Thursday, September 7, 2017

On "Tacoma" by The Fullbright Company

This post spoils some of Tacoma and Sleep No More.

Tacoma is a sensible design progression from Gone Home. How do you expand upon the audio diary design and walking mechanics? The Fullbright Company decided to pair a dynamic holographic drama with some zero gravity movement. Unfortunately, the zero-G movement ended up making environmental storytelling more difficult so they had to scale it back (no tables or chairs; no objects at rest) and I also suspect it risked alienating a fan base that cares less about gamer-y traversal puzzles. So, that leaves all the focus on the holographic drama sequences.

Many commentators describe Tacoma as a virtual adaptation of the NYC immersive theater installation "Sleep No More" because both experiences involve wandering around a large dense environment and encountering short dramatic scenes of characters performing with each other... and then the characters split-off and you have to choose who to follow and listen to.

I think this is a telling comparison, because it also suggests the ways in which Tacoma's formal narrative structure doesn't work very well, despite its compelling themes and characters.

Sleep No More, I argue, does not convey a coherent plot or storyline in any traditional sense. The characters don't really speak, so much as move and dance with the scenery. And there's a good reason why there's almost no dialogue -- once you add dialogue, movement becomes much less of a focal metaphor. And if you enter the realm of words instead of mysterious gestures, then the set design of Sleep No More can't really carry that weight either. Sure, you can try to read the readables scattered around the McKittrick Hotel's many rooms, but it's about as much of a fun narrative puzzle as deciphering shredded tax documents in a sewer. The readables in Sleep No More aren't there to be read, they are there as poetic mood-setting decoration. They are there simply to be there.

What happens when you put dialogue into Sleep No More, and even let the audience follow everyone non-linearly and understand all the events completely? You end up losing a lot of scarcity and mystery, you suddenly have to fill-in all those gaps with more concrete details and explanations. And then you have to make the mystery much more complicated to compensate.

A typical train of thought in Sleep No More is "wait is this naked guy supposed to be Macbeth? what happened in Macbeth again?... oh my god, what's he smearing all over himself? is that nutella" and you may not ever progress past that scope of questions and appreciate it fully as a sophisticated theatrical Art, and that's OK, you'll still feel like "you kinda get it."

In contrast, the mystery of Tacoma quickly balloons into "future space capitalism and AI advancement are resulting in a critical mass of automation that replaces human knowledge workers, and now even professional information-economy careers are becoming obsolete, but also AI consciousness and AI rights are important, so that's why the crew escaped!"

Again, this is interesting plotting and theming, but it's so specific and dense that I don't think it fits with the gestural storytelling form of Sleep No More. It's like expecting a poem to convey the same informational payload as a Wikipedia article, or reading a newspaper during an opera.

So I feel like those strengths of Sleep No More (character design and animation) became a huge production liability in video game form, while the weaknesses of Sleep No More (gorgeous but thin world that can't withstand detective-like study) became amplified. Tacoma tries to fix where Sleep No More ambiguously waves its hands, while not quite taking full advantage of those handwaves.

The best parts of Tacoma are the rooms where some physical incident clearly happened: a fallen shelf in a storeroom, or a broken escape pod. The hologram playback reveals the shelf fell because two women were being playfully intimate and adventurously clumsy -- and the broken escape pod stems from a disastrous malfunction that whittles the human cast down to one woman. It is a smart intersection of environmental storytelling and audio log traditions in video games, but it is also expensive to produce, requiring a lot of site-specific character animation to sell those performances.

This is also when Sleep No More excels because it is in real-life: when you enter a bar setpiece and see two bartenders jumping off walls and over tables, there is a captivating energy in their movement and you wonder whether it symbolizes a competitive masculinity, or really hot gay sex, or both. Such bodywork, especially up-close, is strong and engaging to witness. Most importantly, it is also relatively "cheap" to stage in real-life, but unfortunately it's very expensive to execute in video games.

First you have to design the level, do all the staging and blocking, and then animate the actors to those cues via motion capture (or talented hand animation). What if you have to redesign the room for some reason? You better be careful, because now if you change the room too much, you'll have to modify the animation to fit the new space. If it's a really drastic change, you might even have to start all over again! This is usually something that even giant 200-person AAA studios struggle with coordinating, so it's pretty impressive that Fullbright managed to clear some of these character animation hurdles.

As compelling as the animation can be, I feel like the lack of character art in Tacoma ultimately hinders the impact. The wireframe AR holograms make sense in the fiction etc. and theoretically it helps you focus on their movements instead of their identities, but I'm pretty sure almost every gamer understands this design decision as an attempt to scope-down the project and avoid building 6+ characters to the same high fidelity as the environment.

I rely on recognizing faces a lot in real-life, and I also rely on faces in my own games (where I gleefully "dive to the bottom of the uncanny valley") so in Tacoma I found myself constantly forgetting who was who, despite the text labels and icons on their backs. I had to force myself to memorize abstract pairs of colors and traits. "Purple lady likes guitar, wants to bone the tall hot gold man, red and orange think purple is a bossy micro-manager..." To me these were data abstractions before they were characters. In the end, I guess I'm a victim of my own era, and I require clear anthropomorphism to attribute psychological complexity to things. (Sorry.)

I think I'm not the only one who couldn't relate though. The lack of character faces also means a lack of a visual identity for Tacoma. People can relate to Gone Home's spooky mansion or retro Americana furniture as iconic culturally-grounded objects, but a faceless hologram or yet-another-glossy-space-station (as well rendered as it is) doesn't really establish the same emotional connection. To me, the goofy futuristic food packages prove to be more human than Tacoma's actual humans, which is probably a problem.

I think Fullbright realized this, and started pushing their player character Amy Ferrier more in their press materials, but in the game she is still mostly a silent invisible player protagonist. That anti-characterization device helps the twist at the end have some impact, when it turns out Amy knows something we don't, but it also alienated me from embodying and performing as Amy, because I had no idea how she felt about anything until the very end.

Now, I don't really have any quick and easy design solutions for any of this. They probably made the best decisions they could at the time. I don't think I could've done better than Fullbright did.

I hope it's possible to acknowledge and applaud their ambition and hard work (especially some of the level design, environment art, and writing) while also saying, this game's overall approach to storytelling didn't really work or resonate with me, but nonetheless we should still try to learn from it and keep experimenting.

In the end, Tacoma is pretty hopeful about the future of human ingenuity. I think I share that hope, and I look forward to Fullbright's next game.