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A Political History of the Future: Tacoma

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In this installment of A Political History of the Future, our series about how science fiction constructs its political and economic futures, we discuss indie developer Fullbright’s most recent game, Tacoma, and how it imagines a corporatized future in space.

When I started this series, I didn’t anticipate writing a lot about games. First, because as I wrote recently, I’m only an occasional gamer, and a lot of the bigger names in the field tend to pass me by because of my indifference to shooting and fighting games. And second, because while games can absolutely be political, and espouse left-wing politics, it’s still fairly rare for them to build worlds through which to express those politics that aren’t overly broad and obvious.

Take, for example, the gentle mockery with which Quantic Dream’s Detroit: Become Human has been greeted just recently. While the game has been praised for its graphics, gameplay, characters, and story, reviewers have also noted the simplicity of its android rights storyline. “What if, in some distant future, we treated white-presenting robots as badly as we currently treat non-white humans?” isn’t a particularly challenging brain-teaser, and the game’s designers haven’t exactly demonstrated a nuanced awareness of their core issues when they, for example, responded to audience complaints by allowing players to re-enslave a sentient robot whom they had previously freed.

Tacoma isn’t entirely the antidote to this kind of thoughtlessness. We’re still very much grading on a curve here, and there are no new, groundbreaking ideas to be found in the game’s world. What there is, however, is a refreshingly human scale of storytelling, which allows the game to explore how people live in the maw of capitalism—nervously, defiantly, sometimes buying into the system, sometimes blissfully unaware of it, and always focused just as much on their own hopes, dreams, and loved ones as they are on the bigger picture.

If you’ve heard of Fullbright, Tacoma‘s designers, it’s probably because of their previous game, Gone Home, which created a tremendous splash when it was published in 2013 (I reviewed it on my blog the year it came out). An example of an emerging category of games known by the semi-disparaging moniker of “walking simulators”—games where the purpose isn’t to solve a puzzle or defeat an enemy, but to explore a location, and through that exploration, discover a story that occurred there—Gone Home excelled at using its players’ expectations against them. Initially presenting itself as a familiar, 7th Guest-like horror game, in which player character Katie arrives at the mansion her family has moved into in the year that she’s been away backpacking, only to find them all missing, Gone Home ends up revealing not horror but sadness, and eventually hope. During her absence, Katie eventually learns, her family underwent various emotional crises, and her younger sister Sam came to terms with her sexuality, falling in love with an older girl from school. Gone Home was praised both for its innovative storytelling technique, and for the delicacy and humanity with which it constructed Sam, and her tale of coming out and first love.

The popular and critical embrace of Gone Home triggered some of the early rumblings of what would eventually become GamerGate. What outraged the groups who would eventually band together to harass developers and journalists wasn’t just that Gone Home wasn’t a “proper” game, but its girly, emotional subject matter, the primacy it gave not only to women’s feelings but to their areas of interest—a major subplot in the game is Sam’s discovery of 90s Riot Grrl music and culture. One assumes that it’s only because most GamerGaters have made a lateral move into full-on alt-right hate groups that Tacoma hasn’t met with the same opprobrium. Not only is this a game with a majority-female, majority-POC cast, and not only are most of the romantic relationships on screen queer ones, but the game is openly about labor rights, the capitalist exploitation of workers, and the importance of unions.

In Tacoma, you play Amy Ferrier, a salvage specialist contracted by the Venturis Corporation to travel to the titular space station and retrieve its databanks and the core of its AI, ODIN. A supply station for Venturis’s Lunar resorts (one of the interesting but unremarked-upon assumptions made by the game is that in its 2088 setting, most work available in space will be in the tourism and hospitality industry), Tacoma has been abandoned, but that doesn’t mean Amy is the only character in the game. When you arrive on the station, ODIN informs you that all your activities will be monitored and recorded, as they were for the original crew. The “augmented reality” overlay you’re provided with during your stay on the station allows you to replay certain incidents, including from the days and hours leading up to Tacoma’s evacuation. One of the first of these recordings reveals that three days ago, Tacoma suffered a catastrophic loss of both its oxygen supply and communications array, leaving the crew—administrator E.V., operations officer Clive, medic Sareh, engineer Roberta, network specialist Natali, and botanist Andrew—with few options for survival.

A lot of games use found documents, and particularly recordings, to build their story, but Tacoma‘s approach to this device is innovative and immersive. When ODIN plays back one of these incidents, he projects 3D outlines of the crewmembers, allowing you to observe them from different angles, or move in and out among them. Sometimes multiple conversations and interactions occur within the span of a single recording. You can choose to replay the recording multiple times to catch each conversation in turn (which is how you can learn that Andrew objected to the plan the group came up with to survive, and had to be talked into it), or follow a single character through them all (which is how you can discover that after putting on a brave face for Andrew, Sareh retreats to a private room to have a panic attack).

Many reviewers have compared this approach to immersive theater—it’s not very surprising to encounter, fairly early in the game, an obvious homage to Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More—but Tacoma expands upon it by allowing you to access the characters’ AR desktops. Even as they’re conversing with each other, you can peek in on the characters’ more private email exchanges or messenger conversations, and get a sense of what they’re not willing to say out loud. In combination with the more traditional forms of exploration—snooping around the characters’ offices and personal quarters—this gives the player a panoramic view of how people in this future live.

There are, of course, personal stories to discover here. We learn that Clive is deeply smitten with E.V., but might also have a drinking problem; that E.V. is struggling with grief over the death of her sister; that Sareh is exploring Eastern philosophies, as well as her own Muslim faith, in an attempt to curb her tendency towards anxiety. But one of the points the game quickly makes is how inextricably bound these personal issues are with the characters’ concerns over their careers.

Part of the reason for Sareh’s anxiety, for example, is her refusal to accept sole responsibility for the death of a patient during surgery, which she claims was the fault of a malfunctioning assisting AI—a refusal which has limited her job placement opportunities within Venturis’s organizational structure. Roberta, who is married to Nat, worries that her own limited career prospects are holding her wife back from more promising placements, and is trying to convince Venturis to pay for her to develop her skills. All of the characters are contractors, whose terms on the station are nearly up, and the additional anxiety over renewal expresses itself in different ways—Clive and E.V. worry that their relationship won’t survive if one of them isn’t renewed, while Andrew is determined to stay on so that he can earn money to pay for his son’s college tuition.

One of the points revealed by these conversations and email exchanges is how strongly the economic system in the game’s future is tilted towards corporations. While money still exists in the game’s world, it is heavily supplemented, and in some cases superseded, by loyalty points—either “customer loyalty”, which locks consumers into purchasing from a single company, or “company loyalty”, which discourages employees from moving from one corporate employer to another. The game is very smart in how it introduces this concept—it takes a few conversations for us to realize how commonplace and insidious it is, because most of the characters take it for granted.

Another interesting point is the fact that most universities are owned and operated by corporations, who use them as job training sites, and as a way of encouraging company loyalty from day one—if you take a job with the company that owns your university, your tuition might be forgiven, but if you don’t, you’ll be carrying an onerous debt for most of your adult life. What’s smart about how Tacoma introduces these ideas is how it avoids the obvious, dystopian spin it could have put on them—Andrew’s son, for example, is very excited to be attending Amazon University for the performing arts—while also making it clear how they curtail the freedom and happiness of ordinary people—in order to afford this prestigious university, Andrew has to spend months and even years away from his son and husband.

At the same time, the crux of the game is a union accomplishment that seems almost impossible to believe in at this moment, when unions are at their weakest. Some time ago, we learn, the corporations tried to eliminate human presence in their space stations altogether by arguing that AIs could handle all necessary tasks. The unions blocked this proposal, demanding a law that requires a human presence—and thus, human jobs—in all AI-operated installations. It’s the sort of thing that Erik would be happy to see happening here and now, though unsurprisingly, the corporations have been trying to undermine it ever since it passed. Venturis, in particular, has a lot riding on the law’s elimination, since they are hoping to roll out an array of autonomous vacation units orbiting the Earth, which could only be profitable without a human crew overseeing them. (In one of the game’s most interesting revelations, we learn that Andrew has sunk most of his life savings into one of these units, which means that he is invested in the law being overturned even though his livelihood depends on it.)

My one major complaint against Tacoma is that its game-playing mechanic can end up undermining its politics. This was already a problem in Gone Home, in which a satisfying playthrough required us to pretend to be a young woman ruthlessly tearing through her sister and parents’ most private documents and correspondence. There’s even a scene in which Katie, coming across a diary entry in which Sam describes her first sexual experience, refuses to read it no matter how many times the player tries to make her; but this only serves to call attention to how disrespectful her behavior in all other parts of the game has been.

That dissonance is compounded in Tacoma, which simultaneously stresses how invasive ODIN’s recording of the crew is (not to mention the fact that the recordings become Venturis’s property), but also requires us to participate in that invasion to work. The game makes no bones about how egregious Venturis’s lack of respect for its employees’ privacy is—one recording even takes place in the station’s showers—but in order to get that point, we need to demonstrate the same lack of respect.

Worse, as the game progresses, our passivity as observers comes to feel less and less tenable. It becomes increasingly clear that something sinister happened on Tacoma. It even starts to seem plausible that the crew are still on board, waiting in rapidly-failing suspended animation chambers which Venturis has no intention of retrieving. The fact that we have no option to investigate or act outside the parameters of Amy’s mission can start to feel frustrating.

One of the core traits of walking simulators is that the player rarely gets to make choices beyond where to explore next—everything that can happen has already happened, and it’s our job to discover it. But in a game like Tacoma, that can end up feeling like complicity, especially since Venturis keeps sending Amy reminders that she’s not allowed to remove data from the station for her own use, or talk about what she’s seen in the station’s recordings. Like the Tacoma crew, Amy is a contractor in a highly-unequal relationship with a powerful corporation. But she’s still a person, and if we were in her place, we’d like to believe that we’d do the right thing. The fact that the game eliminates that option to choose—even wrongly—feels like a deep flaw, one that undercuts its message of solidarity.

There’s a satisfying resolution to it all, however, and like Gone Home, Tacoma ends on a message of hope. Combined with its fascinating world, its beautiful graphics, and the fantastic writing and voice acting for its characters, the game is a highly satisfying experience with a powerful message to boot. As I said, I still feel that games have a lot of ground to make up when it comes to SF worldbuilding, but Tacoma is definitely a step in the right direction.

Next time on APHotF: still hoping to get to both Blackfish City and Revenant Gun.

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