Tacoma plays like an exercise in world-building told through character interaction and experiences, rather than exposition dumps. In that way, it sidles closer to Dan Simmons' Hyperion than 2001: A Space Odyssey — despite its premise.
You play as a mostly silent technician, sent to the recently evacuated Tacoma space station to retrieve an artificial intelligence. That mission is muddied slightly by the remaining "ghosts" of the crew that you encounter at your destination, their recorded conversations playing out as 3D holograms which wander about the station. Since you're a typically nosy videogame protagonist, you comb through their final moments aboard the station, piecing together the events that predicated their escape.
Those events aren't quite as important as how they're relayed to the player. Interactions between the crew and ODIN, the station AI, occur in real time and real space. If you want to get the full story, you need to follow one or two crew members at a time. Then, you rewind the "scene" and stalk a different character. Repeat as necessary.
Over time, the rewind and replay functions were used exactly as I expected. Following any one conversation re-colors the next. Tacoma's botanist asking the medical officer about radiation, for instance, means something different once you learn the botanist’s son is worried about his father's health. That changes, too, once you dig through letters and emails that imply the teen might only looking for an excuse to get his dad back on Earth.
These small details form a loose narrative of their own as well. We learn that while friction over race, gender, and sexuality is basically nonexistent — at least within the orbiting Tacoma space station —exploitative capitalism and gibbering startup culture are more potent than ever. Currency has been replaced with "Corporate Loyalty Points." At some point, Elon Musk became president. Citizens of Earth's solar system, split into nations very different from ours today, are educated by and work under corporations like Google and Amazon almost from birth. Even 70-some years in the fictional future, most of Tacoma's crew is getting screwed by corporate politics in some fashion.
I was worried Tacoma’s social optimism and economic pessimism for the future would miss a very important connection between the two. How did humanity move “beyond" bigotry while economic oppression that depends on, and reinforces, those boundaries thrived like a weed? The game sidesteps the issue by periodically reminding the player that Tacoma station is actually a pretty crap assignment, a career dead-end to which the crew has been exiled. That frees us up to let the genuinely diverse cast -- their stories and their voices -- be the focus, rather than an economic metacommentary on the forces which landed them here. The story manages to maintain this focus, even as it continues to criticize the “hire more women guards” neoliberalism undergirding its setting.
But while there’s a lot to unpack with the story, I’m less enamored with the act of peeling back those layers of critique. Tacoma’s scene rewinding is provocative, but it never crosses past that into surprising. At just 3-4 hours of total playtime, Tacoma doesn’t have room for the rewind-and-reassess mechanic to stretch its legs. The above example -- with the botanist and his son -- is about the highest level of “oooh”-worthy moment the game ever takes its storytelling mechanism. The “gimmick” plateaus early and stays there.
Everything else ramps up nicely, however. With so many fascinating characters to choose from, I suspect it’ll be hard for anyone to not see a bit of themselves in the little neuroses you tease out of the Tacoma crew’s stories. I particularly like the second-in-command who’s worried he isn’t charming or likable enough. Every time I heard him refer to Tacoma’s captain by some sobriquet, like “head honcho,” or “chief,” I remembered the crappy self-help book I found in his quarters which advised doing just that.
It might lack its own true clinching moment, but that kind of asynchronous storytelling does elevate the game’s strongest elements -- namely, the story and characters. More than that, it does so by taking advantage of traversable 3D space that only games can provide. Quibbles about climaxes aside, I’m a sucker for blending “sense of place” and plot like that. It just didn’t wow me the way it could have.
That might be the point, however. Developer The Fullbright Company’s last game, Gone Home, was an awfully muted tale. For all the praise and attention it received, it was really just slices of everyday people’s ongoing lives. Tacoma seems more ambitious than that, what with the sci-fi setting and robot brains, but it stops at the same goalpost as a character study.
It’s broader than Gone Home, focused as it is on the entire Tacoma crew, but that just gives Fullbright an excuse for one more shot of social optimism. Literally and figuratively squeezed together by a flawed system, the cast comes together in crisscrossed relationships -- sometimes as lovers, often as friends. It takes a lot of clever world-building to get there, but the sci-fi artifice is worth it to enhance the idea that people, generally, support each other under hardship.
It’s very sentimental. It’s also something we’ve seen in the real world. Besides, together with Tacoma’s reminders of other, less pleasant aspects of everyday life, I’m happy to let its lighthearted side seep through.