Let’s Study Tacoma

Hello, dear readers. It’s been a while since my last post, and to make up for the gap, I have come bearing a video. Specifically, another video in my “Let’s Study” series. This one is fairly short, zooming in on the technique of “scrubbable narrative” in Tacoma (The Fullbright Company, 2017).

Special thanks to Amy Stebbins on this one, who directed me Alan Alston’s 2013 article “Audience Participation and Neoliberal Value: Risk, Agency and Responsibility in Immersive Theatre,” which ended up forming the backbone of most of the observations in this one.

As always, transcript below the jump.

Hello, and welcome to “Let’s Study Tacoma.” This is going to be a quick video, just a little appreciation of some of Tacoma‘s most innovative and interesting features.

Tacoma, released in August 2017, is the second game by the small independent studio The Fullbright Company. It follows their well-regarded (if somewhat polarizing) 2013 debut game, Gone Home.

In Gone Home, the player explores an empty house, gradually piecing together the story of where its inhabitants are by examining objects in the environment, particularly notes, calendars, and journal entries. This sort of journal-entry-based game storytelling was pioneered way back in 1994, with the first System Shock game, a progenitor of what we would today call the “immersive sim” genre. “Immersive simulation” is a term coined by Warren Spector, describing his 2000 game Deus Ex, who used it to describe games that are “all about how you interact with a relatively complex environment in ways that you find interesting (rather than in ways the developers think are interesting).”

There’s no real necessary and sufficient conditions we could set up to more precisely define the “immsersive sim.” But some usual hallmarks are complex maps and complex AI behavior, which together mean that there are a wide range of ways to deal with enemy threats, ranging from combat to evasion to conversation. Along with being thick with alternate routes around potential sites of conflict, the environments of immersive sims are also thick with detail, which means that the genre has frequently stood as the gold standard for environmental storytelling. Like DOOM, the maps of immersive sim games are filled with secrets, but unlike DOOM, these secrets are just as likely to be a bit of story detail as much as they are medpacks and ammunition.

By 2013, when Gone Home came out, the BioShock series stood as the most popular inheritor of the immersive sim tradition. Several members of the team that would eventually make up The Fullbright Company worked on the downloadable content campagin Minerva’s Den for BioShock 2. And, if you squint a bit, you can see how Gone Home fits into the same lineage: it is, in a way, an immersive sim that has been stripped of its combat.

Describing Gone Home in this way is a bit controversial. When it came out, it was lambasted by a certain hardened segment of the game-playing population as being “not a game.” Some claimed—to use a term that originated as a perjorative but has been subsequently adopted by some developers as a term of art—that it was merely a “walking simulator.” This seems rather silly to me. There has, after all, been a long history of adventure games, particularly on the PC, that blend storytelling with exploration and light puzzle solving. It’s easy to place Gone Home into this lineage. Basically, it’s a hybrid: a story-driven, nonviolent adventure game that also references the first-person immersive sim tradition.

This dual lineage continues in Tacoma, where, if anything, it is made much more clear. Tacoma acknowledges its debt to the graphic adventures of yore by naming one of its characters “Roberta ‘Bert’ Williams,” after Roberta Williams the game designer, who invented the graphic adventure with Mystery House (On-Line Sytems, 1980), established the Sierra style with the King’s Quest series, and pioneered the full-motion video graphic adventure in her Phantasmagoria series. On the immersive sim side of things, Tacoma tips its hat to System Shock with its space station setting, AI characters, and fondness for using emails to tell its story.

Another debt to the immersive sim legacy can be found in Tacoma‘s use of featureless, monochrome figures to relay past events to the player. This is, by far, the most notable mechanical addition that separates Fullbright’s sophomore game from its predecessor.

In Tacoma, these figures are thoroughly explained in the game’s fiction as augmented reality records of crew activity, part of the terrifyingly invasive surveillance powerful corporations subject their employees to in this cyberpunk future. But they share no small amount of similarity to the “ghosts” that occasionally act out prior incidents in System Shock 2 and BioShock.

That said, the “ghosts” in Tacoma exhibit one major change over their precursors in System Shock 2 and BioShock: the staging of their movements is much more complex. While ghosts in those earlier games tended to stay clustered in one area, the AR recordings in Tacoma are spread out over multiple rooms. Characters will break off of a conversation, head to another room, and have another private conversation, while the characters they left behind will continue to converse. There is a constant forking and re-joining of lines of action, making it impossible to stay in one place and watch the scene unfold, as one could do back in System Shock 2.

So, along with storytelling mechanics pioneered in the immersive sim genre, Tacoma also steals a page from immersive theater. Now, parallels between videogames and immersive theater have long been pointed out. Going all the way back to the 1990s, pioneering new media scholars such as Brenda Laurel and Janet H. Murray wrote about games within the context of theater. The author Michael Nitsche has pinpointed the Half-Life franchise as especially theatrical, given that it is based around “theatrical staged actions” that are “enacted on [a] virtual stage”.[i]

In contrast to something like Half-Life, the theatrical resonances of which were only brought up later by critics and theorists, Tacoma was built from the ground up with immersive theater as a central influence. In multiple interviews and statements, Fullbright founders Steve Gaynor and Karla Zimonja have specifically named the Punchdrunk theater company’s Sleep No More, an immersive theater adaptation of Macbeth that has been staged in hotels in several site-specific showings, as a central inspiration. Gaynor offers the following description of Sleep No More, which could double as a description for Tacoma:

Some performers might come through, and they might cross paths and do a scene together. And then somebody else comes in, and they all split off. You as the viewer can obviously only be in one place at one time. So you follow the first person to see where they went. You have no idea where the other people went.

However, there is one big difference between Tacoma and a piece of site-specific immersive theater such as Sleep No More: in Tacoma, you can always rewind the actors, following someone new this time, to get a sense of the full scene. Here is what this looks like in action:

This is a difference that most reviewers noted when describing Tacoma. It’s also something that Gaynor himself pointed out in multiple interviews. But although I can’t in good faith say that the feature has gone unnoticed, I still think that it’s easy to miss how radically it actually changes the experience of Tacoma from the standard experience of immersive theater. To make this case, I’m going to turn to a 2013 article by the theater scholar Adam Alston, entitled “Audience Participation and Neoliberal Value.”

The language we use to describe immersive theater, Alston notes, is usually organized around notions of “freedom“: immersive theater gives us the “freedom to move within an aesthetic space.”[ii] But alongside this freedom comes associated risk. In order to successfully witness the juiciest events in a theatrical performance such as Sleep No More, an audience member “needs to be savvy enough to know how and where to find them.” “Sometimes,” Alston writes, “this savvy attitude involved remaining in one place for the action to arrive, while at others it meant meandering through the seemingly vast recesses of the BAC before stumbling across a scene or wandering character.”[iii] Movements throughout the site of the performance, then, are not value-neutral. There’s aways a certain risk involved—an opportunity cost to being one place, rather than another. Immersive theater, then, doesn’t just present some sort of value-neutral “freedom.” It sets forth a rubric of risk and reward that encourages what Alston calls “entrepreneurial participation“: a mode of spectatorship that valorizes “risk, agency and responsibility,”[iv] and, as a result, promotes “individualism and self-interest.”[v]

There are games that absolutely promote this sort of “entrepreneurial participation.” To return to our Half-Life example, the many hidden glimpses of the G-Man that quick and resourceful players are able to catch if they’re absolutely dedicated is pretty emblematic of this celebration of agency and responsibility. Or, for an even more extreme example, we could add something like being in the right place at the right time to recruit every single possible party member in Suikoden II, thereby getting that game’s best ending.

But in its unique form of scrubbable narrativeTacoma rejects the risk/reward dynamics of these games, jettisoning the demands they make of their player in favor of user-friendly accessibility. The freedom on offer in Tacoma isn’t a “risky” freedom, it’s more of a “flat” freedom, because you’re always free to rewind, make a difference decision on who to follow, and catch up with what you missed. We’re not making choices written in stone that will move us to a “good” or “bad” ending, we’re just marinating in the flow of things, moving forward and backward, seeing all that we care to see.

Which is actually quite radical, when you think about it. Gone Home ruffled feathers for not being “a game,” but rather than contest this perception, Fullbright doubles down in Tacoma. They could have easily made your choices on where to go matter more, locking content behind different decisions. That would have arguably made Tacoma more “gamey,” as it would have filled it with the sort of risk-reward that permeates Sleep No More. But, at this point, that’s clearly not Fullbright’s M.O.

This isn’t to say that Tacoma doesn’t reward player agency, curiosity, and savviness. Although anyone can use the rewind feature to catch absolutely all of the dialogue in the game, certain parts of the story are better explained for players who take the time to read every email, and unlock some optional doors. Diligent players will learn things about Sareh’s history that make her friendship with ODIN seem more remarkable, and illustrate how she has twice now been the victim of Venturas’ attempts to exaggerate or outright lie about human error in order to replace human workers with cheaper AI. Players who notice Nat’s persistent efforts to raise ODIN’s independence score—perhaps influenced by her general sympathy to the aims of the AI Liberation Front—will be newly appreciative of how her efforts perhaps saved the lives of the Tacoma crew, given that they produced the somewhat rebellious version of ODIN that eventually helps the crew out of their predicament. And of course there is plenty of back story to absorb about the labor politics of orbital workers, and what corporate union-busting efforts look like in the age of AI. Details like these stand as rewards to “entrepreneurial” players, and do a lot to clarify the stakes of the story we see playing out.

Overall, though, Tacoma is notable in the degree to which it rejects the types of risk and opportunity cost associated not just with immersive theater, but also with the history of game storytelling. The scrubbable narrative of Tacoma shares some similarities with the loop-based storytelling of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and the backtracking allowed by The Last Express. That said, though, neither of those games let you move forward and backward in time quite as effortlessly as Tacoma, and it is in fact difficult to find examples of what Tacoma does outside of experiments such as Dan Waber’s Twine piece a kiss (for Jennifer) (2010/2013).[vi] Tacoma a real milestone in the history of staging and presenting interactive narrative, and deserves to be studied and talked about by those interested in the subject. So—go forth, and do that! And thanks for watching.

[i] Nitsche, Michael. Video Game Spaces: Image, Play, and Structure in 3D Worlds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008. Pg 105

[ii] Alston, Adam. “Audience Participation and Neoliberal Value: Risk, Agency and Responsibility in Immersive Theatre.” Performance Research 18, no. 2 (2013): 128–138. Pg 129

[iii] Ibid, 133.

[iv] Ibid, 128.

[v] Ibid, 133.

[vi] Pinning down an exact release for a kiss is difficult. The Interactive Fiction Database lists its release as July 15, 2013, which is the same date that Porpentine posted about it on Free Indie Games. But the game’s page itself clearly states “© 2010.” Perhaps it was made in 2010, but Waber didn’t publicly share it until 2013?

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