Opinion – Tacoma Takes Interactive Storytelling In A Promising Direction

by Elise Favis on Sep 06, 2017 at 04:50 PM

Because of their interactive nature, video games open up unique possibilities for storytelling. The player directly impacts the action, which introduces an enthralling kind of agency. Tacoma, an adventure game from the makers of Gone Home, takes this ideology a step further. It opens new pathways for video game narrative by reshaping concepts from an interactive theater production.

Tacoma’s space station setting is far from unique in the realm of science fiction, and despite a captivating story, it hits familiar beats. But that’s not what makes Tacoma stand out. Instead, it’s how Tacoma tells its story that is most fascinating. Taking heavy influence from immersive theater productions like Sleep No More, Tacoma puts the player in a more passive role where they act as a fly on the wall – and it works wonderfully. 

You spend your time watching holographic simulations of a crew who inhabited the space station a few days prior, before destruction hit. These holograms appear as simplistic colored blobs, and you watch them undergo their daily lives as they visit the gym, phone loved ones back on Earth, and bicker amongst each other when perilous events unfold. Despite appearing as vague blobs, these holograms feel like real people, and I was strongly invested in their plight.

With Tacoma’s unique take on branching narrative, it’s up to you which micro-stories you voyeuristically experience by physically following crewmembers around – and this is its biggest accomplishment. As you watch the main story pan out, you follow different characters to separate sections of the station. For example, after a group conversation, the characters disperse. One enters a closed-off room to panic alone, and a couple walks together in the opposite direction hand-in-hand, reminiscing about memories together. 

What conversations or events you see unfold is entirely up to you, and if you miss any, an interactive timer lets you replay scenes. This is Tacoma’s most fascinating mechanic. It gives you the impression of control despite offering none. It’s as if you have a TV remote in hand as you play, pause, and rewind simulations, but you are only a passive observer with no say in the story. This approach to narrative design has a satisfying, voyeuristic feel that is similar to the experience of Sleep No More, but creates a deeper connection by adding an illusion of control.

Voyeurism isn’t new to games – we see it in franchises like Watch Dogs, where you hack electronic devices in civilians’ homes to view their private lives or read a passerby’s text messages. Overhearing idle chatter between NPCs is frequent in games, such as walking around the Normandy in the Mass Effect series and listening to crew members gossip. It makes fictional worlds seem more lived in. Tacoma’s approach feels less intrusive (even as you view characters sing in the shower or see flirtatious encounters unfold), because we know that the characters agreed to being watched and tracked. This aspect is also better because of how removed the main character is from the current events and by giving you a sense of control over which stories to follow. Tacoma proves that voyeuristic storytelling is a great way to learn about several characters on a deep level, without even interacting with them yourself. 

I felt as though I was a ghost haunting the living, despite the protagonist being the only living human aboard. For example, characters would walk through me if I stayed still, I interacted with the environment minimally by throwing and moving objects, and I’d decode passcodes by closely watching crewmembers’ fingers push buttons on a keypad. This ghostly sensation intrigued and captivated me, and it’s a method that works best as a video game because of the interactivity.

Tacoma sets the stage for new approaches to story in not just the adventure genre, but in the video game industry as a whole. Branching narrative isn’t novel, but being able to inhabit a space and move through the story physically is engrossing. Tacoma brings immersive theater right into your living room, and it makes for a unique experience. Despite being an observer, I felt like I got to know a quirky crew on a deep level – even though they weren’t there.