Words About Video Games

Confused Perspectives in Tacoma

Played Tacoma yesterday. It's another puzzle-light exploration adventure from the makers of Gone Home. Like the earlier game it aims to take a space that is well explored by combat-centric games and strip them of combat, allowing the player to focus on observing their surroundings and examining the material artifacts of the place. For Gone Home, this setting was a Resident Evil-style mansion; for Tacoma it's a space station.

It tells an engaging story about workers' rights in the future our space-obsessed Silicon Valley billionaires dream of, but for a number of reasons, I don't think it's as successful as Gone Home, either as a story or as a game.

What really worked for me about Gone Home was that the premise was so immediately clear and relatable. You are Katie, a college student who's been away from home for a year, studying abroad, and when you return, not only has your family undergone changes in your absence, they've moved house, so that your home is quite literally not your home anymore. Nobody is there when you arrive, and the sense that things have gone wrong in your absence hangs heavily over your exploration, as you become increasingly invested in your fictional family's traumas.

In Tacoma, your identity is kept deliberately vague. You are some kind of AI retrieval specialist, once again entering an abandoned space where you're unsure what happened to the residents. It's harder to slip into this character's skin; you are a person with a job to do and no real cause for investment in the lives of the people who were here before you. This puts an immediate barrier between you and the action, one that's never fully overcome.

*SPOILERS FOLLOW, Skip to end spoilers to continue*

Now I'm going to spoil the ending of the game because this is a thing that I've seen several games do that just does not work for me.

A vague identity can be a great opportunity for player roleplay. A blank slate for player choice. This is where I thought the game was going. It does not go there. There is no player choice.

Instead there is a "twist" that you were not who you thought you were all along. Instead of working for the faceless corporation to recover an AI that's become too independent, you are part of a rogue cell that's liberating that AI.

This twist is not executed by means of amnesia or handlers who lie to you or a case of mistaken identity, or any kind of plot device that would explain why the player character does not know who they are.

You play the game from the first person perspective; meant to be embodying a character and seeing the world through their eyes, but they have vital information that is relevant to how they perceive events that is not shared with you until the end of the game.

The end result is that when the twist occurs it is, on the one hand, a relief--you want to save the AI by the end--and on the other hand, a betrayal. The game played a cheap trick. Instead of being the pawn working for the faceless corporation and then realizing that you want to side with the AI after seeing what happened on the space station--a satisfying character arc--you were in fact someone who came wanting the liberate the AI all along and then did so.

That's not a story! That's a protracted fetch quest! And you're no more the player character you're supposedly playing as than you are the AR mannequins who act out their little theatrical scenes around the station, replaying the events of the last three days. 

The power of video game narrative is being able to externalize character journeys through player action. Tacoma punts on this. There is no character journey being externalized. It withholds this information because to share it with the player would be to render its story utterly boring. This is a flaw, and one that could have been solved in any number of ways--whether by giving the player character real personal stakes in the narrative (like Katie in Gone Home) or by giving the player a compelling choice to make based on what they've discovered and thereby allowing them to live out and empathize with a character arc.

*END SPOILERS*

Apart from this objection, Tacoma's story presentation is one step forward, one step back from Gone Home. The scenes you follow around the station (or not) are an improvement over Gone Home's disembodied narration, but they also have the effect of distracting from the worldbuilding. A game designed around the idea of freeing up the player to observe the environment paradoxically ends up focusing the player's attention on single-color, faceless, blocky character models. Environmental puzzles, minor though they were in Gone Home, are replaced almost entirely prompts to click on email and text message data at pre-marked places in each scene, giving the entire exploration a kind of rote, mechanical feel. "Check off each of the points on the timeline" and then move one.

The best thing about Tacoma is its cast. The voice-acting is well done, and the people populating this station remind me of my own workplace. They all come from very different backgrounds and nationalities, and it's a testament to their writing that you eventually do become deeply invested in their fate.

If Gone Home was your thing, I still think Tacoma's worth a play. But if you haven't played Gone Home, it's in almost every way the superior game, a true classic where Tacoma is merely competent.