It has been more than three years since The Fullbright Company's game Gone Home captivated audiences, swept game of the year awards and sparked a debate about what it means to be a video game.
This week the studio releases Tacoma, its second game, to an audience which, to some degree, still seems hung-up on that singular definition. Fortunately, Fullbright's Tacoma looks like it won’t make that question any easier to answer.
As with Gone Home, the game is a narratively-driven experience powered by emotion, evolving relationships and a solid mystery.
Gone Home told the story of a daughter returning home to an empty family house and the threads of story she finds there as she explores its familiar rooms. Tacoma takes the audience to outer space.
The new game opens with technician Amy Ferrier docking at the lunar transfer station Tacoma. She's there to figure out what happened at the station to cause it to be evacuated. Her only company is a malfunctioning artificial intelligence named Odin and the augmented reality recordings of the six evacuated crew member’s time on the station.
Player's float through the station, untethered from gravity, searching for clues and signs of the AR recordings.
The recordings play back the audio of conversations, substituting the now absent crew members with ghostly, colorful apparitions going through the recorded motions of the crew. The playback can be paused, rewound, fast-forwarded and watched from any angle in the ship.
Detached from time or sequence, these snippets seem as adrift in time as you are adrift in space. It's up to the player to reassemble the pieces of time into something that makes sense and sort out what exactly happened.
As with Gone Home, dropping into a mysteriously emptied living space, Tacoma manages to deliver an ever so slight sense of creeping dread without ever having to scare the player or deliver anything overtly menacing. Instead, it creates a vacuum within which the player’s own doubts and fears can reside.
While the Fullbright team worked to expand upon the core conceits of the original game, co-founder Steve Gaynor explains Tacoma isn't really meant to be an evolution of Gone Home's style of play.
"If you think of Gone Home as a foundation, our direction isn't to make the foundation bigger, nor is it to have a foundation of a ranch house and then add a Victorian on top of it," he tells Rolling Stone. "We have a foundation and it has these constraints."
Nor is the game meant to really be an expansion of those original ideas, says Fullbright co-founder Karla Zimonja.
"We think of it as a layering," she says. "We made Gone Home as a foundational game for what we do. Then we thought, 'What can we add to this? What can we lay on top and what can we tweak?'"
Where Gone Home received some criticism for being so light on meaningful, direct interaction, Tacoma has moments that offer challenges more akin to traditional puzzles. It still, though, hinges entirely on unraveling a mystery.
Fans of Gone Home will likely find more to reflect on in the way Tacoma delivers its story than its gameplay.
Because the player is left to wander the space station and find snippets of interactions, it feels less like the sort of storytelling found in a novel and something closer to the sort of performance art found in immersive performances such as Sleep No More. This unusual presentation pushes the use of narrative forward but doesn't really tinker too much with the non-storytelling elements of the game.
This way of presenting story seems a better fit with what mostly motivates Zimonja, Gaynor and team: examining relationships. That focus on relationships also lends itself to creations by Fullbright that tend to feature a more diverse cast of characters.
"We are interested in people and relationships with one another," Zimonja says, "and there are a lot of people out there to explore. So it's satisfying to us to try and branch out."
According to Gaynor, that diversity in cast also tends to make for better story.
"It is always the most interesting for us to explore a variety of perspective and character types, people of different sexual orientations, different class backgrounds," he says. "We want to look at how people from different perspectives all relate in the fictional world we are creating. I think that primarily comes from me and Karla, from a story team being interested in wanting to talk about more and different kinds of people."
The team doesn't start a game by casting it, despite the importance they place on that cast.
"It's, 'What is our universe? What is the story?' and then we populate that with characters that our interesting to us and relevant to the experience," Gaynor says.
The hope, he says, is that players will get to know these characters and care about them. "Our goal is to take someone who is not invested at all in the game and its story and by the time they have played for awhile they don't want to put it down," Gaynor says.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Gone Home and Tacoma is where the team was coming from during the development of the titles.
Gone Home was a small passion project created by a team of developers who wanted to make something more personal, more intimate than what makes up the bulk of video game sales. It came out of nowhere, winning over players and critics alike with its unusual approach to gameplay and storytelling. The same can't be said for Tacoma: All eyes are on this, Fullbright's second game, and the studio knows it.
"More people are paying attention before we launch,” Gaynor explains. "There's more pressure. All of that pressure is there, for sure, but we feel good about the game."
That pressure hasn't changed the team's design philosophy, Gaynor adds, instead it has inspired the team to see how they can take the success of Gone Home and push that into new territory that they haven't explored before. "And then hopefully, execute the game in a way that players will be excited about."