leads me to an elevator - well, it’s like an elevator. My character slips their foot into a platform and are lowered into a shaft. When we exit the shaft, gravity has returned and Tacoma becomes more like a traditional walking simulator. I immediately come to a fork in the halls of the space station and see a computer that I can interact with. I take out a datapad and insert it into the computer. A data transfer begins and I’m told it will take a while, so there’s no harm in exploring a bit and coming back once the file transfer is complete.
The next room I find resembles a dining room or a break room. Here I can trigger an AR file and watch a scene play out featuring the inhabitants of Tacoma. The scene resembles the voice-over narration from Gone Home in terms of how it serves the plot. However, instead of simply having a diary entry narrated to you, you watch the action playout before you. Characters are defined by colors, there’s a red humanoid shape, talking with a yellow humanoid shape. If I look at these character stand-ins, my AR interface provides me with more information about them.
The most interesting part of this scene is how it triggers two conversations at the same time, happening in two separate rooms. While a couple discuss their future in the dining room, two other station workers discuss the celebration they’re about to have in the adjacent kitchen. I can pause the scene and rewind it to make sure I get all the details, but I almost found it more fun to leap between conversations, naturally editing the dialogue - getting the gist of what was being discussed, but leaving room for mystery.
Right when the characters are about to begin their celebration, the station is struck by a piece of debris. A dialogue begins about how long the crew can survive in the damaged ship - the outlook is not optimistic. Within 48 hours the crew suspects they will be dead. Yet, it feels like this isn’t the reveal, but the first piece of a larger mystery ahead. With that, the scene ends, returning me to the uncomfortable quiet of the station.
I continue forward and find the private quarters for a crew member. Their personal belongings are scattered about, providing clues to who they are. Another option for an AR scene comes up and this time it’s only a single character, sitting on their bed, singing while they pluck the strings of their guitar. The song ends and so does my time with Tacoma.
Tacoma will be available August 2nd 2017 on PC and Xbox One.