My main criticism of Gone Home and all the games derived from it is its lack, kind of covert lack, of human characters. It’s about love, sex, loss and family but although you read some diaries and look at a lot of curios, in an admittedly really well-captured mid-nineties American home, you don’t actually talk to anyone. I think games generally are going out of their way to avoid people on-screen. They want to be thought of as searing or humane, which is why you get all these letters in Dear Esther, monologues in Sunset, and talking ghosts in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, but they’e uneasy about staging an actual conversation with an actual person. I’m often told it’s because the human body and face are hard to animate. But that seems like a convenient half-truth, and for the benefit of directors. If you can build a facsimile of an English village or a suburban home, at least one 3D model of a human seems possible.
Tacoma doesn’t include any live, as in, in front of you, talking directly to you people either – the hologramatic recordings of Tacoma’s crew are another example of videogames opportunistically dodging real human beings. But it’s much less concerned with items. What I resent about those previously listed games: whether they mean to or not, they imply you can know a person just by examining what they own. There’s a separate article to be written about how games are a materialistic culture, i.e. how a game’s success is measured by how much money it earns, a player’s success in Call of Duty or something is correlative to how many guns and skins he’s unlocked, getting stronger in God knows how many games requires accumulating stuff, and how the implicit relationship between what a character owns and the complexity of his soul in something like Gone Home betrays how hopelessly fixated games are on material. For now though, I think everyone would agree that rooting through someone’s bookshelf or bedroom or chest of drawers wouldn’t communicate the fullness of that someone’s personality, and when a Gone Home or a Rapture gets called greatly insightful into the human condition it feels disingenuous. I don’t think these games hide the fact they’re giving you shreds rather than complete depictions of people, but we write and talk about them as if they are very, completely personal, probably because we dearly wish things were better and games in general provided more kind of human contact.
Tacoma is set on a spaceship in the future and usually (perhaps cynically) I’d call that another form of distancing from the immediately human. But the items I pick up, because they are from another, fictional time, mean very little to me. I don’t feel like I can glean much from each characters’ personal effects, with them being inscribed in jargon and references to made-up events, so I resort to the voice recordings instead. Basically, I spend comparatively little of my time in Tacoma looking at things. The things are obscure. The things are uninformative. If I want to know about the people in Tacoma, I have to listen to what they actually say and, as much as their holograms permit, watch how they move. If the game were entirely based around recorded conversations and the things weren’t present, I don’t think I would feel a difference between Tacoma and its peers so keenly: when even SOMA, the pinnacle of these explore and look and listen kinds of games, has me perlustrating email after email, the dynamic of picking something up, getting nothing out of it then putting it back down in Tacoma becomes more significant. Really, it’s what they say to one another that defines the crew of Tacoma. And their interactions aren’t clean or easily intelligible, at least not in that direct, for-the-benefit-of-the-audience way that is extant in written dialogue. Rewinding and fast-forwarding through the hologramatic replays does make these people seem kind of artificial, like just part of a game mechanic, but it also impresses a messiness inherent in speech. They talk over one another. Sometimes they carry on conversations in different rooms. Their fuzzy, projected outlines reflect the untidiness of any one person: I don’t think our personalities are immediately clear or smoothed out and neither are the people in Tacoma, as in literally. What they own doesn’t tell you much. What they say is complicated to parse. Who they actually are is hard to describe. If Tacoma and games like it are trying to capture something about being human, via not having humans on-screen, then this obscurity is something.