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In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Requires active player involvement
  • Tacoma station is a believable and functional space station
  • Themes of corporate malfeasance
  • Likeable characters
  • Surprisingly straightforward ending

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Simple puzzles
  • Don't get to know the characters as much as I'd have liked

Overall Impression : B-
Socio-economic commentary gets more attention than the human story

Tacoma  - cover

Developer:
Fullbright

Platforms:
PC, Mac, and Linux (via Steam <, Good Ol' Games, or itch.io),
PlayStation 4 (via PSN digital download),
XBox One (via XBox Live digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $20 USD

Original release date:
1 August 2017

Genre:
science fiction mystery

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
3 hours

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature 17+) for:
Sexual themes and Strong Language.
MegaBearsFan's parental guidance: appropriate for most audiences due to:
slight innuendo and depictions of a corporate dystopia.

Official site:
https://tacoma.game/

Here's another short sci-fi game from my Steam backlog. Tacoma is Fullbright's sci-fi follow up to its masterful walking sim Gone Home. This time around, instead of playing as a young girl discovering the secrets of your family, you play as an agent of a corporate conglomerate sent to retrieve the company's A.I. hard drive from a defunct space station in which an emergency threatened to kill the entire crew. Instead of reading notes and journal entries, you instead replay holographic representations of logs that the station's onboard A.I. recorded of conversations between the station's crew members.

You have to eavesdrop on recorded conversations as holograms move around the station.

The whole process is much more active and player-driven than the exposition of Gone Home (and other walking sims) because the holographic recordings of the characters move around the stations and converse in real time. You don't just walk into a room and read a conspicuously-placed note or listen to passive narration. You'll have to follow the characters between rooms, and keep track of multiple conversations at once as the characters come and go, and as they split up from large group meetings and start to have smaller, more private conversations. Each recording will usually have 2 or 3 independent conversation threads for you to follow. As you follow each character around, you'll also be spying on their personal text messages and emails.

This gives a greater sense of participation from the player (compared to many other walking sims) and provides a greater illusion that you are solving a mystery. That being said, there's nothing too challenging about finding and listening to all the possible conversations. They aren't elaborate puzzles that will take time to figure out. You just follow each character around the space and listen to them. It keeps the player interacting with the game space without ever applying a high bar for progress.

Don't expect to be stumped by the puzzles.

Without spoiling too much, there is only one ending, and you aren't going to be punished for not uncovering all the available evidence. The worst aspect of the game's "walkign sim" nature is that you're also never asked to apply any of the knowledge that you acquire from your investigations other than a handful of numeric combination codes for unlocking doors and the like. These codes are basically just progress gates to provide the illusion that the game has "puzzles", but the early exposure to these key codes will further encourage the player to snoop around more thoroughly for potential clues to future puzzles or progress gates. It isn't very intellectually challenging, but it does encourage the player to pay more attention.

Corporations are not your friend

While most walking sims focus heavily on character backstory, Tacoma emphasizes world-building. First and foremost, the station that you explore feels very real and functional. Its arms rotate to create artificial gravity, it's clear where all the food, oxygen, and water comes from, and there's even a nifty little mechanism for moving quickly between sections of the station. It's a bit unclear if the augmented reality interface is supposed to be some kind of neural implant, or if it's a physical holographic projection, but that's not a big deal. The technology all feels real and achievable in the immediate future.

Tacoma station feels like a place that could exist in the not-so-distant future.

Your investigations of the events leading up to the disaster will reveal a dystopian future of corporatocracy, with companies like Amazon and Costco operating universities whose diplomas are only useful as references for jobs within that specific company. It's a world in which the law protects corporations so thoroughly that they can essentially blackmail employees into breaking the law under threat of being fired or demoted. And since education and credentials earned by one corporation are not necessarily transferable to other corporations, being fired can mean the end of one's career and livelihood. These companies can literally hold their employee's entire livelihoods hostage.

Tacoma is a game about a runaway corporate culture that cares more about the company's stock price than about the lives of its employees -- let alone their dignity. This, in particular, is a message that hits particularly hard when playing Tacoma in 2021 (as I did), at the [hopefully] tail end of the COVID-19 pandemic. This past year saw companies like Amazon and >Observer_), Tacoma's corporate dystopia feels much closer and more imminent. While >Observer_ dealt with high concept sci-fi ideas like transhumanism, Tacoma deals with the much more relevant issues of jobs being replaced by automation and employers using your Facebook posts as if it were your resume.

Tacoma depicts a scary future corporate dystopia that could be reality before we know it.

While I appreciated the socio-economic commentary, it does come at the cost of human characterization. You still learn a lot about the human characters, their relationships, and their struggles, but I just never felt as emotionally connected to these characters compared to the characters of Gone Home. The player avatar has a certain professional distance, and the crisis situation on the station means that all the characters have to promptly put most of their personal issues on hiatus while they try to save their lives. We only get brief glimpses of the characters' personal lives, and very little of their normal interactions and relationships with each other. The end result is a game that feels a lot less intimate than Gone Home, and therefore lacks the emotional punch that helped make Gone Home so affecting. It's a shame too because the game is mechanically more engaging at the same time that is is narratively less engaging.

Lesbian innuendo is apparently enough for the ESRB
to flag this game with "sexual themes" and rate it "Mature".

A "mature" rating from the ESRB?!

I would be remiss in my review if I don't rant a little bit about my complete and utter befuddlement that the ESRB saw fit to give the PS4 release of this game a "Mature" rating, citing "sexual themes" and "strong language". Maybe there was a "fuck" or two dropped here or there, and a few "shits", but not enough to warrant the video game equivalent of an "R" rating. As for the "sexual content", the only thing that I could think of that might have triggered somebody at the ESRB is that there is a lesbian couple who share a bunk, and have a sign posted outside their quarters saying "If this bunk's a rockin', don't come a-knockin'." And I think there was a holographic kiss or two. This game was released in 2017! What Puritanical homophobe at the ESRB thought that little bit of innuendo makes the game inappropriate for anybody under 17?!

Heck, you can find packs of cigarettes and empty bags of wine around the station, but yet the ESRB didn't bother to include a "drugs or alcohol" warning in the rating. I know the ESRB isn't perfect, and that it's going to miss things here and there. But this isn't a 90+-hour open world live service that takes place on a thousand square kilometer map and that gets significant updates every month such that everybody's play experience is going to be very different. This is a 3-hour walking simulator that takes place in about a dozen individual rooms and their interlinking hallways. Does the PS4 version have a log that depicts some explicit sex scene that isn't in the PC game? According to the Steam achievements, I got all the crew logs when I played, so I didn't miss anything.

... But no warning for the tobacco or alcohol references?

Seriously, what the heck game did the ESRB play?! This review is more "mature" than the bloody game!

OK, I was curious and did some research after writing this review, but before publishing it. Apparently the lesbian couple also keeps a vibrator hidden next to their bed. I didn't find it in my playthrough. I guess it's a testament to America's puritanical fear of sex that such a small detail is enough warrant restricting the sale of a game to minors, yet it's apparently OK for those same kids to shoot each other with guns all day in Fortnite (which is rated by the ESRB as appropriate for "teens"), while also engaging in real-money gambling with loot boxes.

A space mystery

Tacoma frames itself much more as a mystery game compared to Gone Home. Gone Home spills its beans relatively early in its story, and then largely becomes a very personal and compelling "coming of age" story. Tacoma holds back its twists till the very end, and thus can more realistically call itself a "mystery" game; though it's not hard to see the particular twist coming. I do have to say that I am relieved to play an artsy indie game that has a straight-forward ending. So many of these games insist on throwing in some pretentious, ambiguous ending that can be interpreted in multiple ways. Not so with Tacoma. It has a message that it wants to tell, and it communicates that message in no uncertain terms, then it ends before it wears out its welcome.

Without spoiling too much, it's also nice to see a dystopian sci-fi future that actually has a relatively optimistic outlook regarding how humans will actually treat each other. This sort of story can (and so often has) fallen into the trap of writing characters to bicker and distrust each other and follow a "screw you, I got mine!" philosophy in how they react to a communal crisis. That doesn't happen in this game. The shared crisis brings all these characters of different demographics and backgrounds closer together, and despite each having their own personal baggage, they each do whatever they can to benefit the group. Even the on-board A.I. ends up being less belligerent than early-game clues would seem to imply! In fact, that's kind of the whole point of the game: that worker solidarity is the only way to fight back against systemic corporate oppression. This slight flicker of optimism is a light at the end of a tunnel that could have been entirely dark, nihilistic, and depressing.

It just goes to show that Fullbright is one of the masters of the emerging walking sim genre, and that confidence is apparent in the way that their games communicate their stories. Their environmental design, the way that I feel like my curiosity and light exploration earns new details about the story instead of it being handed to me with zero effort, and the pacing out of information is just so good at drawing the player into the experience (at least, it has been for me). All of that is just as true in Tacoma as it is in Gone Home. The "walking sim" genre may be summarily dismissed by some gamers out there, but Fullbright does it about as well as anybody, and I look forward to playing their future projects.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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