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Space Elevators, Magnetic Boots, and AR: The Futuristic Tech Of Tacoma

by Joe Juba on Jul 13, 2015 at 11:00 AM

Gone Home transported players back to the ‘90s, putting them in a house full of audio cassettes, trapper keepers, and VHS tapes. Since Tacoma is set in 2088, Fullbright won’t have these nostalgic touchstones to establish a familiar setting. The mysterious space station immerses players in a different way, presenting a vision of the future filled with compelling (yet plausible) technology that add new angles to exploration.

Like Gone Home, Tacoma’s basic gameplay is all about examining your surroundings and piecing together what you can about the characters and recent events. However, the team is looking forward instead of back for this project, considering how the trajectory of current research and technological advances might shape our surroundings and how we interact with them.

The World To Come
Speculative fiction is a genre where anything goes – time travel, killer robots, and immortality are all on the table. But don’t expect Tacoma to get too bonkers with its futuristic palette. Even with a game set in space, Fullbright still wants its world to be recognizable to players. Not that exploring a space station between the Earth and Moon is familiar, but the threads connecting the present and the future are still visible.

“For Gone Home, we’ve talked about how we tried to go just far enough back in the past that there wouldn’t be computers, but would be as close to the present as possible,” says Fullbright co-founder Steve Gaynor. “There’s a similar thing [with Tacoma]; we want to go just far enough into the future that there might plausibly be a permanent space stations installed, and no further.”

Even if this world isn’t 100-percent realistic, it is still anchored in reality. For instance, one of the biggest assumptions in Tacoma is that humanity will have constructed a space elevator – a structure capable of bringing objects and people to space without the use of rockets. In the game, this has allowed civilian space tourism to boom – an industry that made Tacoma station necessary.

The space elevator concept has been around for years, and while it still isn’t technically feasible, the idea that it could be by 2088 isn’t absurd. “Our creative process is always answering questions,” Gaynor says. “The design raises these questions, and the fiction needs to answer them. We think a space station is a cool place to have this isolated story experience. Why would there ever be a space station? What is the nearest point from now that we could say there might be a space station?”

The same rule applies to the gadgets aboard Tacoma. Everything has a reason for existing in the world. For instance, in a microgravity environment, small dust particles won’t just settle, so various sanitation drones float through the air on Tacoma and keep it clean. However, that doesn’t mean that the station is crawling with androids or cyborgs (though it does have an A.I. called ODIN). “Broad, sweeping technology doesn’t move that quickly anymore,” Gaynor says. “There are significant changes to the fabric of everyday life and how people interact with their world, but they’re sort of incremental from where we are.”

Next: A look at the gear and augmented reality that makes it possible to unravel Tacoma's mysteries.

Fancy Footwear
Sanitation drones and space elevators are important for establishing the setting and logic behind the adventure, but other gadgets have a more practical effect on the gameplay. For example, protagonist Amy Ferrier wears magnetic boots that allow her to walk on different surfaces.

Since objects floating in space don’t technically have an orientation, rooms wouldn’t need to have a defined floor, ceiling, or walls. Useable space is limited aboard space stations, so you would want to optimize what little you have. Though Tacoma maintains the illusion of an orientation for the ease of its guests, the crew still needs the ability to walk along any surface, and that’s where the boots come in.

For players, this means that Amy can walk on any flat, clear surface. Not only that, but she can easily transfer from one to another by jumping. The boots react to the pressure from the wearer’s feet, sensing intent and disengaging the magnets appropriately. As you wander around Tacoma, you may see a door on the ceiling, or a journal entry up on the wall. Reaching these points of interest isn’t difficult – you can probably just jump over to them. However, the surface may not be flat enough to walk on, or might have junk on it. In those cases, it will be obvious that you aren’t supposed to be there; Tacoma is more about storytelling than puzzle-solving.

“We don’t want players to question it a whole lot,” says Fullbright co-founder Karla Zimonja. “We want you to say ‘I wouldn’t even think of going up there. Look at all that crap!’ You should be able to internalize it, rather than wonder if it’s the right shade of green or something.”

Augmented Reality
After Amy arrives on Tacoma and is unable to find the station’s crew, augmented reality becomes the key to solving the mystery. The proliferation of AR tech is another of Fullbright’s core assumptions about the year 2088, and it reaches into practically every facet of life aboard Tacoma. It tracks your position, records messages, and lets you interact with data – all thanks to an unobtrusive accessory that everyone wears.

“The high-level idea is that they’re adhesive transmitter nodes that you put behind your ear,” Gaynor says. “They transmit visual and audio data into your cortex. It’s not like wearing a visor with speakers or anything. And that’s all based on stuff that there’s some version of now – or at least early research into. Our supposition is that this technology has gotten good enough that you just wake up in the morning, put these on, and forget about it. Now your entire daily life is overlaid with additional visual or audio information.”

This system serves multiple purposes. In the fiction, the positional tracking means that the computer knows where everyone is at all times; it can even distinguish gestures like sign language, which effectively replaces the need for keyboards. Instead of typing, people would just sign letters to send messages and enter passwords. “Kids that grow up with this technology – just like kids today learn how to touch-type – would learn this and use it to communicate,” Gaynor says. “There would be a whole culture of people who, in order to use AR, would just be fluent in really fast sign language.”

The system is constantly observing and recording the people aboard Tacoma, which is good for making sure people are doing what they should be. “You’re doing your job, and it’s the company’s prerogative to make sure you’re in the places you’re supposed to be,” Zimonja says. “Are you in your workspace at the right time? Because there’s no good way to check up on them otherwise.” AR recordings also serve as the equivalent of an airplane’s black box, opening all of the crew members’ activities to scrutiny should a catastrophe occur.

From a gameplay perspective, AR is there because it lets players view recordings of the crew and gain insight into the characters and their circumstances. That’s where the story of Tacoma truly unfolds. The game is driven by narrative and exploration, and all of Fullbright’s technological speculation ultimately folds back into delivering a compelling and surprising experience for players.

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