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How Tacoma completely rethinks 'space exploration'

September 23, 2015 | By Katherine Cross

September 23, 2015 | By Katherine Cross
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Video



The first thing I felt as Amy plodded her way to the airlock door was a sense of gravity--or lack thereof. Her footfalls were slow and heavy, due to the magnetic boots that are required in the low-G environment of Tacoma station. That contradictory sense of ponderous weightlessness stays with you throughout the game, at least in the Tacoma demo I played.

What I found was a game speaking fluently and comfortably through both its mechanics and its motility. In other words, how you move and perceive your own motion as Amy Ferrier is a non-trivial part of the game experience.

Even several months out from its planned release, Fullbright's Tacoma feels polished and bursting to tell its story about a silent space station with a missing crew. I spoke with two of the developers, Karla Zimonja and Nina Freeman, to help give me some sense of the thought that went into the project and how its development and direction differ from Fullbright’s previous success, Gone Home.

“We’re trying to challenge ourselves to make something that’s not just the same damn thing,” said Zimonja. “Tacoma is a different work.”

That was certainly my sense as I played, and not just because of the sci-fi setting (at least, not directly). Although the game is, in the broadest thematic sense, similar to Gone Home in that one arrives alone at an empty dwelling and investigates what happened, the way it goes about telling its story is markedly different. Its expressive speculation flows from Tacoma’s comparatively more sophisticated mechanics.

***

Traversal and information gathering are core to the kind of gameplay Fullbright seeks, but both Freeman and Zimonja emphasized to me again and again that two mechanics in particular set the game apart from Gone Home and were allowing them to do interesting new things: surface transfers and augmented reality (AR) recording.

Throughout the Tacoma lunar transfer station are several AR recordings which are three dimensional audiovisual records of conversations that occurred on the space station. They record position, motion, body language, and voice, but not physical features, leaving the characters looking like colorful paper dolls.

There are a few things especially compelling about this. First, it turns listening to a conversation into a game mechanic. The recordings cover entire rooms or sections of the ship, sometimes covering multiple concurrent actions and/or conversations. The nature of the AR recording means you have to sort of swim in the spatiality of the record. You have to look in three dimensions for the clues it reveals, watch which characters disappear, have an eye for which side-conversations matter.

The featurelessness of the avatars is also noteworthy. “We wanted to bring in character attributes without dipping into the uncanny valley,” said Freeman who, among many other things, writes the emails and text messages one finds sprinkled throughout the station.

***

What stands out about Gone Home and Tacoma alike is that they make great use of the graphics-intensive, 3D medium. As I noted in my last column, this has historically been the preserve of “AAA” developers, but has been used by smaller, more independent to tell different stories, and in the process revealing how much more can be done with the graphical realism we all so adore. But as Freeman and Zimonja both pointed out to me, there was a way in which high fidelity in the avatar designs would be both wasteful and unimaginative.

“AR scenes are designed to capitalize on movement, not facial expression,” Freeman told me. “Humans communicate so much through body language and movement alone. Since our AR scenes are so mobile, in that characters move around, sometimes even walking into other rooms, focusing on making that movement and body language as interesting as possible is more valuable for the game.”

Leaving the character avatars featureless, save for their body-types, did two things. One, it allowed them to convincingly portray an aspect of the AR recordings’ lore: that the lack of feature-recording was a privacy concession, and two, more interestingly, it creates the impression of reading a book as you play, in spite of the fact that you are not taking in any text.

It’s rather like listening to an audiobook with low-res holographic representations of the action.

When I made the book analogy, Zimonja pumped her fist and whispered “Yes!” Clearly, this is what Fullbright was going for.

"Tacoma rewards a kind of spatial reasoning that is entirely absent from Fullbright's previous game Gone Home."

I had told her that interacting with the AR recordings-- and one truly does interact with them, as opposed to just listening to a playback as one often does in such games-- stimulated the same imagination that comes to life upon reading a novel, where you fill in the character’s facial features, clothing, et cetera. Thus, far from being an absence, the AR avatars were actually strangely engaging. They bring to the surface what is truly important about three dimensional rendering, leaving behind the quest for photorealistic avatars and surfacing instead gesture, spatiality, and imagination.

You do have ID-style pictures of each crew member to establish their appearance, but you’re left imagining what they look like when they are less posed; stressed, blushing, scowling, crying, laughing, it all plays out in your mind, guided by your movement among the digital ghosts in-game.

This three dimensionality to discourse that the AR recordings signify is also essential to the other major mechanic change: surface transfers. This being a low-G space station, you can jump from the floor to the ceiling for a complete change in perspective, to get around obstacles, to reach new locales, or to find where AR avatars are. In one playback, the ship’s engineer is hammering away at a broken airlock in the cargo hold. Finding where she was and seeing the workspace requires attentiveness and a willingness to move things around a bit.

Airline-style nausea bags and anti-nausea medications float as litter throughout the station, a constant reminder of the impact of surface transfers on one’s perspective. A few times I had to actually look away from the screen to avoid needing one of those bags in real life. (To be fair, I was already ill. I apologize to Fullbright if I left any plague on the mouse and keyboard.)

But what links all of this together is the desire to explore the very act of exploring space, and doing interesting things with three dimensions that focus less on violence and more on thought. Zimonja told me that there were no puzzles in the game as such, a la older adventure games, but I found that Tacoma rewards a kind of spatial reasoning that is entirely absent from Gone Home. What I experienced in the lengthy demo (which took me about forty five minutes to play through) was a game that is considerably more interactive than its predecessor, where you had to play a little bit more with the game environment in order to both make sense of it and advance.

Indeed, Fullbright’s emphasis on accessibility, which both Freeman and Zimonja drove home to me, gave us the surface transfers as a compromise between total gravity and floating around weightlessly. It creates perspectival shifts that reward and extend careful observation without, as Zimonja put it, “overwhelming” the player. In so doing, they focused Amy’s motion in a way that allowed for it to be much more expressive and interesting than it would’ve been in complete weightlessness.

***

Fullbright expanded its staff considerably after Gone Home’s success, and that growth seems to parallel a similar expansion in the scope of the stories they seek to tell. Whereas Gone Home focused primarily on one relationship, Tacoma focuses on several at once. The Greenbriar family as a whole was indeed part of Gone Home, but the narrative lens focused much more tightly on Sam and Lonnie. Here, you’re following the exploits of an entire space station crew at the same level of detail.

When I asked both Freeman and Zimonja what the game’s core was, they said it was three pairs of characters throughout the game, and relationships among the six more generally. The station itself is built as a stage for these intimacies.

The Tacoma station itself is a luxury affair, owned by Virgin-Tesla (yes, that Virgin and that Tesla), which is fixed at a Lagrange point between the Earth and the Moon. It is a transfer station where first class passengers en route to the Moon disembark from their ship and hop onto lunar landers to take them down to the surface of the Moon, where resort hotels await. The atrium you arrive in is fantastically beautiful, an ivy-leafed gateway to luxury complete with modern art sculptures on each side, taking on different themes of space travel between Earth and its lone satellite. Caviar and vacuum packed champagne float among the rest of the station’s detritus.

"Keep your scope as small as you can. Do something small and do it well."

But those passengers belonging to the new interstellar elite (the rocket set?) are not the focus of this story. You don’t see any of the passengers, even in AR recordings, and your time in the plush passenger section of the station is brief, exhausted even by the demo. I asked if the game took place, primarily, in the “backstage” area of the station where the crew lived and worked.

“So no more luxury toilets?” I asked with a smirk.

“No, although you can still flush the ones you’ll find. We’re not monsters,” Zimonja replied.

As ever, Fullbright is proud of its fully interactive environments; I shan’t lie, one of my favorite bits in the demo was throwing objects at the patrolling sanitation robots.

***

But perhaps the most interesting thing Zimonja and Freeman revealed about the game was that when I asked them where this backstage exploration was going next, they said they were still in the process of planning that out; even the exact ending is unknown to the developers. 

In a word, no one quite knows why the crew of Tacoma has gone missing, not even Fullbright.

This was how they worked on Gone Home, letting the story evolve with the space as they filled it all in. Like each room in the Greenbriar house, each compartment and chamber of Tacoma station is part of a tableau that tells a larger story, and each step in the process of programming and construction is one that makes the narrative ever more clear.

In this light, game development is as much of an act of exploration as playing Fullbright’s games; both Gone Home and Tacoma reflect the way they were made. Each game is an expression of Fullbright’s open-ended development style. You play it in much the same way they built it: one room at a time, piecing the big picture together as you go.

“Keep your scope as small as you can,” Zimonja said when I asked for advice she’d give to indie developers. “Do something small and do it well.” Tacoma seems to bear her out; the vast dimensions of the space station and its spec-fic setting belie the tight focus on relationships that is the hallmark of Fulbright.

“I would argue,” she added, “that every game would benefit from an exploratory attitude during dev, really! I very much value the way we're able to think things out beforehand as best we can, but there are always unforeseen wrinkles and necessary changes, and it's good to be able to really be sure that we're taking the best, most interesting path.”

In her advice, Nina Freeman touched on the other key theme of the game: “Don’t be afraid to write about someone ordinary, and don’t be afraid to focus on just one part of their lives,” she said. Ordinary people are at the heart of these games, and part of the genius of Gone Home was how its minimalist interactions still profoundly involved the player in the lives of the Greenbriars. But here in Tacoma, we’re presented with a more diverse cast of characters who are bound together by something other than blood. They’re the people who make Tacoma go, the often invisible labor behind the station’s operations: engineers, technicians, doctors, admins.

What I see so far in Tacoma promises an interesting new take on the everyday, refracted by the light of the moon that hangs just beyond the station’s windows.



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