In 2013, indie developer the Fullbright Co. set a new standard for interactive storytelling with its debut game, Gone Home, which used environmental cues to take players on an emotional journey whose focus on underrepresented parties distinguished it from the male-dominated, heteronormative narratives endemic to the industry. For its follow-up effort, the highly anticipated Tacoma, the Portland, Oregon–based company could have contented itself with refining the formula from the first game but otherwise sticking to the same earthbound, non-action-oriented script. Instead, the small studio sought to upend expectations again. “We thought what was important about the reaction to Gone Home was that it felt new,” Fullbright writer-designer Steve Gaynor told PCGamesN earlier this month. “People felt like they hadn’t played a game like that before. We needed to push ourselves to say, ‘How do we make Tacoma feel equally new?’”
It took time to find an answer; Tacoma, which came out last week on Steam and Xbox One, was originally slated for release in 2016. The wait was longer than the developers would have liked, but Fullbright didn’t disappoint, straying far from its slow-paced, exploring-the–Pacific Northwest wheelhouse and boldly building what could be the first-ever sports game set in space.
Tacoma takes place in 2088 on Lunar Transfer Station Tacoma, an unoccupied structure floating 200,000 miles from Earth. The player controls a contractor, Amy Ferrier, who lands on the deserted station in the opening scene and has its many amenities to herself.
In Tacoma, part of the fun is finding the sports: Fullbright has scattered them throughout the station, also sprinkling in some sports-free areas and distracting audio-video logs just to throw the player off the sports scent. It becomes clear early on, though, that this is a game about balling. Shortly after disembarking from her ship, Amy discovers a place to play basketball, the most entertaining and fully fleshed out of the several space representations of sports on which Fullbright is pinning its hopes of success. Let’s go to the videotape and examine how well each one of Tacoma’s sports translates to space.
In recent years, basketball has placed a great emphasis on movement and spacing, and Fullbright has taken that trend to heart. In Tacoma, the company takes the development to its logical end, as one would expect from a game set not only in space, but also 70-plus years in the future. On the three-dimensional court set up at the entrance to Tacoma’s biomedical module, basketball is untethered from the floor—which, in this rotating room, is just as likely to be the ceiling. This is basketball crossed with the Battle Room from Ender’s Game. It’s also what basketball would look like in Kobe Bryant’s dreams: There’s no one else on the court, and the player is in constant pursuit of the ball.
Thanks to the environment’s near-weightlessness, it’s possible to pull off all manner of maneuvers that would be difficult for most players not named Durant to execute on earth. The self-pass and self-alley-oop are personal favorites, as is the dunk delivered with such force that the ball bounces back up through the hoop from the other direction, which, with no way to tell between “up” and “down,” also counts for two points. It’s even possible to toggle a switch to reset the scoreboard or display 3-point lines—curved, in this case—to make it easier to activate the 3-point horn that sounds over the station’s PA.
The ease with which Amy changes directions midair, coupled with her Jordan-in–Space Jam–esque ability to grab the basketball from what appears to be a distance of at least a dozen feet, casts some doubt on the accuracy of Fullbright’s physics engine, but let’s not nitpick plausibility in a discussion about space basketball. Since competition is the centerpiece of a sports title, though, it seems like a serious oversight that there’s no way to play against others, either online or locally. Thanks to that limiting design decision, ballers seeking a challenge in Tacoma have no other option but to play Horse against themselves. Space basketball is still fun, but only briefly, and mostly thanks to the zero-G novelty value.
Tacoma’s take on basketball is thrilling and unique, at least for the first few minutes. The same can’t be said about billiards, which is located in the regular-gravity crew quarters. On the plus side, billiards may be more fun than basketball as a solo activity, but it’s also more sensitive to the foibles of the physics engine. Amy isn’t great at racking, and the balls don’t behave the way one would expect; exploding away from the cue with what looks like lethal force. Worse, balls sometimes hover over the pocket rather than sinking in:
I also have some concerns about the time when the chalk simply fell through the table when I tried to set it down.
Space darts in Tacoma is, sadly, a lot less fun than real-life darts. When the dart goes precisely where the player points the cursor, it kind of kills the skill and suspense.
This is probably Fullbright’s laziest implementation of any space sport. Tacoma provides the player with a football, but aside from repeatedly spiking the pigskin or racking up rushing yards while wandering the halls, Amy’s options end there. Eliminating contact is one way to reduce the risk of head injuries. At least the station includes some football-related reading.
Space Board Games (Coming Soon?)
Tacoma’s most tantalizing almost-activity is a Carcassonne-looking tabletop game called The River Divides, which sits on a table in the personnel module and appears to have been abandoned by previous players midgame. Amy can pick up and rotate the pieces, but she isn’t permitted to play. Modestly funded developers are often forced to cut corners and features to get games out the door, so perhaps a playable board game was a casualty of Tacoma’s ambition. It’s possible that this functionality will be added in an upcoming patch—maybe the one that finally lets stymied Xbox One players progress past “Press ‘A’ to start.”
There’s a lot to like about Fullbright’s attempt to port sports to space, and with sports offerings increasingly consolidated within a few famous and well-funded franchises, it’s refreshing to see a respected indie developer enter the ring. Unfortunately, the complete lack of opposing players saps some of the fun from Tacoma’s athletic offerings, as do some other curious oversights. Why can’t Amy activate the station’s showers after a long space-basketball session? Why can’t she use the fitness center to bolster her skills? And if you’re going to make a game about sports in space, why not incorporate some additional activities that actual astronauts have already tried, such as space Frisbee, space golf, or a space relay race?
Tacoma might be the best space-sports option out there by default, but Fullbright’s second effort makes too many missteps to be the space-sports game we’ve always wanted, or the best digital depiction of any individual sport. Still, the company can be commended for staying surprising instead of trying to sell us the same sort of game again. Whether its designers decide to stick to sports and deliver a more polished sequel or return to the narrative focus that made Gone Home great, we can count on Fullbright to keep breaking down digital walls.