Tacoma (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Tacoma (2017)

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Fullbright took their time crafting the follow-up to their divisive, and massively influential, 2013 first-person environmental exploration video game Gone Home.  Playing Gone Home was something of a watershed moment for me.  I grew up with adventure games like King's Quest and Day of the Tentacle, but wanted to be free of the constraints surrounding their plots and have the ability to explore freely.  Gone Home, with its subtle storytelling cues stuffed in drawers and pounding rain echoing all around me, was my catnip.

The catnip feeling continues with Tacoma while leaving a bitter aftertaste.  This isn't to Tacoma's detriment, as it's dealing with some harsh realities about how corporations use foreign labor to fuel their "innovations."  We're seeing this in Silicon Valley today with workers scared that they'll be ejected because of our President's xenophobia, while also having to work in a system that issues work visas to enforce a form of indentured servitude.  Their reasons are varied, but no one on the space station Tacoma is there by choice and all are trapped by contracts that value them for their intellectual labor while leaving them adrift to find meaning in other ways.This is what makes Tacoma's visual cues both eye-popping and disturbing.  You can watch recordings, some years old, of the crew as they go about their daily routines and try carving out some pleasure in their lives.  They're boldly colored in accordance with the job they're tasked to perform on the station, and seem to be held together with a series of lines that make me think of a child's understanding of the nervous system.  The color coding makes it easy to locate what each crew member is doing during the recordings, but the minimal framework holding their visage up makes it clear the corporation over the Tacoma - Venturis - values their intellectual impulses over their physical well-being.

There are so many other signs of the corporate mindset that it made me feel on-edge as I recently abandoned that world of metrics and charts.  Walking around the Tacoma I saw advertisements for resorts the crew is not able to partake in, looked at metrics attempting to catalogue independence and empathy for the Tacoma's resident artificial intelligence, ODIN (Carl Lumbly), and read notes subtly pressuring the crew to take actions against their self-interest.  It's that last bit, which primarily involves Tacoma's best character Sareh (Eva La Dare), that grounded me to Tacoma's pessimism about corporate influence.  Sareh can advance, get off the station, if she just accepts responsibility for a death that wasn't her fault.  It might feel hopeless, but Sareh's determination to do her job well and buck the system in this small way gives her a bit of freedom Venturis locks away.It's these little pockets of resistance that keep Tacoma from succumbing to a viewpoint of hopelessness.  But, like with Gone Home, I wouldn't find them if I wasn't naturally curious about the inhabitants of the Tacoma.  Fullbright's way of encouraging exploration is canny in its understanding of the dismissive critiques Gone Home received.  Tacoma's player character, Amy (Sarah Grayson), needs to download bits of ODIN to return to Venturis and each download takes about an hour or so to complete.  Want to ignore the station for a "speedrun"?  By all means do so, but the only thing you'll be doing is staring at a download bar as it slowly ticks away to 100%.  It's a great way to acknowledge one of the longest running motivational tools in videogames - the time limit - while repurposing it from an old outcome (death) to something more healthy (spurring exploration.)

So I wandered the station, playing videos back and forth as I tracked the movements of the Tacoma's crew as they brainstormed ideas to save their lives, and solved little puzzles for emotional texture.  The reward doesn't come in the form of more powerful tools but a greater understanding of what people do to get by in oppressive situations.  They're all hampered by what they don't feel comfortable communicating, so while tech guru Nat (Natasha Loring) is frustrated at her boss Evelyn (Dawnn Lewis) for not giving her the tools she needs to do her job, I see the behind-the-scenes weight Evelyn's taking on herself to try and do right by her crew while stealing private moments to sing Peggy Lee's immortal, "Is That All There Is?" to herself.The moment that most encouraged my curiosity about these people is also the most emotionally devastating. Because the crew of the Tacoma is struggling to survive they are almost always working in teams to brainstorm a way out of their predicament. So when Sareh, one of ODIN's frequent conversation companions, goes to be by herself I had to follow.  She breaks down, losing herself in panic, and Dare's vocal performance hits the painful reality of being too caught up in a situation while desperately searching for a way out of yourself.  All the while the solid coloring of her framework reminds me that this pain, this moment of absolute terror, is being recorded so that the Venturis can find a way to maximize efficiency for their bottom line.

Tacoma is a confident step forward for Fullbright and, while it might not be as transformative an experience as Gone Home, shows they are capable of pushing their style of adventure gaming in bolder directions.  Those who remain stubbornly resistant to this kind of storytelling might be prodded just enough to look into the crevices and recordings.  This is a speculative space away from the easy familiarity of a creaky old house and they learned how to gently prod players to go along for the ride.  It shows we're more than the electronic signals that propel our existence from one moment to the next, and there is a way out for those curious enough to question their existence.

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