Gone Home totally snuck up on me (or walked up on me I suppose). Either way, I had heard about these so called ‘walking simulators’, but I had never actually tried one. To be honest, the idea of a ‘walking simulator’ didn’t really appeal to me. I mean, if you’re doing nothing but walking, wouldn’t you be better of just watching a movie or TV show? Isn’t interactivity the defining feature of what makes a video game a video game?
Well, whatever the case may be, I’m very glad that I finally decided to try it. It’s not that Fullbright’s Gone Home suddenly won me over to the idea of a ‘walking simulator’ being a relevant genre within the industry (I don’t really care if this type of experience should or shouldn’t be perceived as a video game – although, for the record, I think it should), it simply reaffirmed my belief that, whatever the medium, good storytelling is good storytelling. Obviously, being a walking simulator, not having traditional gameplay mechanics to fall back on invariably puts a great deal of pressure on the quality of the narrative (a poorly told walking simulator must be a horrifyingly bland experience), but in the case of Gone Home, luckily, both the storytelling and delivery are of an exceptionally high standard. Of course, regardless of how good it is, some will always fall back on the unnecessary ‘walking’ element of the experience, but honestly, I think the ‘walking’ aspect of games such as Gone Home, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Tacoma makes a pretty big difference.
If you were simply a passenger along for the story, I’m convinced that it wouldn’t have the same impact. Your inputs may be basic at best, but that sense of exploration, that sense of active participation certainly dragged me deeper into the narrative than it would have had I been a passive observer. The same is true of Fullbright’s largely brilliant follow-up, Tacoma, a game that increases that sense of involvement and gentle investigative gameplay while remaining true to the template established in their previous work. This is still a walking simulator in the most traditional sense, and despite being a better ‘game’ thanks to a slightly more active involvement in unravelling the games’ compelling narrative, once again, this is an experience that ultimately lives and dies by its storytelling. It might not hit the emotional heights of its predecessor, but this more ambitious follow-up still manages to tell a genuinely captivating tale without the need for undo bombast or sensationalism.
Set purely within the confines of the eponymous Tacoma space station, the game makes great use of this single environment by creating a selection of locations that feel surprisingly unique and artistically varied. With the story taking place in the relatively near future (2088 to be exact), the Lunar Transfer Station, Tacoma has that great combination of familiarity and otherworldliness. The station itself proves as compelling to investigate as its now missing inhabitants.
I could go in to the story at this point, but beyond stating that the station’s crew of specialised contractors have rather mysteriously gone missing and that it is your role as Amyitjyoti (Amy) Ferrier to enter the abandoned Tacoma and retrieve a selection of physical AI data from each section of the station, to reveal anything more would be to potentially spoil the experience. This really is one of those games that is best approached as cold as possible. Like Gone Home before it, Tacoma simply wouldn’t be the same if you went in knowing what to expect.
This is an experience all about building up an understanding of the crew, of finding out what happened to them and why. The story unravels via brilliantly implemented environmental storytelling and some absolutely fantastic writing and vocal performances. Despite never seeing any of the crew in the flesh, the quality of the performances ensure that by the end, there is every chance that you will hold a strong emotional attachment to many of them.
As mentioned previously, the structure is very similar to Gone Home in that the underling linearity is surprisingly well hidden, and much like in games such as Half Life 2, the brilliance of its design ensures that the intended path often feels like an individual choice rather than a cattle prod at your back. Yes, it’s still relatively linear, but it’s testament to the games’ design that you’ll often not notice (or care for that matter).
The big difference between this and Fullbright’s previous work (beyond the setting of course), is the smart implementation of the augmented reality recording mechanic. While this initially appears to be little more than 3D computerised recordings taking the place of the notes strewn about the house in Gone Home (which they are to an extent), the ability to fast forward and rewind these recordings lends the game an element of basic puzzle-based exploration that is often lacking from other games of its ilk.
It’s nothing overly taxing, but it does add an additional layer of immersion and involvement to a genre that can feel mechanically cold. As you watch the interactions of the crew, you have the ability to follow a particular narrative strand before rewinding and seeing where the story goes next as you follow another member of the crew involved in the initial interaction. Sometime you might even have to listen in on a conversation to glean the information required to progress through the game. Again, it’s far from forensic levels of detective work (and the answers are signposted very clearly for those eager to progress), but the introduction of this relatively basic mechanic certainly makes for a less overtly passive experience.
It might not have the emotional impact or everyday relevance of Gone Home, but Tacoma, with its fantastic writing, exceptional performances and compelling environments, delivers a fitting follow-up to one of my favourite games of the generation. The augmented reality recordings add something of a new twist to the template, but in reality, it’s the quality of the narrative that will ultimately compel you to search every nook and cranny and to take in every piece of environmental information you can get your hands on. Those underwhelmed by ‘walking simulators’ are unlikely to be won over, but for anyone looking for a engrossing story and a fantastic cast of characters, Tacoma delivers in a way that few other video games come close to achieving.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Microsoft Xbox One code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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