As a writer myself, I have a solid appreciation for narrative focused games. The “walking simulator” genre has become quite popular recently, with great releases like Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch popping up more frequently. In the walking simulator genre, you usually do just that; walk. Interaction with the environment is common, but you’ll rarely see large puzzles or action sequences. Instead, walking simulators focus on telling a story and using the first person perspective as a tool of immersion. Developer The Fullbright Company busted the genre open with their hit game, Gone Home, and are looking to recreate that magic on a cosmic scale in Tacoma. Let’s see how it shapes up.
This review will contain NO SPOILERS for the main story of Tacoma or any of the character stories.
Surveillance to the Max
There’s not much I’ll say about the story of Tacoma beyond the set up, as the game itself as a focused but brief experience. Most of the magic of Tacoma will be found in exploring your surroundings and watching the story play out, and I wouldn’t want to ruin that. However, I can comment on the quality of said experience without ruining much.
In Tacoma, you play as a sub-contractor working for a large corporation sent out to retrieve data from the titular space station. The space station is set up like a wheel, with the center acting as a hub. Different areas are accessible through this hub, and you’ll make a linear journey through them. You’ll explore the personnel quarters, mechanical bay, engineering area, and more. In the opening moments, you equip an augmented reality overlay, allowing you to access a personal desktop with messages and information.
The Tacoma also records all movements and conversations of its small crew of six, and thanks to the AR tech, you’re able to view these recordings. Each area you visit will contain a main hologram that plays out an event that happened. You simply press play and watch the hologram proceed, following different characters around and unraveling the story along the way.
Although there is a mystery to solve regarding the space station and its missing crew, the interpersonal stories of said crew members take center stage throughout the experience. When I started Tacoma, I simply referred to the crew by their designated colors; red, orange, purple, blue, yellow, and green. After completely exploring the first section (which isn’t very long, by the way), I knew all their names and their struggles as well. It’s a testament to just how well the game is written and voice acted.
While the overarching narrative is interesting and pays off well, I found myself much more invested in the characters. It deserves reiteration; the writing and voice acting on display produces some incredibly lifelike and complex characters. Each has their own struggles, fears, and motivations. There’s also a great attention to detail, and spending some time examining items and taking in your surroundings is well worth it. Tacoma pushes you along at a decent pace, enough so that I expect many people to completely miss a lot of the personal storytelling. Sometimes entire character defining events are confined to a single article or document you’ll stumble upon, all of which can be easily missed if you’re not taking the time to explore.
Playing With Time
Using holograms as a storytelling technique is a smart choice here, and a lot of that can be attributed to the control it allots you. Unlike a standard cinematic or dialogue sequence, you can rewind, restart, and fast forward the recording. Character holograms move around each area, often times splitting up or joining in on each other’s conversations. You’ll most likely watch the a recording multiple times, simply choosing to follow one crew member’s hologram around. However, if you miss a line of dialogue or need to hear something again, you can easily rewind on the spot.
Most of the actual gameplay comes from following the characters around; there aren’t many puzzles to complete or things to do. Early on in the game, there’s a few neat things you can do in the environment, but these distractions slowly become less and less common. Tacoma really puts the characters and story at the forefront, even more than their first game, Gone Home. There’s a few keypads you might need to find a code for, but I would hardly call finding these keycodes a “puzzle”, but rather just looking in several obvious places. All things told, there’s not much challenge or deduction to be done when playing Tacoma.
The Bottom Line on Tacoma
As a story and collection of characters, Tacoma is absolutely fantastic. As an actual game, it leaves a bit to be desired. Personally, I don’t need bells and whistles to enjoy a story, but I know there’s many people who will find themselves bored if not immediately compelled by the story. Don’t let the sci-fi setting fool you, Tacoma is much more a story about humanity and emotion than the dark reaches of space.
The great performances and storytelling make it easy to empathize and form bonds with all of the characters. It’s not a very long game, clocking in at around 2-3 hours, and I honestly think that adding on another hour of content would’ve gone a long way in fleshing out the characters. Additionally, only people looking for every bit of information (or achievements) will find replayability. If you’re a fan of games like Gone Home or Firewatch, I can easily recommend Tacoma based on its narrative merits. If you’re a gamer who likes a bit of action or puzzle solving in your walking simulator, you might find Tacoma a bit hollow. For me, it’s a great experience that I wish was a bit more fleshed out, but well worth the time.