Also On: PC
Publisher: The Fullbright Company
Developer: The Fullbright Company
Given that Gone Home may have been my favourite game of last year, I don’t think it’s hyperbole when I say that Tacoma was my most anticipated game of 2017. I mean, another walking simulator from the team behind one of the genre’s best? Sign me up.
I’m happy to report that, for the most part, it delivers. Like Gone Home, Tacoma tells an intimate story of a small group of people, and does an exceptional job of conveying who those people were through fragments of conversation and mementos left behind. The difference here is that Tacoma is set in outer space half a century from now, which means that those fragments have a much more futuristic feel. Old conversations are replayed right in front of you thanks to the spaceship’s AI; each character, rather than being portrayed realistically, is instead portrayed by humanoid-shaped colours. It’s an interesting way of getting around the uncanny valley, particularly given how much the story relies on conveying human emotion. From a gameplay perspective, it’s also pretty helpful — not only does it make it easy to track the different characters as they move around the ship, it also makes each of them instantly identifiable, since you don’t have to differentiate between a group of people in similar-looking spacesuits. Admittedly, with a cast as diverse as Tacoma’s, differentiation wouldn’t be as hard as it is in other games with a main cast this large, but it’s still a nice feature.
Additionally, Tacoma does an excellent job of creating a specific place and time. In fact, in some ways it does this even better than Gone Home did. After all, that game was able to rely on era-specific markers and attitudes to create its setting; it didn’t need to build a world from the ground up, since their world already existed. In Tacoma, by contrast, Fullbright Company faced the challenge of making a believable world set 60+ years from now. They do so by imagining a world that, despite its reach into space, isn’t so different from the one of today. Country names have changed, but they’re still recognizable, and many of the corporations of today have evolved their offerings to adapt to the world in fairly believable ways. The music, when there is any, sounds appropriately futuristic, and glimpses into characters’ lives beyond the spaceship give thoughts and concerns that are fully relatable.
Having said all that, the game isn’t without its flaws. For one thing, it’s incredibly short. Obviously, the way the narrative is structured, it wouldn’t make sense for Tacoma to take any longer than just a few hours. It’s not the kind of game that lends itself to fetch quests or collectibles or other pointless padding, after all. However, even with that in mind, it’s still not hard to feel the game is over as quickly as it began.
As for the larger problem, that can’t be addressed without getting into my problems with the story, so I’ll preface it all by saying SPOILER WARNING. You could skip down to the end if you want to avoid knowing what happens, or I’ll just save the suspense and tell you know that I gave this game an A-. Either way, reading the next paragraph will give something away about the plot, and Tacoma is the sort of game that is probably best experienced without any knowledge of how it all ends.
I’ll just give stragglers a moment to look away…
My main problem with Tacoma is that, like Gone Home, it has a happy ending that doesn’t feel entirely earned. Don’t get me wrong: I love happy endings, and it always depresses me when a piece of art ends on a down note, and that especially goes for a medium as interactive as video games. However, I want those happy endings to feel like they’re the logical endpoint of the story being told. Just like Gone Home seemed to be the story of a girl uncovering a family tragedy before you get to the very end and discover that everything turned out okay in spite of literally everything else that’s come before it, Tacoma seems to be the tale of a group of doomed astronauts coming to grips with their fates before everything turns out okay in spite of literally everything else that’s come before it. If anything, the happy ending feels even more like a swerve here: as things quickly go from bad to worse (and then to downright sinister), the game seems like it’s committed to being a downer, and then there’s an sudden shift in tone, a ghost in the machine almost literally saves the day, and the game ends.
Again, I don’t want to stomp all over a happy ending. I like finishing a story and feeling a pleasant glow. But when the story up until that twist seems like it’s going to be about one thing, and then it abruptly changes gears to something else entirely, it’s hard to not be a little discombobulated. I may not like where the story is leading, but at the same time, Tacoma tells the first 90% of its story so beautifully and so heart-breakingly, I’m invested in it enough that I’m not going to complain if it goes where it logically seems to be going.
Like Gone Home, however, because the first 90-95% of the game is so perfect, I’m not going to condemn Tacoma for the crime of having an ending I disagree with. I may not entirely love where it winds up, but the journey getting to that point is so pitch-perfect, it’d be wrong of me to say it’s anything other than a must-play experience for people who enjoy a good walking simulator.