Have you heard of Punchdrunk? They’re a British touring theater company. Punchdrunk shows are completely immersive theater: you don a mask, put on a cool cape, and wander round a lavishly detailed, multi-room space, where all kinds of weird and wonderful scenes play out around you, as characters follow strict paths. Its scripted, in the theatrical sense as well as the videogame sense. Go to the right place at the right time – talk to the mysterious stranger, give the shopkeep the crumpled note, that sort of thing – and you might find a special scene opening up just for you, one of a handful of precious and spectacular one-on-one moments.
Choose to react in the right sort of way and you might find things open up further, letting you learn a little more about the world you’ve been placed in. Although, a lot of the time, the joy of Punchdrunk is in existing as a fly on the wall, walking into a room, invisibly, mid-scene, to witness a character in the privacy of their own company, or in idle conversations. It’s those small moments between the big story beats, and being privy to them, that really makes the shows tick.
And if this description sounds like it could apply to a whole heap of narrative video games, there’s a reason for that – when Punchdrunk took their production Sleep No More to the United States, games developers attended in droves, and the influence this one little touring company had on the entirety of immersive first-person game design has been astounding. So it should be no surprise that Punchdrunk’s immersive theatre experiences have been cited aplenty by Tacoma designer Steve Gaynor, and indeed their influence is everywhere in Tacoma, and Fullbright’s previous game Gone Home, which both give players free agency in a tightly scripted space. Most so-called ‘walking simulators’, can, I think, have their origins traced back to Punchdrunk.
Tacoma takes place aboard a manned space station in the year two thousand and eighty something, and focuses on a small human workforce who live under the thumb of huge conglomerates. They work as subcontractors for a choice of either money or company loyalty points – the latter of which can be conveniently funnelled into company branded university courses, mortgages and vacations at competitive rates. The detail of all this, and the vast corporate infrastructure in which everyone is insured, is fun to pick up on via the many magazines, pamphlets, notes-to-selves and emails scattered around. It’s all a lot more imaginative than the usual kind of paraphernalia-based exposition in games like this, and exposition objects tend to fit into the world organically and naturally.
“You might be seeing a guy in a back office enjoying a quiet phone call to his partner back on Earth, while the real story stuff is happening elsewhere.”
In Tacoma, you explore a series of meticulously scripted, multi-room spaces, and through observing the various characters you slowly piece together the game’s mysteries. And like Punchdrunk shows, this doesn’t happen everywhere all the time. You might be seeing a guy in a back office enjoying a quiet phone call to his partner back on Earth, while the real story stuff is happening elsewhere. Or, you might find yourself at a literal crossroads – two characters move off in different directions post-conversation, making you choose whose story to follow. Or a character you’ve been following for the past few minutes finds themselves entering a room in which something else is happening, mid scene, and you catch the tail-end of something intriguing.
Except, in a huge departure from other games like this, and indeed from promenade theatre, you needn’t ever actually miss out on anything, because in Tacoma you’re watching the action via hologram-style recordings, through which you can scrub backwards and forwards, tape deck style. It feels like a much more video gamey, completionist approach, and on some level I did appreciate not having to restart my game to get the full sense of what was happening. I could follow one of the game’s cast through a scene, and when it came to an end I could just rewind and pick someone else, and slowly build up a complete picture for myself. But at the same time, I just can’t help shake the feeling that this made the game feel less special. Encountering a scene didn’t feel serendipitous, and I can’t imagine having the “so, what happened in your game?” chat with people that usually comes from sprawling narrative pieces like this, because the assumption is that everybody has seen everything. And it’s a problem, because the big picture of the game is a little underwhelming.
It’s hard to think about Tacoma without also thinking about Firewatch. That game had a lot in common with this one – both are essentially ‘walking simulators’, where the player is free to move but has little control over the events around them, games where environment and occasional moments of ambient theatrics aim to give you the sense of narrative, where the bulk is conveyed through context. Games where leafing through books, letters, and personal effects left in a room is not just the bulk of your agency as a player, but where you get most of your sense of place and past and present. It’s an old literary staple – describe the room well enough, and the reader will figure it out better than if you’d spelled it out. And it’s fitting that’s the trope gone for, because games like Gone Home, Firewatch and now Tacoma all feel like they’re striving for the same thing: to be the Great American Novel in game form.
“Everything in this world explicitly feeds into the game’s literary ambition.”
But whereas Gone Home and Firewatch were about deeply personal quests for identity against the many barbs of ’80s Americana, Tacoma instead goes for the political. It’s a game about labour rights, the history of the American Trade Union, and the clash between people, their employers, and the endless cycle of automation and class redundancy demanded by the neoliberal marketplace. And look, it’s not subtle about these things either. This is what the game is about, overtly and directly, not what the game is about once games writers with postgrad degrees have put it on a lit-= crit PhD spin-cycle for a couple of hours. Everything in this world explicitly feeds into the game’s literary ambition. And although it is hugely ambitious, it also feels a little thin once you’ve seen the entirety of the dialogue and narrative paraphernalia.
It’s a shame, really, because I feel like it’s only through the fact that the game gives you all the tools to comb through everything that the it also betrays how its overall ambition is curtailed by the actual scope of the thing. The first time I saw a scene where two characters wandered off, I felt like I was witnessing a small part of a big story, but through being able to effortlessly replay that scene and follow those characters, it was easy to see the thing in its entirety. And in its entirety, Tacoma is a little rushed and a little thin. The thing about Great American Novels is they tend to be huge, and although Tacoma wants to wrestle with big American literary ideas, it doesn’t have the time to fully explore them, or to fully justify its characters. So if a character feels a certain way, or acts with a certain worldview, it feels all too often that they’re doing so out of necessity to the plot.
It’s cool to see a game try and take a bite out of that windowsill-cooling all-American literary apple pie. I feel like the last game to try and seriously wrestle with questions of American labour and labour rights was Oddworld: Abe’s Exodus, but that was a cartoon in a lot of ways. Tacoma is at once more grounded and experimental, and gets left in no man’s land as a result. It’s too thin for its literary punches to really, properly land, but at the same time, the mechanics are too generous for the gameplay experience to feel special. When I first heard about the game and its whole narrative rewind mechanic, I was intrigued and my completionist lizard brain bolted upright. And although I enjoyed my time with Tacoma, I can’t help but suspect that my lizard brain got what it wanted at the expense of everything else, that being able to check off a complete list of things to do and see left me with nothing special to look back on. In a game built around the idea of transitory shared moments and fleeting encounters, that’s a problem.