What impressed me most about Tacoma was how normal it felt, and how surprising in turn that normalcy was to me. The game is full of AR recordings showing you silhouettes of the crew members of the station that you’re investigating; and a couple of those silhouettes were noticeably pear-shaped. Which, when I first saw them, surprised me; but then that immediately raised the question: why am I surprised? None of the silhouettes were particularly abnormal compared to people that I’d encounter in day-to-day life; and actually those silhouettes are probably more representative of my day-to-day life than the body types that I normally see in video games!

(Of course, the answer is obvious: video games generally aren’t interested in presenting day-to-day life. They instead want to present a stereotypically idealize life, and for female characters in particular, that puts pretty drastic limitations on what body types are acceptable.)

And once I got past the surface: Tacoma paints a picture of a life that’s surprisingly normal on a day-to-day level, too. The crew isn’t a band of intrepid heroes on a mission to save the galaxy: they’re a bunch of workers (contractors, even!) who are trying to get by. Making a living doing a job that they seem to basically enjoy, but where they’re also clearly not the ones in power; but people who have a lot of other stuff going on in their lives beyond their jobs, some good, some bad, all mundanely personal.

Again, totally normal in day-to-day life; and actually also normal in other artistic media. If this plot were in a book, I wouldn’t blink an eye; games, though, generally stay far away from that sort of mundane slice-of-life approach.


Tacoma does have a bit of a bite in how it depicts that slice of life, though. The game takes place in the future, which means that it needs to extrapolate; and the extrapolation is clearly interested in the struggle between corporations and workers. The workers are contractors, but with long-term, repeaedly renewed contracts (which is already depressingly familiar in tech circles, though the IRS did start cracking down on that a few years back). And the mention of, for example, “Amazon University” suggests that the spread of corporate control across society has increased, and payment in terms of “loyalty points” shows that scrip has returned. (But hey, those loyalty points are probably more valuable than most stock options! :rimshot:)

Fortunately, one trend that apparently has reversed compared to the present-day United States is unionization: the union is there to at least try to fight for the workers. Again, something unusual: this is admittedly largely a sign of the sector that I work in, union jobs definitely still exist in the country, but I don’t hear unions talked about day-to-day much at all, and the percentage of workers covered by a union has declined dramatically.


So: Tacoma is telling a story that’s unusual for the medium in terms of how normal it is, and that focuses on labor issue in a way that’s unusual both for the medium and for the trend of the times. (Or at least for the trend of the last two or three decades; in the last couple of years, discussion of labor issues has actually gotten quite a bit more frequent.)

And it’s doing this as a video game, within the walking simulator genre. I’m not an expert in that genre by any means, but I like what Tacoma is doing with it. The replayable AR scenarios give you something to focus on, and to observe from multiple angles, as you follow different characters through the same scene.

These AR recordings provide a better solution to the NPC problem than I’ve seen in other walking simulators. You don’t have to pick up context exclusively from the environment; they don’t feel like movies, because you can control the position that you’re observing them from, and can fast-forwarding and rewinding as you please; and the screens that are available at various portions give them an extra texture. Also, having six characters to follow is a nice balance between letting you feel like you’re understanding a community rather than seeing one person’s story while avoiding spreading your attention too thinly: it’s definitely the case that each person’s story matters, but they also matter as a group. Not that I think this is necessarily a better or worse approach than, say, Edith Finch, but the AR recordings are a solution that works well and that is new to me.

The core plot is linear: sections of the station unlock in phases, and in each phase, the AR recordings are, conveniently, closer to real time. I can imagine a different game using the same approach of AR recordings but presenting them as a crystal, where they all were giving different lenses on the same point in time, with later recordings giving new insights that encouraged you to re-watch earlier ones. That’s not the choice Tacoma took; I’m a little curious to see if Her Story (which, conveniently, is going to be next month’s VGHVI game) will feel different in that regard.


The AR recordings aren’t the only plot/information/setting delivery device, though. In each recording, you get access to personal communications; each crew member has their own workspace with a desk that gives you more information about what they’re experiencing; and each crew member also has their own personal space. And then there’s the station as a whole, in particular with the common rooms as well.

Which is a nice balance of information delivery devices: significantly richer (and, to me, more pleasant) than the combo of audio logs plus textual infodumps than I’m used to. Also, there are a lot of objects to pick up; that turned out to be interesting because of how mundane the vast majority of them were.

Mundanity might sound bad, but it turns out that the quantity of mundane objects meant that the game got me thoroughly out of the adventure game mindset of “you must pick up every single object”. And the objects certainly weren’t all mundane: instead, they fit into a spectrum, with juice boxes and what not at one end, progressing to objects that mattered to somebody (jewelry, art works) but didn’t necessarily have a clear, explicit link to other parts of the exposition, then to letters and such giving a more direct bit of insight into what a person was thinking, and a few objects (keys, keypad codes) that are there strictly for gameplay purposes. So the result was that you could walk through the environment feeling like an (extremely nosy!) observer intsead of like somebody playing a game looking for the next trigger.


I’m quite glad to have played Tacoma; and I’m glad that Fullbright continues to push the genre forward, both mechanically and thematically.

(Side note: if it’s a tossup between you playing on Xbox and PC, you might want to choose the latter. I played it on the former, and while it was definitely playable, it may also have been the single laggiest/jerkiest console game that I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing.)

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