The future in videogames is often a nigh-on operatic affair, with grandiose plotlines and Wagnerian heroes and villains set to epic settings and bombastic music. The future is alien invasions, cosmic collapses, zero-G battles, laser light shows exploding over a battlefield of stars, all with a Commander Shepard or Master Chief with their hand firmly on the tiller of history. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s damn fun.
In addition, such games even manage to avoid being mindless schlock much of the time. Some Halo games humanize the Covenant, forcing you to see them as something more than implacable aliens, but as a civilization in their own right, however warmongering. Mass Effect, meanwhile, is an elaborate series of ethical and political debates that explore everything from war crimes to sexuality with a degree of maturity that is refreshing for the world of videogaming.
But what of the little people? The NPCs in the background who only ever have one line of dialogue recorded for them (if that) that they share with countless other lightly-rendered copies of themselves sprinkled throughout this heroic future?
One thing we can look forward to in the next generation of videogames is that how they portray the future itself is changing, centering the story less on heroic, larger-than-life characters fighting existential battles than on ordinary people trying to get by in their brave new world. The history of science fiction itself, from Joanna Russ’ We Who Are About To to Samuel R. Delany’s Triton, proved long ago that such stories are opportunities to write living histories of the future, and some videogames are at long last picking up on that longstanding literary cue.
A prime example of this is Fullbright’s forthcoming game Tacoma. The makers of Gone Home have set their much-anticipated new project in the year 2088 aboard the lunar transfer station Tacoma, a sort of first class rest stop for luxury holidaymakers on their way to lunar resorts. Like all such amenities in our own time, however, there are ordinary people, often working behind the scenes, who keep the lights on. This six person crew and their mysterious disappearance is what your character, Amy Ferrier, must investigate.
Tacoma is a luxury space station that you enter via a leafy, gold-trimmed corridor that sustains both exotic plants and cerebral modern art, the tickets themselves evoking first class on the White Star Line rather than an airplane boarding pass. Even the zero-g toilets have the look of rather literal thrones. But even in the demo version I played in Fullbright’s Portland offices, I quickly left the luxury behind and instead spent most of my time bouncing around the more spartan corridors and chambers where the crew does most of their work.
In talking to Karla Zimonja, an artist and 3D editor at Fullbright and the company’s co-founder, I brought up the fact that this seemed to be a game focused almost entirely on ordinary people and day to day life.
“I definitely agree with the ordinary people part, or at least believable people,” she said. “Nobody’s going to save the earth from an alien invasion, nobody’s going to have to remake civilization in the far far future, and so forth, so definitely ‘ordinary’ in that sense.”
The game is an interactive, spatial narrative where the world unfolds through each successive room, much like in Gone Home. But here, instead of written notes and hidden letters, your character rifles through text messages and holographic recordings of the personnel’s movement and conversations aboard the Tacoma. The stuff of their everyday lives—from the music they listen to, to their medical exams, to songs they were writing, to their struggles at work—is what populates this world.
“Everybody has human-scale concerns and desires, partially because that’s a really good way to make them relatable, and partially because it’s a satisfying contrast with the unearthly (har har) setting,” Zimonja added. In a word, it effectively normalizes the world of the game.
Throughout Tacoma you’re greeted by the floating debris of the ordinary. Packets of anti-nausea medication abound, as do airline style sick-bags, and vacuum packed coffee. What Fullbright games seek to convey through their tactility—through the ubiquity of stuff to pick up, lovingly examine, and toss around—is that their worlds are lived-in. In the demo, the only signs of life aboard Tacoma come from the boxy, hovering sanitation drones; I admit I had way too much fun throwing things at them and knocking them off course. They’d warble indignantly before resuming their circuits. Silly as this is, Fullbright seems to want you to do things like this because it’s something you can easily envision a mischievous Tacoman doing on their spare time. It involves you in the mundane, and in so doing makes it interesting and fun.
The story unfolds through the game’s guiding mechanic: listening to a conversation in three dimensions.
This is one of the crucial ways that mundane futures open up new and interesting possibilities for 3D videogames: it compels the developer to create mechanics for things besides obvious heroics, focusing instead on helping the player interact with this fictive ordinary world. The challenge in Tacoma lies in, first, being able to navigate the low-gravity space station, leaping from surface to surface to reach hidden rooms and so forth, but also using that spatiality to follow the colorful recorded avatars of each of the crew members during each augmented reality recording.
In so doing, you have to learn to listen and be observant.
There’s also yet another side-effect here, and it has to do with the sci-fi setting itself. Tacoma’s future is somewhat techno dystopian. Yet amidst all this down on Earth, in one of the chambers of Tacoma, is a floating guitar and handwritten sheet music drafted by one of the crewmembers. Someone trying to make a life amidst the chaos, much as many of us are doing now.
Where there is ordinary life, there is hope.
This is relatively new ground for games portraying some kind of future. What would it be like to lead the life of a person without superpowers, a warship, or a universe to save? Certainly not boring; in Tacoma Fullbright shows us that what lurks in the quotidian dramas of these characters is both compelling and can drive a story.
It’s also not exactly disempowering. Banality in lieu of superheroics can seem not only dull but potentially depressing. Yet Amy Ferrier came across as a cool, resourceful character—she’s an engineer in space who fills in password fields using sign language. Her closeness to our own lives only makes her space adventure seem that much cooler and realistically involving. You see this in Midboss’ Read Only Memories as well. In humanizing dystopia, a portrayal of hope is automatically born, hope that one day you too can face a world like this.
We don’t yet know why the crew is missing, and the demo ends on an ominous note, but I would lay odds that even if the crew came to a bad end, it’s not because of a nanobot invasion or the Reapers or even an AI gone mad. The station AI, ODIN, is described by Zimonja as less a malevolent figure and more as someone with “different information” about the events that transpired aboard the ship, another piece in the puzzle rather than a HAL9000-style puppetmaster.
Just as Gone Home misdirects the expectations of the player by teasing you into thinking it’s a horror game, I expect Tacoma is doing something similar here by using our expectations against us. From 2001 to Alien, we’re used to “something’s gone wrong” as the prelude to space-horror, and the game toys with that expertly. Yet it also seems conscious of how oversaturated we are with life-and-death, high stakes crises of this sort. Fullbright itself doesn’t know how the game ends just yet, but you can bet that it’ll be both interesting and surprisingly down-to-earth.
Katherine Cross is a widely published gaming critic and a PhD student in Sociology who studies virtual worlds.