Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Tacoma: design ruminations

The IGF finalists are out!
Once again I was involved in IGF judging, and I was invited back to the jury for Excellence in Narrative. And once again I have a long file of review comments which I intend to post here.
However, my comments on Tacoma got so long that they turned into their own post! So I'm going to start with that one. Tacoma isn't my favorite game of the year, and I wouldn't argue that it's the best, but I'll say it's the most discussable.

Tacoma is a highly polished narrative game which doesn't exactly work. I haven't done a comprehensive review of the reviews, but that's the impression I get of the broad audience response. It doesn't hit home for me either.
To be clear, I thought Tacoma was creative, interesting, and well-written; I had a good time playing it. And it got a Narrative IGF nomination, plus a couple of honorable mentions! So it's certainly not a failure. But I want to focus on what didn't work for me. That's what the design rumination posts are for.
(Also note: I bought Tacoma with my own money when it was released in August. I wrote this post while mulling IGF entries, but I wrote it before the finalists were announced.)

So why did I come out of Tacoma feeling somewhat uninvolved? It's a hard question, because for every complaint I can raise, the game has a clear response. The designers have done this work; they've thought of everything I've thought of.
Complaint: environmental storytelling has no tension because it's all happened already. Response: disaster in space! Everyone's life is in danger! Struggle to survive!
Complaint: the disaster story is shallow. Response: a multiplicity of background stories, involving each of the characters (separately and together). You discover these stories in parallel as you play; you can decide which ones you care about.
Complaint: the interaction mechanic is passive, leaving the player with nothing to do but watch the story unfold. Response: the interaction requires a great deal of participatory listening. You are invited to pause and browse the actors' AR data views to learn more about them. You are invited to follow actors as they step into and out of conversations, presenting different faces in their various relationships. You perceive everyone piecewise, and must consciously assemble what you learn.
I was particularly taken, for example, by the scene in which one character steps out of a room and joins a conversation. If you scroll back and follow her, you realize she was having a panic attack in private; she has just pulled herself together and put on a "coping" mask for public consumption. On TV you'd need a forced structure like a flashback to pull off this kind of story beat. But in an exploratory, interactive medium, it's natural; it's right there for the player to pick up. Tacoma is absolutely playing to its strengths here.
Complaint: the story is fixed; you cannot intervene to help the crew. Response: the parallel thread of the station's AI. The background of that story is presented in past tense, entwined piecewise with the human survival drama. But you are directly involved: the climax of your story arc is your final interactions with the AI. That's the goal you are working towards.

So. Grant me that I enjoyed the exploration and eavesdropping mechanics; I found the characters engaging and the writing lively; I was interested by the world and the background story elements. But -- I still didn't feel Tacoma was very successful. The responses above aren't enough. Why not?
My best approximation of an answer is that the game lacks a core mystery. It has mysteries -- many, at all scales -- but the core question of the plot is "Will these people survive?" And that's a yes/no question, not a mystery.
How they survive is a story, not a mystery. You follow along with it but you don't chase it. Contrariwise, the cause of the disaster is a mystery, but a peripheral mystery. One of many, as I noted.
I'm not trying to cast "core mystery" as some formal requirement. (If I did, I'd have to come up with a formal definition, and then you'd have to kill me.) What I'm trying to describe is... in the traditional adventure game, you are focused on your own survival or escape. Or some such goal; but the point is that all of your actions tie into this. When you solve a puzzle or unlock a door, it leads you to new resources, new possibilities, or a new stage of your journey towards your goal. That's why you do it. Everything in the game ties into that goal.
The challenge of the walking simulator genre is that it replaces your personal survival with a mystery. Doesn't have to be your mystery! In Gone Home, it was "What happened to Samantha?" Everything in the game, everything you discover, ties into mystery of her disappearance. That is your motivation. For every new tidbit you find, you can wonder: "But what does this mean for Sam's disappearance?"
In Tacoma, each tidbit may illuminate what the characters try to do, or what happened to the doctor's career, or what the political structure of the Solar System looks like, or this person's marriage or that person's child. But it doesn't say much about whether the characters survive, because... they will or they won't. "Does this mean they survive?" Uh, probably? We'll have to see. The story moves forward, but you don't have that core motivation to uncover it.
This should have been solved by the parallel thread I mentioned, the story about the station AI. But the story chooses to conceal this thread! It's the protagonist's motivation, but the player isn't aware of it. (Except in the negative space cast by the progress messages you receive through your corporate horsecrap channel. But that's very vague; just a feeling of "This is horsecrap, must be hiding something.")
Once you reach the endgame, the station actors are swept offstage -- more offstage, I mean -- and you begin to see the point of the AI story. The mystery is just "What has my goal been all along?" That would be fine, if it had been an open question all along. But it wasn't; it hasn't been illuminating, or illuminated by, your actions. And now, in retrospect, it still doesn't. It's too late to start caring about your secret mission; the story is over.

How would I fix it? That is not my job, and it's the wrong question to begin with. Tacoma is highly-polished. All those design responses are successful, and any incremental "fix" would break parts of the game. You really have to ask what they should have done differently from the beginning, which can only result in hand-waving.
"Rumination" is Latin for "hand-waving..." (Narrator: no it isn't. Me: shush.)
Perhaps the game should highlight your secret mission from the beginning, making it a "core mystery". That's the obvious answer, given the way I've framed my analysis. That doesn't make it an easy answer! You'd have to make the AI a more prominent story element, so that every bit of the story said something interesting about its fate. Your actions would have to move that story thread forward in clear increments. Maybe you'd need additional, explicit goals. Collecting hardware or software keys which give you AI access in the endgame? Running around the station flipping switches? But that might be too much busywork. It's hard to balance.
Perhaps the game should drop the entire question of whether the crew escaped. Maybe the first thing you see is the political aftershocks of the escape! But you also learn that not everybody made it. You don't know who escaped, who died, who sacrificed what in order to make the escape possible.... And the core mystery is why it matters. This is a subtle change, but I think it would highlight the importance of everybody's motivation. Not just why everybody wants to live (of course they all want to live), but why some of them might be willing to die in order to save the others. Yes?
(The down side, of course, is that somebody's favorite character would die. The curse of a diverse cast: anything you write will be readable as a Tragic Lesbian Death, a Tragic CoC Death, a Tragic Gay Dad Death, or some other cliche. This doesn't mean you can't do it; it means you have to work harder to make everybody human.)
(Or everybody could live after all. This is how Gone Home justified its horror vibe, after all: eucatastrophe and a happy ending. But it's no fun pulling the same trick twice, is it?)
Perhaps I'm misleading myself by comparing Tacoma with Gone Home? It's the obvious comparison -- not just because of the shared development team, but because Gone Home was a successful environmental story. But we could instead invoke any of the lexicon/database game genre. We could even say that Tacoma is a "lost phone" game! ...wildly expanded, with multiple "phones" which project videologs instead of SMS.
But I think this leads us back to the same stop. The lost-phone genre (okay, two games from the same developer) (I promise not to get started on Portal again) is centered around the same question: "what happened to this person, and why"? With a dash of puzzle solving to unlock new phone apps. A Normal Lost Phone didn't have much puzzle, but Tacoma had less. A greater emphasis on AR-hacking might feel like busywork, as I said, but short-term goals are real goals.
These are just ideas. I'm speculating off in all directions.
I enjoyed Tacoma but I wasn't compelled by it. I think every piece of its puzzle is a great idea. The pieces don't quite fit. This is sad, because I want to see more exploration of the pieces! I want more replayable immersive-theater environments. I want more AR hacking. I want more gay dads in space. I want more storylines where the protagonist's motivation is the gap through which you observe the plot.
Mostly, I want more ambitious experimental narratives like Tacoma, whether or not any one of them is a success.

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