There's a sense of loneliness and isolation in the endless vacuum of space. Living among the stars is an idea that's been romanticized across fiction, but at the end of the day, it's a closed-off existence and one fraught with peril. Even aboard a seemingly-safe space station, it only takes a single accident to stare a horrifying death in the face. That's one of the main ideas behind The Fullbright Company's official sophomore effort, Tacoma. Like Gone Home before it, Tacoma is an interactive story that unfolds over the course of a few hours. However, while it features charming characters and interesting philosophical ideas, Tacoma ends up feeling more like the seed of a grander story with greater potential, one that ends just as things start to pick up.
Tacoma centers around a futuristic space station, manned by a crew from a massive corporation looking to establish housing for space tourism. As main character Amy Ferrier, the central premise involves boarding the Tacoma space station and piecing together the events of the previous 72 hours, utilizing the ship's records and fragments of its central artificial intelligence, known as ODIN.
The game quickly starts to feel like a forensic investigation, as Amy "meets" members of the Tacoma crew via AR recordings and learns of their pending fates. She's able to rewind the AR recordings as many times as she wants, as she can follow any of the crew's members to hear their distinct (and private) conversations, connecting more and more of their stories. Some of those private conversations come into play later in the story, ultimately helping shape out the story's resolution.
The Fullbright Company has previous excelled at putting together a coherent, fleshed-out story through the use of objects, diary entries, and the like, depending on the player's natural curiosity to tie together the narrative pieces. That seems to be less the case in Tacoma, as players quickly learn that while it's possible to interact with objects, they're mostly inconsequential. In fact, because there's no real inventory system to speak of, objects are either good for fleshing out trivial aspects of a character or simply there for window dressing. That roll of tape lying on the floor? It's tape. It's just tape. That feeling will come a lot.
In keeping with the forensic spirit of the game, players learn of characters' stories by playing out simulations of the past few days across different parts of the Tacoma space station. Character moments are where Fullbright truly shines, but this game suffers from something of a split focus. It tries to give poignant moments to all of the crew members, but because of the story's brevity, it doesn't quite work. I wasn't able to attach myself to any of the characters, outside of neurotic medic Sareh Hasmadi, who spends a bulk of the game establishing a rapport with ODIN. The bond between Sareh and ODIN becomes one of the game's true highlights, as players get to see alongside the medic just how AI is able to learn, adapt, and evolve over the course of the story.
Like Gone Home before it, Tacoma features a narrative twist near the end that puts the story on its head. Unfortunately, it's a lot more predictable this time around and almost borders on the cliche. Worse than that, it's severely underexplored. While there are a few notes available to read, the twist feels underdeveloped and underwhelming. Worse yet, there's no real fallout explored from it. Even something as small as a brief epilogue explaining what happened would have been a more satisfying experience.
The emphasis of imagination is a strong aspect of these games. Tacoma encourages it through incomplete transmissions, download failures, garbled messages, and the like. It wants the players to fill in those blanks themselves. However, in certain cases, including the aforementioned ending, imagination is no substitute for strong exposition. There are places here where imagination works and there are others where it falls short.
Tacoma lays the foundation for a truly great story, but a short length and some unexplored ideas leave it feeling lacking. I loved the characters I met over the course of the story and there are some standouts. ODIN, voiced by Justice League Unlimited alum Carl Lumbly, is particularly a treat. But by the end, I was hoping for just a little more from them, as well as more from the whole concept as a whole.