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

The Fullbright Company is definitely developing its own identifiable voice with Tacoma, as its sophomore game shows a knack for isolated mysteries with exploration at the helm.

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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.

Editor-In-Chief
From The Chatty
  • reply
    June 15, 2016 1:34 AM

    Steve Watts posted a new article, E3 2016: Tacoma Takes Gone Home's Eerie Mystery Hooks into Space

    • reply
      June 15, 2016 4:45 AM

      Definitely taking a wait and see approach with anything this company does. I can't think of too many games besides Gone Home where I was actually pissed off after finishing it. The fact that it's not really a game, or very short don't even really both me that much. None of the suspense and tension in that game are created by the story, it's all cheap tricks. The game starts out with probably the biggest trope in the history of storytelling (It was a dark and stormy night), sets you up all alone in an abandoned house, makes a few feints towards the occult and by the end of it all absolutely not a single god damned thing actually happens with the story. Towards the end I thought something awful may have happened to the sister, but nope. Nothing, she just Tracy Chapman'd the fuck out with her lover. Then you find out the parents unexpectedly skip off out of town to (presumably) rejuvenate their marriage. So the game just sort of ends, I realize that all of the tension and suspense are created externally, and basically feel like diversions covering up the fact that this game should have lasted in 30 seconds, because her asshole family should have JUST LEFT HER SOME FUCKING NOTES TELLING HER WHERE THEY WENT LIKE NORMAL PEOPLE DO.

      Gone Home is the video game equivalent of "It was a dark and stormy night, let me tell you the most mundane fucking story I can think of". I felt like such a sucker by the end, thinking there was any real reason for me to feel any kind of suspense while playing it. Fuck that game.

      • rms
        reply
        June 15, 2016 9:31 AM

        Yeah, you completely missed what GH had to offer. It was a well-told YA short story, that in olden days of yore was presented inside a physical object with printed characters on sheets of paper. And that's really all: GH told a short story in a different medium, using exploration inside a 3D model of a house to pose and answer questions naturally arising from the story development:

        What was the structure of this family? What were their jobs? Why was the marriage breaking up -- which led to entire sub-threads and sub-mysteries, if you will, of things such as: Is the mother in an affair? What was the ultimate cause of the father's writer's block? All these are posed and tied up rather neatly by the end.

        None of these are any more mysterious or deeper than the 'supernatural' events that sprinkle your average Nancy Drew novel, but unlike you I did experience sensations of tension and release as each breadcrumb clue was revealed, and felt a good sense of satisfaction in reaching the end of the story.

        • reply
          June 15, 2016 9:48 AM

          Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown. His logic is right up there with people who think graphic novels aren't valid forms of story telling because "books don't have pictures".

        • reply
          June 15, 2016 1:03 PM

          Your first paragraph sounds like an elaborate way of suggesting "You just don't get it", which is almost never a compelling counterpoint so I'll sidestep that.

          But I do agree with the points you make in the rest of your post, and ultimately you found the story captivating while I did not. It's certainly not a bad story though it's very well worn territory thematically, but they do a good job trying to flesh out the characters. What I would add though, is that I feel our two expectations were completely different going into, and while playing, this game. Yes it's interactive fiction, but at the same time it feels very much like a point-and-click adventure. Add that on top of the abandoned house theme, and I definitely expected it to turn into some sort of mystery. You do spend the entire time searching for clues as to where your family is, but you're never required to piece anything together. I realized about an hour into it that you just click everywhere waiting for the next piece of story to be explained to you. That somewhat broke the atmosphere for me in a way that made the experience feel very video gamey instead of being an amateur detective trying to piece together the unknown. It's such a jarring contrast to the atmosphere the game tries to invoke, and it's only amplified when you're forced to do stuff/unlock areas in a certain order so that the story progresses in a way that makes sense.

          Having your expectations shattered can be a very good thing, Proteus is a recent example of a game that did that to me. I had no idea that it was not much more than experimental art, and if I had been aware of that fact going in the game wouldn't have had nearly the impact on me that it did.

          GH is a game that broke my expectations and followed them up with disappointment, and the ending is the best example of that. If you give me enough agency (e.g. drop me in an empty house and tell me to search it at my leisure to figure out what happened to my family), I'm going have questions like "why are things they way they are?" and "why am I doing what I'm doing?". One of the biggest questions I had during the game is "I've been away for years, why the fuck did my entire family leave with no notice? I must fit into this story somehow". For a while I even thought the ending was going to be the mother and Sam coming to some understanding based on the parallel stories of forbidden love, and that the whole family was out somewhere waiting to meet up with you. But the real answer to the question of "how do I fit into all of this" is that you don't, and that was so weird to me that your parents don't acknowledge any of it (at least Sam left you some notes acknowledging your existence and why she wasn't there). Ultimately, you're just the irrelevant vehicle by which the story is advanced. Why? Because video games.

      • reply
        June 15, 2016 10:37 AM

        The journey, not the destination, is why I loved Gone Home. I was interested in exploring the house and all the notes and items in it.