An abandoned space station. A missing crew. A sentient artificial intelligence at the centre of the mystery.
This might sound like the eerie setting for a gory first-person shooter like Doom or a menacing survival-horror game like System Shock. But in the recently released Tacoma, it's the foundation for a quieter, more philosophical story that feels exceptionally attuned to modern-day insecurities.
It's the year 2088. The six-person crew of the Tacoma lunar transfer station has vanished following an unknown incident. You play as Amy Ferrier, a contractor sent to the station to retrieve its artificial intelligence, named ODIN, and find out what happened to the crew.
To do so, you have to examine digital recordings of key events in the crew members' lives over the months, days and hours before Amy's arrival.
Fullbright, the Portland-based indie game studio behind Tacoma, has built a reputation for games that prioritize believable human relationships over Hollywood-style action sequences. In Tacoma, you're there to learn about the crew, not save them from imminent danger.
"It's really a mystery game about you discovering the place that these characters lived in, and the details of their lives," said Steve Gaynor, co-founder of Fullbright.
Augmented reality and AI
You untangle the game's central mystery by going through a variety of recorded material, thanks to the all-encompassing surveillance culture of Fullbright's vision of the future.
Venturis Technologies, the corporation that owns the station, has recorded the crew's time aboard — every team meeting, conversation and even private moments in their personal quarters.
Seen through a futuristic augmented-reality (AR) app, you can view snippets of these conversations to learn more about the station's former inhabitants, who are represented by faceless, colour-coded avatars that pulse with every word and move with unnerving verisimilitude.
You can also fast-forward and rewind through these recordings, and follow the walking, talking holograms as they walk around the now-abandoned station.
You can listen to a conversation between two characters, for instance, and a third might later join them. You can pause the action, rewind it and follow that third character to see what they were doing, and who they were talking to before that meeting.
You can also gather clues by rifling through objects strewn about the station. You'll learn as much about the crew through the cocktail recipes written on the kitchen chalkboard or the postcards kept in their personal quarters, as you will through their AR recordings.
A 'mundane dystopia'
Tacoma is not a long game — it takes roughly three to four hours from start to finish. But in that time, it paints the picture of a fascinating future that is simultaneously progressive and diverse but remains mired in class struggle, with workers under the thumb of their corporate overlords.
Gaynor describes it as a "mundane dystopia."
The station's crew includes men and women, as well as several ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations. Chyrons around the station are displayed in multiple languages and scripts. Amy uses American Sign Language to write her name when logging into the station's digital interface.
Despite the Star Trek-like social mosaic, Venturis and other mega-corporations (including fictionalized versions of Amazon and Carnival Cruise Line) have a vise-like grip on its workers' lives. Company "loyalty" points can be cashed in like currency but are lost if you leave your employer. Can you afford to look for another job if it means losing your next house payment or your son's university tuition?
Tacoma is a sci-fi take on the immersive theatre experience — multi-tiered performances not limited to a single stage — pioneered by experimental projects such as Sleep No More.
Gaynor and his team have been refining this spatial, non-linear storytelling in games for a few years. Before they co-founded Fullbright in 2012, they worked on the blockbuster shooter Bioshock 2, which blended high-octane shooting with immersive storytelling.
Fullbright's first game, 2013's Gone Home, swapped Bioshock's fantastical setting for an empty mansion in 1990s Portland. It won critical acclaim for telling the emotionally impactful story of the Greenbriar family, from the father Terry's fledgling writing career to his teenage daughter Sam's coming to terms with her sexuality.
Like Tacoma, it laid out clues for you to explore around the Greenbriar residence — without sci-fi flourishes like the AR recordings.
But Gone Home was also the target of derision from some players, who lambasted its short play time (you can finish it in under two hours) and lack of traditional video-game mechanics — there are no enemies to defeat, no brain-teasing puzzles to solve.
It was part of a growing genre of games, such as Dear Esther or The Stanley Parable, that prioritized storytelling over mechanics. Some argued they weren't games at all, labelling them "walking simulators."
'I'm an art school kid'
Gaynor appeared unperturbed by the debate.
"I'm an art school kid ... I spent a lot time early on in those 'What is art?' discussions. And that's given me a kind of permissive view of how you define or label things like that," he said.
Fullbright appears to have taken at least some of these concerns to heart. Manipulating and following Tacoma's AR recordings demands a more active role from players than reading and listening to diaries in Gone Home.
"Our goal is to make the player not be a passive observer, but to be actively involved in unravelling the story and putting it all back together," said Gaynor.
"The fact that we introduced new mechanics, and thought differently about how you engage with these story moments, is something that I hope makes the experience feel valuable to players when they put their hands on it."