August 6, 2017

Tacoma Review

AI Justice Warrior

Here's a story you've heard a thousand times before: it is the future. A very powerful corporation is obviously evil, but presents itself as a force for good. Things aren't what they seem, and there is a conspiracy to hide this fact. Also, is AI the same as human consciousness? Is it dangerous? Should it have the same rights as us?

Tacoma is full of such overused sci-fi cliches, and in lesser hands, it would be just another throwaway story about the evils of technology. But thanks to clever storytelling, informed by social consciousness and masterful character development, Tacoma manages to rise above the tropes and actually say new and interesting things about its well-treaded subject matter. The result is an exceptionally effective and touching plot-driven game - one whose more cringe-inducing moments are easy to forgive. 
Developer: Fullbright
Publisher: Fullbright
Release Date: August 2, 2017
MSRP: 19.99$
Rig: Intel i5-4440 @ 3.10GHz
Zotac GeForce GTX 980 Ti AMP! Extreme

Tacoma is the second release by developer Fullbright, a studio known for the critically acclaimed 2013 game Gone Home, a game that. despite my best intentions, I simply could not stand. I thought its writing was amateur and that attention to detail was distributed in the worst way possible. It was a game where you could pick up every pen and kitchen utensil, but you couldn't have a single meaningful interaction with the world the developers built. 

You can still pick up a lot of random stuff in Tacoma, but this time around, we are allowed to do more than idly admire the well-crafted environments. To those not familiar with the studio's work, Tacoma is a walking simulator, a game devoid of the battle and puzzle mechanics of more traditional games which instead focuses on story and characters. A lot of games in the genre, Gone Home included, are content to let you walk around and pick up data logs that slowly unravel a story. But Tacoma takes a far more interesting approach to its storytelling. As contractor Amy Ferrier, you have been hired to investigate the events that transpired aboard the titular space station, which lost its oxygen supply, with the status of the crew members unknown. With AI Minny, which supplies us with what is probably the best and most criminally underutilized vocal performance of this year, and a device that looks kinda like a fancy 3DS, you are sent to Tacoma to retrieve whatever data remains in the station's systems.

This is done by examining captured security footage of the station's crew, but rather than regular video logs, you will be examining Augmented Reality records - letting you view events as they happened in their actual locations on the ship.
This mechanic - reminiscent of the detective cases from Arkham Origins, only good - isn't a simple gimmick, but integral to the storytelling. By pausing, rewinding and following different characters, the player can experience events from different perspectives, and find out more about the various crew members. Sometimes this allows you to fulfill a very practical need, like following a specific character to learn how to progress to a different location; sometimes it is used to establish characters and relationships, for example, by allowing you to view two characters in more intimate circumstances. Either way, it is always highly rewarding to experience all aspects of a particular scene. 

While watching AR footage, there will be times when crew members view their AR desktop, a sort of computer screen projected in front of them. This allows players to look through messages and other bits of information appearing on-screen, revealing more about the interactions between crew members, as well as the outside world - including families still waiting on Earth for their loves ones' return. Being reminded that characters have a life outside the confines of the station not only makes them feel all the more real, but also make the dangerous situation they find themselves in feel even more real.

The AR aspects are a fresh way of telling a game story, one that I don't doubt other games in the genre will iterate on in the coming years. But Tacoma, as befits a game by Fullbright, is much more than its mechanics. Gone Home was a topic of conversation due in no small part to its positive and realistic portrayal of LGBT characters, and Tacoma builds on this tradition while also presenting a cast diverse in terms of gender, race and religion. While not much is made of these differences, they do play a part, from things subtle as books found in one crew member's quarters, to a request by another to commemorate the genocide his family survived. These cultural aspects are strong enough to be noticed without being in any way stereotypical or cartoonish, as they have often been portrayed in lesser works.
But above all, Tacoma excels in touching on an aspect few works, informed by political liberalism, ever dare approach: class. Tacoma's main characters aren't high-ranking, "enlightened" executives, but working class people, ultimately victimized by an economic system that values profits over their lives. Its cast includes the type of working people you are likely to meet in either a factory or office environment: the rebellious professional, the union militant, the company man (and it is usually a man) seeking to ingratiate himself to upper management, complete with the sort of smarmy, cringe-inducing humor that comes with the territory, the admin worker trying to do her best despite the situation - they're all there, and they're all portrayed realistically, but also compassionately. Everyone will have different preferences when it comes to the cast members, but I doubt that by the time Tacoma's end credits role, anyone will have any genuine hate for any of them.

Sadly, this is also where I feel Tacoma's story falls a bit flat. Tacoma has been praised for presenting a world where oppression on the basis of identity no longer exists, but where working people are still victimized by capitalism. I do not believe one is possible without the other, and some would say that that is my view, and I shouldn't let it take away from my enjoyment of the game. Here's my problem: I come from a country where there is a staggering amount of workplace accidents in construction sites - over 50 deaths per year, which is more than 5 times than the amount of workers who die in workplace accidents in any other field of work. For comparison's sake, proportionally, that would be as if almost 2000 construction workers a year died in the US, about two times the actual figure (which is already alarmingly high). The reason for this is simple: an acute lack of safety inspectors enforcing regulations. The reason for the lack of inspectors? While one cannot say for sure, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Israeli construction workers are overwhelmingly Palestinians and Eastern European and Central Asian immigrants.

Tacoma has all the correct parts: a racially diverse workplace, a focus on working class people, and a story condemning capitalism for being callous with their lives. It just neglected to put these pieces together. And although I am impressed that Tacoma's story is so good and deep, far beyond what one can usually expect of video games, that I am even able to make this criticism, it is still a significant and disappointing weakness. If anything, its focus on the "oppression" of AI and whether or not they should have the same rights as humans smacks of the sort of timidness of games that discuss racism purely through the prism of the  oppression of elves or dwarves.
But while this weakness should be noted, it should not prevent anyone from giving Tacoma a chance. For aside from this point and some admittedly weak writing, as well as some wonky visuals - the limits of Unity, its defenders' protests notwithstanding, are quite apparent - Tacoma is not only a vast improvement over Gone Home, but a brave and refreshing story-focused game from a consistently brave studio. We deserve more stories of this caliber in games of this level of quality.

Final Score: 8/10