Floating in Space: Identity and Humanity in Tacoma

I almost don’t know where to start talking about Tacoma. There’s a lot going on at once in the game and, yet, very little of it actually happens to the player character. Like The Fullbright Company’s first title, Gone Home, Tacoma combines a powerful and intimate story about human relationships with a genre setting that creates an immersive atmosphere for the player to piece that story together. In GH, that was the story of a family going through rough times and the setting was a “haunted house” they’d recently moved into, and in Tacoma, the story is that of the crew of a recently abandoned space station and the setting is the station they left behind. Also like its predecessor, Tacoma’s story is extremely inclusive. After playing Gone Home I remember thinking, “I can’t wait to see what they can do with a bigger budget now that this game is a huge success.” The answer is Tacoma, and it’s an answer that was worth waiting for.

Tacoma - Main hallway

The main hallway of Tacoma station; while there’s a cool zero gravity basketball mini game to play here and some fantastic views, the stories behind these doors are what makes the game memorable. (Screenshot from Tacoma.)

Major spoilers after the break.

Tacoma - Amy credentials

Our largely silent protagonist has a complex backstory that is revealed over the course of the story. (Screenshot from Tacoma.)

Playing as Amitjyoti “Amy” Ferrier, an AI communications specialist, you are sent to the lunar cargo transfer station Tacoma after some sort of disaster has caused the crew to evacuate and the station AI to go offline. Amy’s contract involves downloading massive files from the AI computer core and the gameplay involves exploring the lives of the absent crew through their AR logs and personal effects as you wait for those files to download.

When you start to explore the station, one of the first people you learn about is E. V. St. James, the station administrator and a woman of color. Much like Gone Home, both the game’s protagonist (Amy) and the most powerful character in the story she uncovers are both women. Of the six human crew members who lived on Tacoma, four were women. Female characters make up a majority of those depicted in the game and are responsible for most of the major decisions that play out during the story. Two of those women (network specialist Natali “Nat” Kuroshenko and mechanical engineer Roberta “Bert” Williams) were also married to each other.

Tacoma - Just Married

Bert’s AR terminal showing her “Freedom Republic” citizenship and her wedding announcement. (Screenshot from Tacoma.)

This relationship has been noted in much coverage of the game, largely due to the fact that one of the many items one can find during exploration is a vibrator stashed in their bedside table. While many of those articles address the significance how female sexuality is presented in this moment, it is worth repeating here. As mentioned above, this game has you rooting around in people’s stuff and learning about their personal lives. When you find a vibrator in the bedside table of a married lesbian couple, you aren’t being presented some hypersexualized fantasy, nor is the moment played as a joke. Much like the journal entry in Gone Home detailing Lonnie and Sam’s first sexual encounter, Nat and Bert’s vibrator is used to acknowledge their sexuality and present it in a matter of fact way rather than for titillation or pure awkwardness.

Tacoma - Nat Jumps Bert

This adorable moment occurs just as the story’s danger level spikes. It’s a realistic, intimate moment that really draws you into the story beats. (Screenshot from Tacoma.)

In another such moment, after the crew of Tacoma has begun to assume they are all about to die, we see Nat literally jump Bert in a supply room. After an intense conversation about death and their chances of preventing it, Nat leaps onto her wife and wraps her arms and legs around her as they tumble to the floor and the recording cuts out. This, again, presents lesbian sexuality in a very genuine and relatable way that neither hides the sex part of sexuality, nor fetishizes it, as many portrayals of such relationships in video games tend to do. We also see the station’s botanist Andrew Dagyab corresponding with his husband and son on Earth and moments where E.V. and operations specialist Clive Siddiqi (her second in command and romantic partner) console each other and talk about how they want more time to be with each other. All of these moments, no matter the sexuality of the people involved, are presented as examples of humans relying on a romantic partner for support during difficult times; they are all deeply humanizing and the inclusion of multiple homosexual relationships in this aspect of the game is immensely refreshing.

In addition to providing a large amount of content that has women in most of the crucial roles and actively putting forth gay narratives as being just as “mainstream” as straight ones, there are numerous other identities explored in Tacoma’s story. We begin to see that nations have changed by 2088 (Amy, for example, is from the California Republic and is referred to as “Californio-American”), and most of the signage and documents we encounter have both Mandarin and Hindi on them in addition to English. Of the crew we see, only a third are white and all have names which suggest massive cultural intermingling has occurred over the years. Aside from these new nations and cultures though, there is one identity that is explored more than almost any other: corporate membership.

Tacoma - Loyalty system

When your reward points are worth more than national currencies, conversion rates become problematic. (Screenshot from Tacoma.)

It is slowly revealed that many multinational corporations (including real life companies like Amazon and Hilton) are as powerful as nations. Corporate “loyalty points” have conversion rates to national currencies and are among the most common mediums of exchange. But this is also where the more dystopian aspects of Tacoma are really examined, and ultimately, that exploration of corporate power becomes central to the game’s plot.

Tacoma - Sign In

Please agree to our terms and conditions before being allowed to leave the airlock. (Screenshot from Tacoma.)

When you are first boarding the station you put on augmented reality accessories that allow your brain to link up to the station’s AR operating system. At that point you are required to agree to a TOS to enter the station. It’s a moment that is both humorous and jarring, given that the player is literally forced to pause their entrance into a freaking space station until they click “agree.” This moment also introduces one of the more subtly inclusive mechanics in Tacoma, when Amy is required to sign the agreement: sign being literal as she uses American Sign Language (ASL) to spell out her name for the AR computer to see. The idea presented is that, in a universe where three major languages are widely spoken, ASL is a sort of universal language that can be used in an augmented reality environment. It’s really cool to see and makes the already unique moment of “signing” a TOS to be allowed through an airlock that much more memorable.

But as more recordings of the crew are uncovered and more of the AI data is downloaded, we begin to suspect that something sinister is going on. We are shown more and more AR warnings and messages from the Ventrius corporation that owns the station and we begin to learn more about the role of the station’s AI named ODIN (Operational Data Interface Network). This is where Tacoma really establishes itself as a serious bit of sci-fi social philosophy.

Tacoma - Labor rights and profit

The “Orbital Workers Safety Bill” is a big part of the game’s backdrop. (screenshot from Tacoma.)

As you read more and more logs, you eventually learn that the use of automation in orbital facilities caused a major labor crisis. This crisis became so bad that a union-backed law was passed, requiring all orbital facilities to have a specialist human crew even when an AI would be capable of fully automating the facility. This has resulted both in a new age of opportunity as people gain access to jobs in space, and the resentment of corporations that see barriers to automation as getting in the way of efficiency and profit. ODIN is able to control everything on Tacoma and has access to all the information the station’s AR recording systems gather; he is, as his name implies, almost godlike in his control over Tacoma. We see him walking the crew through procedures, planning a party in all its details down to the cake recipe, consoling humans in tough situations where he is treated as a close friend, and seemingly manipulating everyone into a situation that may result in their death.

At this point, while I was hooked on the game from the get go, I began to feel somewhat apprehensive that ODIN would turn out to be a cheap HAL knockoff with a corporate slant. This is seemingly confirmed as he maneuvers the crew to enter cryostasis. Unlike many other sci-fi games, stasis in Tacoma is usually fatal if the person isn’t revived within seventy-two hours. We see ODIN helping humans come to terms with their impending likely death, moments that are genuinely emotionally compelling, but which are also played against the implication that ODIN may be involved in whatever is really going on aboard Tacoma and may have even caused the disaster he is helping them deal with.

Tacoma - ODIN status alert

When your party is interrupted by a popup telling you you’ve got about 2 days worth of oxygen left. (Screenshot from Tacoma.)

As is the case in many current real life labor disputes, the role of AI in exacerbating inequality and eliminating middle class and blue collar jobs is explored in Tacoma as well. But ODIN isn’t a modern day corporate algorithm. The AIs we see in Tacoma are presented as sentient and self-aware. We even get little tidbits about a popular AI governor of Singapore who has written a bestselling book on the importance of transcendental meditation for conscious beings, synthetic and human alike. But on Tacoma and in many other orbital facilities, the humans have no access whatsoever to the AI hardware or the deeper levels of control code. The godlike ODIN is “black boxed” and this is a source of tension for many of the crew, particularly the tenacious Nat, who is trying to help him increase his sentience ratings and become more self aware. This is where I began to see that my fears Tacoma turning into a cheap HAL-type take on AI were groundless. The more exploring you do and the deeper you go into the events recorded in Tacoma’s logs, the more you realize that ODIN is often as much a victim of that corporate rigidity as the humans who depend on him. The game’s climax takes this to entirely new heights.

While we know that there is more to ODIN and the situation aboard Tacoma than meets the eye, we also see a crew that treats him as a friend and colleague and that ODIN shares this perspective, genuinely caring about his charges. When one of the crew is critically injured trying to rig up a makeshift escape pod, the ship’s medic (Sareh Hasmadi) says that she now has no choice but to follow protocol and order everyone into stasis, even though they will likely die before help arrives. On hearing this, ODIN displays a warning that cracks the story wide open. He kicks up an AR popup stating that a very important message is coming and that Sareh needs to pay careful attention, then proceeding to say “I am not telling you what to do” and letting Sareh know that the previously sealed off AI control room is open and that if she chooses to look inside ODIN cannot prevent her from doing so. It is made very clear that ODIN is trying to tell Sareh something that he is restricted from telling her by his programming and she takes the hint. When we eventually see what this restricted information is we find out that Venturis ordered ODIN to simulate a meteor impact and to cut communications and life support then get everyone to go into stasis. While they tell ODIN a rescue team is coming, he discovers that this is a lie and subverts his own programming to allow Sareh a chance to find this out. This act ends up saving the human crew and exposing the conspiracy by Venturis, but ODIN is left behind. Fortunately, Amy’s real purpose in taking the mission to Tacoma turns out to be recovering ODIN and liberating him by offering him asylum on a sovereign station that recognizes AI as sentient beings with rights.

Tacoma - ODIN aids anxiety relief

Oh, just an omniscient AI using guided meditation techniques to help a friend deal with profound anxiety. (Screenshot from Tacoma.)

Tacoma is one of the most well-written and inclusive games I’ve played. Women and people of color make up the majority of the characters, LGBTQI+ narratives are explored in a direct and honest manner, a myriad of ethnic and cultural identities are presented as equally vital to human civilization, and the rights of sentient AI are even explored. We are shown a future where there is massive diversity and unlimited potential but where greed and inequality place that civilization in constant peril. Like Gone Home, the stories that are waiting to be discovered aboard Tacoma are beautiful and heavy and memorable; this is a game that really stays with you for a while after it’s over and one that warrants addition to any inclusive gamer’s library.

(Note: This is not a paid review and I bought my copy using a publicly available Steam discount.)

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