E3 2016: Tacoma Takes Gone Home's Eerie Mystery Hooks into Space

It takes at least two or three projects to start seeing a pattern in a developer's work. The Fullbright Company, now on its sophomore project and with the BioShock DLC Minerva's Den having served as a transitional step for co-founder Steve Gaynor, is certainly a familiar sight for those who played Gone Home. It's another eerie, isolated exploration experience driven by a central mystery. And like Gone Home, it looks to be a methodical one, as you seek answers regarding what happened to the crew of the Tacoma.

As an independent contractor brought on by the owner of Tacoma Space Station, you've been hired to ascertain exactly what happened aboard. It doesn't take long to see some of the potential cracks, as the on-board A.I. Odin begins to glitch almost as soon as you clear the first platform. Any space station story with a seemingly malfunctioning A.I. is bound to bring up thoughts of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Gaynor says he hopes to make a story that isn't quite that obvious from the start.

"You don't want it to end up being the thing everyone figured at first, but you can definitely have cheap twists where it's like, 'well, there's no way I could've known that was going to happen'," he said. "Landing that middle-ground is challenging, but I think that's the benefit of starting from familiar tropes.

"Gone Home was a dark and stormy night in an old, creaky house, so from the start there was an assumption of a horror game, that something terrible happened here. So hopefully, subverting that by making it about these individuals that I got invested in for different reasons than I expected to was kind of our version of a twist. I never wanted it to be like: twist, she's gay! Hopefully, similarly in Tacoma, you're on an abandoned space station, there's an A.I. that has malfunctioned. I'd hope that you start thinking, 'is it going to be this or this or this?' and we can get to an end-point where it wasn't any of those things but feels legitimate."

Despite the seemingly grisly background of Tacoma, the crew at least seems to have made it out alive. I was told they were evacuated, but why the company sent a contractor to investigate rather than simply asking the survivors is part of the mystery, and more plot detail than Gaynor and co-founder Karla Zimonja were willing to give at this time.

That leaves you to piece together the clues by gathering artifacts. It's similar to Gone Home, but this time the sci-fi setting brings another tool to your disposal. The A.I. Odin recorded crewmate conversations, and at various points you can play them back, or scrub through conversations to hear what was going on among different crewmates simultaneously. The crew is represented by colored sillhouettes, and you can see their natural movements as they talked. A few mentioned "Obsolescence Day."

"People in isolated areas make up a lot of holidays, especially in places like the arctic where season don't change much," Zimonja explained. "In space it's very much the same. It's an artificial holiday."

Gaynor added some more context to the history of this world. At some point, the stations were meant to become fully automated, which would render the human crew obsolete. Since that didn't happen, he said, "the people who still have jobs throw a party every year," sarcastically ribbing their all-knowing, all-seeing A.I. companion in the process. 

Another conversation, just before the party got underway, revolved around the entire crew being re-upped for another period of assignment. One of the crewmmates pointed out that such a move would be unprecedented--and that's when the disaster began. An explosion of some sort rocked the cabin in the playback, wasting most of the station's breathable air and cutting off communications to earth. That was the first step in learning what happened, but there's certainly much more to uncover. 

Of course, Gaynor and Zimonja aren't unaware of their studio's reputation. When I asked about how their prior game ended up drawing battle lines in the gaming community, they took it in good humor and looked on the bright side.

"We never really saw people being upset about it being an LGBT theme or tearing it down for that reason," Gaynor said. "The complaint was, 'this isn't a game!' I think that kind of says something nice about where our discourse is at--since the controversy wasn't about gay people, it was about how it wasn't worth twenty dollars." 

I suspect that some of those "not a game" trepidations will be assuaged by the more familiar trope of a sci-fi setting. Regardless of whether it silences all of their critics, though, Tacoma appears to be the next step in Fullbright's storyteling trajectory, building on its past successes and expanding to an ensemble cast. I'm looking forward to solving the mystery.

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