The term “walking simulator” always sort of bothered me.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those people that think genre distinctions are entirely useless, even in an age where each game is a little bit of everything. I actually appreciate how granular we’ve gotten when it comes to describing the new experiences that have formed as the medium has grown, offering a bit of validity, even if superficial, to every little niche out there. The problem I have with “walking simulator” is the inherent implication that walking in a video game is somehow weird, wrong, or, at the very least, a novelty, if you’re not also holding a gun out in front of you at a 90 degree angle. From there will inevitably stem conversations about what is allowed to be classified as a video game at all, as if the medium itself were some sort of monolithic thing that needed to be protected from those pesky “non-games”.
You’ll be relieved to hear that Tacoma is, indeed, a video game, albeit one that disconnects you from its narrative in a way that not everyone will be a fan of. You’re not the main character of this story. You’re really nothing more than a name-tag. That can be a difficult thing to adjust to for anyone that sees games as more cathartic than anything else, though at this point, you should know what you’re getting with Fullbright. Personally, I’m a fan.
Though the comparisons to Gone Home are easy to make and, for the most part, warranted, your time on the space station Tacoma isn’t spent listening to audio logs. You’re more an audience member to a work of site-specific theatre, needing to follow different conversations as they happen at the same time. Of course, you are actually alone during all of this, so what you see in front of you are simply color-coded representations of who had been there previously as you slowly piece together the events that led you there in the first place. It works, for the most part, though you may find yourself a bit suspicious of just how convenient the supposedly out-of-order AI logs always seem to reveal information in just the right way. It’s a narrative caveat that you kind of have to accept for Tacoma to do what it intends to.
Having no direct influence over the fate of these people, that intention is to make you care and then, in short time, worry endlessly about them. Like with Gone Home, that sense of dread is ever-present as you assume the absolute worst for the fate of this flawed (and thus, relatable) crew. There was a very specific point in Tacoma where I refused to open a door for several minutes because I feared I’d never see a character again. Of course, I’d never actually seen her. I’d seen an orange humanoid shape representing where she was at one point. I listened to her talk quite a bit and had discovered perhaps one too many things under her bed, but we’d never actually met and I had no ability to stop what may have happened to her, since it already did. It’s that feeling of absolute helplessness, ironically, that makes Tacoma so appealing.
There is plenty of interaction, just not in the sense we’re traditionally used to. It is entirely possible to finish Tacoma without actually paying attention to anything around you; without opening a single drawer or even activating one of the AI logs. That’s where the choice is. You choose how much you want to invest in the lives of these people; whether or not they have the power to make you sad or worried.
That may not be enough for some people, and that’s okay. If I have any complaint of Tacoma, it’s that I found myself left wanting more of the universe and the people that inhabited it, feeling that there was more to say with not just that setting but even that specific cast of characters. That is, of course, by design. You’re given a photo and get to choose how much you want to enhance the image to catch finer bits of detail. I just wish I could have gone a little bit deeper.
Is it for everyone? Nope, and it shouldn’t have to be.
Is it a video game? Absolutely.