Developed by: The Fullbright Company
Published by: The Fullbright Company
Available on: PC, Xbox One

Four years ago the Portland-based developer, The Fullbright Company, released “Gone Home,” a game about a young woman who returns from college to find her family’s home mysteriously vacated. At the time, the idea of a story-driven video game that contained no action sequences was still fairly audacious. Only a few games, “The Stanley Parable” (2011) and “Dear Esther” (2012) among them, had tread a similar path and earned critical and commercial success. Yet unlike those games, which used existential shenanigans and literary language, respectively, to buttress their simple gameplay mechanics, “Gone Home” showed that voyeurism could also drive player engagement. Snooping through the family’s stuff is the main activity in that game and it’s arguably more engrossing than solving its central mystery.

“Tacoma,” the new game from The Fullbright Company, is set on a space station in 2088. Though the setting and context are vastly different from the 1990s household in “Gone Home,” the player’s journey is similarly tied to prying into other people’s lives. As such, “Tacoma” domesticates the space adventure by making its characters and setting all-important. The plot does contain a couple of twists, but the revelations are more of the “ah” than the “ah-ha!” sort. Yet, in light of the overall history of video games, who would deny that a developer that leavens their work with anti-climactic moments is more nervy than one that habitually goes in for bombast?

As Ami Ferrier, it’s your job to recover the physical casing of ODIN, the A.I. assigned to The Venturis Corporation’s Lunar Transfer Station, Tacoma. Soon after your ship docks, you receive a message via your personal Augmented Reality (AR) system — i.e. a holographic email in the air — informing you to refrain from examining any of the data left over from Tacoma crew’s own AR systems. It is the corporation’s view that all of the data gathered from the crew, through a system of total surveillance, was supposed to be deleted and that which was inadvertently left should be ignored. Heightening the irony, you also encounter a legal agreement stipulating that you’ll honor the Venturis Corps’ “data privacy rights.”

Clearly something has gone down. The A.I. responsible for a number of the station’s functions was remotely turned off and the Tacoma’s six-person crew team is missing. Naturally, you’ll want to hoover up any personal or corporate information you find since that’s the thing to do in this game. Watching the crew’s AR data is like seeing their digital ghosts. Their features are unclear but their outlines are visible, like heat signatures.  You can manipulate their AR traces like video — rewinding, fast-forwarding, and pausing as you see fit — while walking around them as if you were in an interactive theater. Throughout the game you’ll do this to follow different events unfolding simultaneously. Thus you may find yourself following one conversation and then rewinding time to follow and observe someone in another area of the station punch in a keycode number to open a door at that same point in time.

“Tacoma’s” core appeal comes from watching the characters behave differently as they move between areas and interact with each other. So, you might find one of the crew members having a panic attack in a room by herself and then make her way to another area where she speaks to a colleague in a calm manner.

Anyone who has struggled to maintain a work-life balance should find the Tacoma crew’s ongoing preoccupation with that topic relatable. The subject is backlit by the game’s vision of a future in which corporations push for more job automation while workers’ interest groups lobby to keep people from being phased out of the workforce.

“Tacoma” is an ode to the working stiffs in the galaxy.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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