Tacoma doesn’t require your input, only your patience. Set a few thousand miles above the Moon’s surface in the late 21st century, it casts you as Amy Ferrier, a network technician contracted to recover an advanced AI, ODIN, from an abandoned space station. The setup recalls any number of sci-fi horror yarns, from Alien to Arkane’s recent Prey, but there are no failing ship systems or otherworldly creatures to battle with in Tacoma – indeed, no animate entities at all, save for the trash disposal drone that buzzes around the facility’s zero-gravity core. Rather, Amy’s task boils down to reaching a handful of access points found at junctions throughout the station, plugging in her pleasingly scruffy fold-out terminal and waiting for portions of ODIN’s enormous brain to download. I haven’t gone back to check, but I suspect you can complete the whole game – an evening’s play, at most – without doing anything other than watching percentage points accrue.
In practice, of course, you’ll probably mooch through the rooms nearby, studying objects like scrunched-up food wrappers and touchscreen worktables for hints about the events that led to the station’s evacuation. You’ll also stumble on recordings of crew activities that can be played back as holographic projections – key moments from the days before the crisis, preserved like flies in amber. Then, having exhausted the area’s ambient narrative possibilities, you’ll wander back to the intersection, collect your terminal and set off for the next area. It’s a subtle transformation of your role in The Fullbright Company’s 2013 debut Gone Home, though the experience is otherwise very similar. Gone Home was about filling in the picture after a year’s absence, tracing the unfolding of a family crisis in the interplay of objects and artefacts. Tacoma offers up its fair share of mildly diverting detective work, but on some level it’s just about filling time.
All of which makes it a very apt platform for a story about the growing superfluity of human labour in the age of computers and robotics. As with much of the best sci-fi, Tacoma is at heart a response to something very contemporary, the erosion of lives and livelihoods by mass automation and the corporatisation of society. It presents a neoliberal dystopia among the stars that is, you sense, but a couple of “disruptive innovations” removed from the present, in which AIs take care of exciting, high-level tasks like scanning for meteorites while their human handlers organise themed bar nights, play video games and churn out dreary monthly reports. The game’s eight characters are all, in various ways, struggling for some kind of dignity or purpose within a system that views their aspirations as an inconvenience. It’s a struggle writ small in every piece of bric-a-brac you’ll pick at, from ODIN’s leaden e-missives on how to make paper party decorations to the picture of the CEO vengefully stapled to the recreation area dartboard.