TACOMA / Fullbright / PC

Fullbright's Gone Home was far from the first of the "walking simulator" sub-genre of adventure games, but it's probably the one most closely associated with the moniker. It was certainly one of the most linear of the bunch and almost completely free of stakes or even actual gameplay, which drew obvious divisive opinion and criticism.

Part of that wasn't even so much the non-interactive nature of the experience, but the fact that the story centered around exploring an upper-middle-class kid's house to figure out what happened to her missing younger sister who had just come out as a lesbian (and all the expected family drama associated with that). A story that will resonate with some people, but aimed squarely at kind of a narrow and specific demographic group. With their second release, Tacoma, Fullbright opted to double down on the "walking sim" style but put players in the more broadly appealing setting of a space station in the not-too-distant future and have them explore to find out why the crew up and mysteriously disappeared. Also something that gets back to Fullbright's roots in a way, as the team first formed up at 2k Games developing an expansion pack for Bioshock 2.

Though it's a potentially dangerous setting this time out, there is no danger or even much in the way of obstacles. You play as a contractor hired by the owner of the space station to explore, learn what happened to the crew and recover the station's highly valuable AI core. Though the crew is gone, the station was creepily recording them at all times so the bulk of the game is going around recovering these AR video logs. You learn almost right away that the station was damaged by some sort of collision, however, so only partial and sometimes glitchy video logs are available.

The station is neatly divided up into segments, which your remote handler grants you access to in sequence. There really isn't much more to the game than wandering around, finding the locations that have video logs, then watching them. There is a tiny bit of gameplay in that you'll occasionally need to find a code to open a locker or door; these are usually on a scrap of paper somewhere or found by following a particular person at a particular time during an AR playback. No threats, puzzles or timers, however.

So what's the point? Well, it's an atmospheric and immersive environment, for starters. There's something of the appeal of the slower moments of the Shenmue games, where you're just enjoying the intricate detail for the sake of it being there. It's also a fairly compelling mystery that slowly unfolds, bolstered by good character writing and voice acting. I was initially concerned at the game's "diversity checklist" approach to the characters (every race, sexuality and body shape has to be ticked off), but it actually ended up not getting in the way here.

That really puts it more in the realm of "virtual theater"; I feel like this sort of thing gets shoehorned into gaming because there isn't a better place for it, which is probably to its detriment. This could have easily been taken in a clear gaming direction, however. Even if you don't want to add action or tension to the mix, there is still room here for more complex puzzles to progress (a la something like The Witness). You can make the argument that puzzles are no good because the narrative is the point and they get in the way of it; in that case, I would suggest something like the old Laura Bow games or the more recent Return of the Obra Dinn where you are expected to be independently investigating the full environment and will run into periodic "attention checks" that require you to synthesize all the information you've gathered into a reasonable theory.

Fullbright opts not to go that way, however, and I do respect them for making what they want to make - basically interactive novellas, as Tacoma clocks in at about two to three hours of total experience.

Within the context of what it is, though, there are still some valid criticisms. One is some painful load times even on a system that should be more than enough for the game. I initially loved that the game simply unpacks and runs out of an archive like the old MS-DOS days; no install procedure, no checking in with a DURM server first, no downloading some old version of Visual C++ for the 12th time. The cost of that seems to be iffy optimization, however. The game's initial load-in can be painfully long, and the loads as you move between areas of the ship (ill-disguised as an impossibly long elevator ride) are equally irritating. Fortunately, there weren't any performance issues once inside of each ship segment.

Also, the most interesting bit of the world and story is actually only hinted at around the edges. This takes place in the 2080s in what appears to be a Snow Crash type of situation, as private corporations seem to have mostly (if not entirely) replaced traditional governments. That by itself isn't novel in sci-fi, but the interesting bit is that they seem to have no permanent employees outside of the upper management suite. Everyone is a contractor, and they accrue "loyalty points" that unlock greater benefits as they put time in with the company. From the perspective of the modern "gig economy" and obsession with gamification of everything to manipulate people into doing dumb stuff, this really doesn't seem like a far-fetched future.

A "walking sim" lives or dies by its story, atmosphere and environment. Tacoma succeeds in that area. But it's also quite short and quite linear, to the point that I really have to question the $20 retail price point for it.


* Gameplay Video