As a genre label, “walking simulator” is most often used as a pejorative, despite the best efforts of those fans who have sought to reclaim the phrase. I first heard it applied to Dear Esther and thought it fit that game’s poignant stroll through the Scottish tundra, albeit in an amusingly reductive way. The problem with using “walking simulator” to describe Firewatch, Jazzpunk, Virginia or Gone Home is that the walking is the least interesting thing about them.
Tacoma is the second game from Fullbright, the creators of Gone Home. It’s similar in some ways, but also shows the developer is confident enough to tackle something more ambitious.
As in Gone Home, you’re exploring a modestly-sized environment - in this case, a space station comprising half a dozen multi-roomed sections. And, also like Gone Home, you’re trying to piece together the events that occurred just before you arrived - in this case, what happened to the six-person crew of the Tacoma.
Where Gone Home triggered simple audio diaries spoken by the main character when you picked up a pertinent object, Tacoma opts for a far more elaborate recreation. Everything aboard the station is recorded and able to be replayed using sci-fi augmented reality tech. As you move from section to section you’ll witness AR holograms of the crew running through scenes that took place days earlier. You’ll see them walking about, performing their duties, talking with each other, or sometimes just chilling out. You can pause and rewind to see what that crew member was doing earlier before entering the room.
Typically in games like this you’re made to feel like an archaeologist, digging up digital remains to study the past. With Tacoma, however, I feel like a different metaphor is warranted.
Here it feels like you’re watching a play, except you’re up on the stage mingling with the actors and following them around, even if you can’t interrupt their lines. You can, however, pick up and examine a host of objects, rifle through desks and drawers, and even interact with the AR desktops of each crew member to read some of their recent emails or listen in on recent calls.
It all adds up to a remarkably effective way of telling a story. The crew members transcend their brightly-coloured hologram depictions and become what feel like real people. Thanks to the quality of the writing, you’ll understand each person’s history, their motivations, their fears, and their relationships to each other, in a way that few games manage.
You don’t do a lot in Tacoma, at least in a conservative gameplay verb sense. You walk around and pick things up and that’s about it. Instead, what you do in Tacoma is observe and think and connect the non-linear dots of its layered story. And you care about and empathise with and root for the six people who were there before you.