It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Gone Home, Fullbright’s 2013 debut. What appeared on the surface to be something of a haunted house tale, its architecture even evoking the legendary mansion in Resident Evil, turned out to be a coming-out story of remarkable tenderness. But while this narrative metamorphosis was intriguing, what really lingered was the game’s writing, the way it told its story through characterfully penned diary entries, love letters, memoranda, packing slips, greeting cards, and so on. It spoke through three-dimensional space, through the gradual exploration of the Greenbriar family home, but also through the written word, skillfully emulating the way different people line up different words depending on whom they’re speaking to.
While there had been other so-called “walking simulators” before Gone Home—that is, games that use the controls and conventions of first-person shooters like Doom and Halo but get rid of the gun in favor of exploration and storytelling—many felt like curiosities, proofs of concept. With its carefully wrought story, cohesive architectural and literary conceits, finely tuned portrait of domestic life, and genuine affection for ’90s riot-grrl culture, Gone Home was something else entirely, a singularly compelling way to tell a story that kicked off a wave of games built upon its aesthetic confidence and narrative specificity.
Four years and at least one development reboot later comes Tacoma, Fullbright’s long-awaited follow-up and a game that plays coyly with the long shadow of its predecessor. The empty house of Gone Home is now an abandoned space station, evoking the premise of countless horror and sci-fi games and films. The story previously discovered via written ephemera is now splayed across richly detailed recorded scenes, during which three-dimensional ghosts of the station’s former inhabitants play out their final hours aboard the ship. You’re free to pause and rewind these scenes as you like, which is useful, as they show various plot lines separating and meeting up, revealing themselves only with repeated viewing. One early scene starts with characters getting ready for a party, paired off in a handful of rooms, but toward the end, they all meet up in the kitchen. Thus, as you rewind and follow the scene to its conclusion each time, their motivations become clearer, their various reactions elucidated as you hear what they were originally discussing behind closed doors.
Players have often yearned for a little more to do in walking simulators besides just walk, and these ghostly three-dimensional scenes pull from experiential theater like New York’s famous Sleep No More to add a puzzle-like curiosity. It’d be easy for them to be disjointed or overly fussy, but Fullbright pulls it off with the same nuance it did Gone Home’s journal entries. A tender moment between lovers is left unresolved, and the relative quietude of one of the ghosts in the ensuing scenes becomes increasingly devastating as you revisit it. A scientist’s private conversations with his family on Earth informs his obstinance in a later argument. Other memories capture quieter moments, sometimes soundtracked by haunting, reverb-drenched post-rock. (If nothing else, Fullbright is achieving Rockstar-like levels of quality control in its musical choices.) Fiddling with these memories provides a complication that simulates much more than merely “walking” around an empty house. It grants a sense of agency, a textual complication that pulls you in, even as a flood of characters and competing plot lines jockey for attention.
And there is a lot going on here. While the recovered scenes juggle various romances and personal objectives alongside the mystery of the space station’s evacuation, a handful of larger ideas about artificial intelligence, information overload, and interstellar capitalism slowly develop. Like 2015’s excellent, invasive Cibele, whose small design team has since joined Fullbright, you spend a lot of time in Tacoma parsing other people’s digital spaces, perusing their desktops and digital assistants. It’s digital-age evolution of Gone Home’s analog interiority that results in endless streams of text messages, emails, corporate memos, spam, and advertisements, as well as potboiler fiction, album covers, trashy magazines, notes to self, and, in some of the game’s most inspired writing, charts that document a growing external hazard as well as a surprisingly high-minded sci-fi twist.
Indeed, while Gone Home performed a singular feint, drawing you in as a ghost story but revealing itself to be something deeply human, Tacoma’s drama is all propulsive, against-the-odds space action, meted out by carefully drawn interpersonal relationships. Its twists are carefully planted and developed within that flood of information, subverting expectations based on Fullbright’s previous game, as well as those that have spawned in its wake. Its innovations are likely to be quietly imitated and refined for years to come, but, like its predecessor, it is most remarkable for doing something simpler and much more rare: It tells a damn good story.
Platforms: Mac, Windows, Xbox One
Reviewed on: Windows