Hands-on With Tacoma: Conversations With Holograms

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Check out more Tacoma screenshots here.

Inky blackness giving way to a lit corridor. The trudging of your own steps as you walk up to the steel bulkhead before you. A hologram appears and you quickly sign each of the letters of your password before circling the near-future equivalent of the “enter” key with your hand. After a second or two, the door slowly opens, and you step forward into the unknown.

Walking up to the small house in the Castro district of San Francisco where The Fullbright Company had set up shop was not quite as dramatic as the opening of their game, Tacoma, but I was nervous all the same. That quickly faded as the door opened and Fullbright designer Tynan Wales ushered me in. Immediately this felt different than the last time I previewed a game, which was The Witcher 3. The quaint home was quiet, for one, not awash with noises coming from a multitude of people I didn’t know. In fact, it was just Wales, Steve Gaynor (the studio head), myself…and a computer.

Exchanging pleasantries, Gaynor and Wales sat me down at the computer and got me started on a preview build of Tacoma. The game drew immediate similarities to Gone Home, Fullbright’s first release. The control scheme is almost the same, with the player walking around in a first-person space and interacting with objects that can be inspected up close. This made me a bit nervous at first. How closely would Fullbright hew to the formula that made them popular, and would that hurt Tacoma in the process? These worries, it seems, were on the Fullbright team’s minds as well.

Tacoma originally started life as a similar environment to Gone Home. It took place in a house and it had exploration elements. “What was the inspiration for Tacoma?” was my first question to Gaynor and Wales. “There wasn’t really an inspiration,” Gaynor replied. “I just said…what if it took place in a space station?” He laughs. He wanted something different, something that would immediately make Tacoma stand apart from Gone Home. Wales nodded. Work had already begun on Tacoma as taking place in a house, but he recounts that the team was excited for the shift. “Most of us hadn’t worked on Gone Home,” he said. “So we were excited to all be on the same page.”

Tacoma quickly differentiates itself in other ways as well. In it, you play as Amy, who has just started a new job on the space station Tacoma, located halfway between Earth and Luna. Amy has just boarded the space station to find it mysteriously empty. Scattered about the station are holograms, visual representations that can be interacted with to expand into message chains between the members of the station. Some of them play back audio recordings, with a silhouette of each member playing out the events recorded. The silhouettes are color coordinated to the member they represent, with an icon on their back designating their station. The other station crew members immediately stand out in their own ways. They are all very human, and even though my time with them was short (and I wasn’t even in direct contact with them!), I grew to like them all quickly.

Diversity was something else I brought up with Gaynor and Wales. Amy, the protagonist, is an Indian-American woman. The head of the station is a black woman. Two of the crew members are a lesbian couple. I asked about the diverse cast, if it was a conscious choice on the part of the developers. Gaynor explained that it wasn’t exactly. “We didn’t have a list we were going down. We just thought it was more interesting.” Wales went into more detail, explaining that each character came to life step by step, and how the story also followed that pattern. The result is a cast that feels like a real group of people.

One of the mechanics that Tacoma introduces is the Surface Transfer. Tacoma itself has very low gravity, and Amy wears magnetized boots. So, by looking at, say, the ceiling and hitting a button, Amy will launch herself into the air and “land” at the spot specified. Thus, the ceiling becomes the floor and vice-versa. It’s a mechanic that can easily confuse more than help, but the effort that Fullbright has put in to make it work can already be seen. The station is easy to navigate and it is difficult to lose track of your heading. Each transfer is a dramatic flourish, with a sudden musical burst accompanying the act. Wales talked about how the team introduced the Surface Transfer to make Tacoma seem more like a three-dimensional space. He went on to say how many games that are set in space never seem to capture what makes that environment unique. He wanted to make Tacoma stand out without complicating the existing control scheme too much. Gaynor explained that Gone Home was a very accessible game, even to people who had never played first-person games before. He wanted to keep that accessibility intact for Tacoma, and having the game take place in a zero-gravity space seemed to be too complicated. The Surface Transfer seems like an elegant solution from what I’ve been able to see.

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While Gone Home had a small cast and spoke to the dynamics of a family, Tacoma strives instead to simulate a created family. The crew members of the station are a family in name if not in blood. It is also a game that tries to show the effects of loneliness and of the vastness of space. And while the protagonist of Gone Home was mainly a foil for the player, Amy is her own entity. She frequently makes comments on the situation at hand, and once you activate ODIN, the ship’s AI, they talk to each other often. How much you get to interact with the rest of the crew (if you do at all) remains to be seen, but they are also their own cast with their own hopes, dreams and fears.

At the end of the preview I played, Amy signs her password at the hologram hovering in front of an imposing bulkhead. ODIN has led her here, promising that this is where the crew is. The door slowly shudders to life, and as it begins to open, bathing Amy in blinding light, she says, “ODIN…what am I about to find behind this door?”

“You’ll see,” responds ODIN, and the demo ends.

I guess we will see eventually. But if this preview is indicative of the final product, Tacoma is a cliffhanger well worth waiting for.

Bryce Duzan is a freelance journalist and game designer, and strives to bring a queer perspective to board games and tabletop RPGs. He can be found on Twitter with the handle @Spincut.