Tacoma Talk —A Look at Fullbright’s Work
This writing isn’t really meant to be a review of Tacoma itself so much as a good exploration of what I think works here, what doesn’t work, and what I think might be cool to see from Fullbright next. So this isn’t a discussion worth having if you haven’t seen or played the full game for yourself. I suggest you go do so.
This is a bit of a generalization but it seems a lot of creators, developers, or artists have really successful “sophomore” releases. They don’t always have to be giant big sellers or the breakout moment for the band/creator/group/whatever but it seems like oftentimes it’s the second big work of art that gets hailed as the best one will achieve. This is mostly hogwash and you can still make yourself as relevant today as you were years ago if you stop focusing on your own shadow and make sure to continue to challenge yourself and learn from the past. But there is something special to a lot of sophomore efforts by creators if you ask me. After making yourself known and having some moderate success it’s when you’re working on your second major project that you normally take your shoes off, get a bit more comfortable trying on a few new outfits and then honing in closely on one for what is often a more focused but defining project.
With video game development this concept is a bit harder to explore as we’re not dealing with singular artists or a small group of professionals identifying together as one icon. Instead we’re exploring a team of people, sometimes in groups of 12 or more (sometimes up to the hundreds) and focusing on how game designs are explored. Or, more often than not, we compare one game under the creation of a studio to its own sequel. But with Fullbright games we’re in an interesting position in which the small independent team has done a very “musician” thing by making its second game a different way of doing what they did in their first game. In many ways their new game Tacoma executes and explores the same designs we see in their breakout project Gone Home. We play a character exploring a space unknown to both them and ourselves and see the detailed mundane things in the lives of the people who inhabited this space while coming across a narrative about these people through logs or journal entries with environmental flavor text. When you sum up the design of a Fullbright game like this it’s hard to tell whether we’re discussing Gone Home or Tacoma and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact at first glance it is very possible Tacoma will not be the major chord-striking indie game success that Gone Home appeared to be but Tacoma is perhaps excelling and succeeding in far more important things in terms of games and design than Gone Home ever did. And that’s something I think worth discussing.
For starters Tacoma is less a personal intimate story than the way Gone Home was about a teenage girl coming to terms with identity. Instead Tacoma is a bit more like the ghost story we get a hint of in its trailers and screenshots. Things look fine and even charming but those holographic presences seem more spooky in passing than real or personal. And yet the experience in game is quite the opposite. Our character journeys through Tacoma station for two primary reasons: 1. To connect her computer tablet book to some central spots on the station and upload an AI to her ship for retrieval, and 2. To waste time waiting for that upload. So waiting on that upload is passed or skipped by exploring the game’s locations and seeing what they hold. Instead of diaries or journal entries in Gone Home that let us piece together the narrative bit by bit, we instead have augmented reality capabilities on the Tacoma space station and are given the opportunity to playback key moments of time in each of Tacoma’s different sections. Add onto this the fact that the narrative revolves around seven different main characters and instead of a narrative told from one perspective, and the end result is the ability to see one story told from multiple “camera angles” as you follow around different mixes of the characters across patches of time. With the added ability to see the VR interfaces that these characters are using to access the internet or talk to people off-station (or simply to get more details and windows into their life) and the ability to rewind and playback any moment on the VR recording the game turns into an interesting surveillance experience. Instead of a progressing path over a year in Gone Home, we get a snapshot of just a few heavy days at Tacoma. It’s less personal but it doesn’t lack characters, a modicum of depth, or humanity in it.
It may not be teeming with heavy depth but Fullbright did a great job at looking at their own first formula and, from a design perspective, telling themselves, “Let’s find a different way to approach narrative.” And while players may not have recognized this right away it’s something we’re desperately needing in our world of video games if you ask me. Right now I can play Horizon: Zero Dawn (or any game H:ZD borrows open-world design from) and spend hours on end looking up audio and text logs that tell dozens of mini stories about the world around my character and its history. And this would be a fascinating way to explore history and stories if developers hadn’t been copying this design since System Shock in the 90s, or if Horizon: Zero Dawn had a past more interesting than its present, OR if we weren’t playing immersive interactive experiences. Fullbright seems to capitalize on things that have already transpired and finding ways to tell you about it. This is the very thing we get through diaries and audio logs and text files in so many other games, but we’re presented those things as if we’re not playing a game. People have been complaining about audio logs since Bioshock re-entered them into the scene with “gusto” in 2007, and they weren’t remotely engaging or interesting then. Ten years later a small independent development team is finding ways to break that predictable criticism of “expository detail is given to players in a boring way”. But instead the developer made that the entire point of their games so far. That, in and of itself, fascinates me quite a bit. But there’s more to discuss about Tacoma for now.
There’s already some pretty good critical and positive talks about the space detailing to Tacoma, and I would agree the space angle is a nice simplistic take on the types of things we saw in event or the aesthetic of Alien: Isolation. But to be honest I spent less time looking at the disclaimer warnings on strips of oxycotin this time around. Sure they’re all designed with the future and space-tech in mind and well done, but that’s Fullbright’s bread and butter already. Instead I find myself digging further into that AR rabbit hole and looking at how animation and that whole “recorded timeline” narrative approach allows players to do things with first person narrative games that I didn’t know I wanted to be able to do since Half-Life 2. Anyone who’s burned through Half-Life 2 or its two “Episodes” that follow it have probably been privy to a few “cutscenes”. Valve differentiated themselves with these cutscenes by working heavily with studies on human expression and did a lot of work to ensure that the human characters in their games could express, emote, and animate in ways that video games were seemingly incapable of doing at the time. Even games released in the same year as Half-Life 2 were seriously lacking in the facial animation department in terms of proximity to how people actually express themselves. The long and short of it is that you don’t need ultra awesome textures and shaders to animate people well. I have played through these games dozens of times and yet every time I play them I want to explore every nuanced little moment of animation that happens in the “cutscenes”. Because Valve hates taking control away from the player, you’re allowed to walk about those moments where other characters are talking to each other and see what everyone is doing, what their reactions are to what is happening, where their eyes are looking, it’s incredible stuff that you don’t find in video games too often.
With Tacoma I found myself exploring these elements thoroughly. It was so interesting seeing holographic blobs that form human silhouettes and trying to perceive what these people were thinking, what they were feeling, and the looks on their faces. Fullbright did a really great job here and while it was probably a good budgetary decision to cut facial animations or human texture renderings in general, the game isn’t at a loss just because we can’t see the faces of the characters during the animations. Good voice acting and carefully detailed animation really helps you take a gander at how people responded to the disaster that was happening on Tacoma. A particular moment that really wowed me was when Sareh was leaving the lower Botany sections after trying to calm down Andrew, and she’s sliding her hand along a rail walking up a ramp and she slows down. The animation is so well done and you’re so wrapped up in the story at that moment that you nearly anticipate the breakdown she’s about to have. And then she does, she bends over a little, her arm buckles at the elbow and her other hand clutches her chest as she freaks out. You practically feel it coming.
Or, earlier on in the game when you see how the team responds to the “asteroid hitting the station” and discovering that “comms are down”, you see how everyone reacts. Natali and Bert get a little closer and hold each other, Sareh takes a step or two back and leans against a railing signifying that she actually may be someone who distances themselves in a crisis (and she does but for different reasons than one might think), and Andrew is so leveled by what is happening that he simply falls down into the chair behind him. I knew from the moment Andrew responded like this that he was going to be the one that was the most “broken” by what was happening and whatever they needed to do next. It was a nice little moment of character in showing us how these people respond to bad news and a crisis. And Fullbright managed to do this without facial animations or realistic textures at all. Good voice work and focused animation went a long way. And with that playback ability I can now go through those “cutscenes” as many times as I want to until I feel like I’ve genuinely seen everything that’s happening.
There were even smart little moments where the developers timed things in ways that made you realize parallel moments happening at once. At one point two characters say the same thing at once but out of earshot of each other. Meanwhile we see how ODIN, a space-station AI, is able to actually exist in and do multiple things at once. While Andrew is trying to determine how he’s going to act during this crisis Andrew asks ODIN to give him figures about response times from the Venturis corporation. Simultaneously ODIN is trying to calm Sareh down just one floor up. One cutscene ends with two characters making a crash loud enough to be heard on the other side of the wall by two other characters. It’s moments like these that promote and reward players for having an understanding of the space and how closely connecting things might be sometimes, or all that is happening at once.
I adored this game in the process of playing it twice. So much about it is worth looking at and considering as a new unique spin on environmental storytelling. And I’m confident Fullbright will continue to redo or outdo themselves every time they sit down and start anew. But I worry about the constraints of Fullbright’s methodology and “box” that they may have already built for themselves. Some elements that Fullbright bring into this second game of theirs are welcome additions that contextually made sense for the moment they are in the game. Having everyday items be created and designed in ways that are appropriate for the space Fullbright builds is a good thing. And repeating some of the interactivity and unique item discoveries that were in Gone Home I also see as a good thing. I don’t care what anyone says, yes, “Good Ol’ Christmas Duck” is now a hallmark of Fullbright that should never NOT exist in a Fullbright game if you ask me. Christmas Duck went from being a beginning placeholder item to being their own 0451 marker of the game about exploring spaces where mundanity commonly happens. Or it will be for Fullbright in the future if they continue this trend. It’s a trend I like as the spotting of Christmas Duck in Tacoma was perhaps the most joyful little moment of “Hey! I know that thing!” in the game. Christmas Duck is perhaps some sort of a grounding players will enjoy in each and every game while they go to new unique places. All of that may sound weird but it feels oddly true to how I felt the minute I saw that Christmas item hanging around. These are pieces where a methodology shine true outside the obvious.
But how many games can Fullbright make with environmental storytelling in the broken, journal/log/past tense in 2–6 hour chunks before they become predictable or boring even? As I mentioned above, I spent far less time looking through disclaimers and ingredient listing on those every day items that were in space on Tacoma station. Some were interesting but I had already seen Fullbright do this with tissue boxes and drinks and foods before. And unfortunately, the thing I felt I wanted more of the most, was the very thing a game at this length and design just will not give you: More of the story and more time with the characters. Fullbright’s method for telling a story folds the narrative down into chunks that players unwrap. There’s pieces missing in between the chunks and ultimately our minds fill in the gaps on our own. With Gone Home this didn’t seem to bother me as much as there was so much happening over a year to really digest in the environment. But here in Tacoma, as I said before, it’s more a snapshot of a few very critical days in a place. So we don’t see how things changed over longer periods of time for the year this crew got to know each other. In ways this is more believable as Gone Home sprawled its details in a way people don’t leave things around in houses, but once the story started I was half expecting Tacoma to become a sprawling longer narrative about someone deceiving everyone and hijacking the facility (my money was on Clive or ODIN but I started to trust everyone as time went on). Or I considered a narrative that really dug into how this AI came to sympathize and care for and take care of everyone on the facility where the rest of the AIs in the company seemed to falter over the years. Or, better yet, when the team started making plans for getting off Tacoma station and to the moon for safety, I thought we’d be sitting through a 6–12 hour narrative about this ultimately difficult problem solution, much akin to “The Martian”.
Instead we got a little of all of those things in a shorter amount of time. This doesn’t make Tacoma bad but it makes me consider how much the next Fullbright game might make me feel wanting of more. This could be a nasty hunger that big sprawling video games have left us with, but to be honest I’m not normally a fan of games that are filled with such massive spaces and so little depth for the time you put into them. 6–24 hour experiences seem to be the more refined and telling ones for me personally.
Lastly there’s the design of the progress in the game and how the narrative is linked to this. It’s less a problem and more a choice of approach in Tacoma, but it’s definitely something that makes me wonder if Fullbright realized this problem late in development and knew there weren’t too many ways around this. Essentially, the players are guided through three different sections in a “door is locked, you can’t go here yet” order. Those three sections all have two sub-sections in them. Players are allowed to visit those sub-sections in whatever order they choose, but they have to at least step into both sub-sections before they unlock the door to the next section. The game is intended to be played at least in this slightly strict order. You can choose to view records 1 & 2 in whatever order, and then 3 & 4, and then 5 &6. The game is designed this way because each of the sub-sections tell one part of a linear narrative and important plot details happen in the end section that ruin the entire narrative. The curiosity of exploring the station would be mostly ruined if you waltzed into the AI Core room at the start of the game because the developers didn’t guide the players a little bit. And to be fair, Gone Home even has some smart carefully placed “guides” that move players along a general path in the house. Important plot heavy areas are locked off or harder to find, but Gone Home gives players something closer to 50% of the house to explore from the word “go” while Tacoma gives you 30%. The reasons these restrictions are in place are extremely clear and valid for the game. But, for a game that allows players to move about the recordings and experiences so fluidly and freely, it feels almost the opposite in design to have the narrative so locked off for players. This leads me back to the potential of Tacoma being told as a longer story that players have to piece together a bit more. This would require a deeper variation of the AR recording mechanics and their designs, but it’s worth observing that the narrative in ways hamstrings some of our ways in which we can interactive with the narrative itself. Gone Home is more akin to “House of Leaves” while Tacoma is more “Only Revolutions”. They’re both great dedications to what they want to accomplish, but for interactive media I’ll take “House of Leaves” any day instead.
I really ponder how amazing a Fullbright game that has the capacity to fit this size and design I’m imagining might be. Maybe a Kickstarter campaign and some really well thought out approaches could help Fullbright make that a reality. Tacoma was self-funded and created four years after Gone Home, which was built in about a year from what I can see. The improvement in performance, feel, aesthetic and fidelity with Tacoma is apparent. So I can only imagine what Fullbright will be able to do by taking the engine and programming work they’ve done with Tacoma and applying it to whatever they see next in the stars. Whether Fullbright explores the barriers of their own box or not, I’ll be ready and waiting.