In movies like Gravity, The Martian, and Apollo 13 the cold indifference of space is a challenge to overcome. Smart, determined people use a combination of science and grit to handle disasters that, by all rights, should leave them dead. Though set beyond the boundaries of our planet, these are stories about human ingenuity, the classic “man versus nature” narrative transplanted to environments so extreme that surviving them takes on mythological proportions.
Fullbright’s Tacoma plants itself firmly in this “space disaster” genre. The player assumes the role of an investigator tasked with gathering records from the doomed space station Tacoma. As she works, moving through the deserted halls of the ship, ghostly wire-frame silhouettes of the crew appear in digitized tableau. These holograms represent members of the Tacoma—its engineers, administrators, botanist, and doctor. Approaching them, the player can activate and watch recorded scenes captured before her arrival, following dialogue as crew members walk to different rooms or overlap one another in an appropriately messy facsimile of conversation.
In one scene, near the game’s beginning, we witness the first moments of an accident— an unexpected meteor breaks important equipment—that sends the Tacoma’s oxygen levels plummeting. The crew has only a limited time to either die of suffocation or make a desperate attempt to find a way to some kind of safety. They can’t communicate with other stations and can only hope that the company that owns their ship and funds their mission will notice the malfunction and come to rescue them in time. It’s a familiar set-up—a damaged craft, floating through the vastness of space, sets a deadly timer running down. The crew can save themselves only through quick-thinking and risky gambles.
For Tacoma, set decades in the future, help could be fairly nearby, though. The only problem is that whether or not it’s sent is up to a corporation. Unlike the essentially good-hearted companies that offer support to the imperiled astronauts of so many space disaster movies, urging them on back home at mission control, the game sees the continuation of space exploration financed by private interests more concerned with preserving their bottom line than human life. The people aboard Tacoma could be saved with a simple dispatch if their employers thought it worthwhile.
This is illustrated with chilling clarity in one scene, partway through the game, that shows Tacoma’s crew coming up with an uncertain survival plan soon after the meteor hits. With no other solution on hand, the group decides to enter cryogenic hibernation after customizing and entering an escape pod that may or may not bring them back to civilization. There’s no guarantee anyone will survive and, rather than stay put waiting for help from their employer, the crew will have to surrender to unconsciousness.
Everyone aboard the Tacoma sees this as the only path forward though a few of them have doubts. An existential conversation between two characters highlights the dilemma. One, an administrator named EV, is resigned to death. The other, her partner Clive, says she shouldn’t give up. Help might arrive. EV responds with frustration, understanding that there’s no possibility their employer would send an inspection crew to check the Tacoma’s damage and rescue them. It would simply cost too much. EV remembers a phrase a higher-up once said to her: “If it doesn’t make dollars, it doesn’t make sense.” In another location from this same scene, ship doctor Sarah readies botanist Andrew for hibernation. Andrew, like Clive, wants to believe help is on the way even though, through his fear and frustration, he knows how unlikely it is. “Nobody even considered that [they] might come pick us up in time if we just wait,” he says. Sarah doesn’t acknowledge him directly, only shifts the conversation to the more practical, realistic matter of continuing to prepare their escape plan.
In both conversations, the characters of Tacoma are attempting to bargain with financial interests as inexorable as death itself. Business is its own kind of logic and it kills with the indifference of nature. Echoing the malignant ideology of social Darwinism, only the strongest survive a world governed by self-interest and laissez-faire capitalism.
Toward the end of the game, the player learns that the space station accident is more sinister than it initially seemed—the result of a cold-blooded corporate PR plan meant to ease a transition to an automated work force by showing the apparent dangers of more expensive human labour. While this reveal doesn’t hit as hard as the raw emotion of the scenes mentioned above, characters simply reeling in disbelief at the stark reminder of how little their lives are worth as raw capital, it does elaborate the game’s nightmare vision of a future where the worst elements of modern politics have reached a stomach-churning apogee.
In Tacoma, regular people can explore space and talk to artificial intelligence helpers, but these wonders only exist within the context of the corporations that built them and control their use. Regular labourers are expendable, even as they travel through the stars on sophisticated spaceships. We aren’t meant to marvel at how technology is used to propel us further into the universe, but worry instead about how its creation, funded by private companies, makes it yet another extension of socioeconomic control.
People like the Tacoma’s crew are only trying to survive their future’s economic reality—most dramatically in the case of the draining oxygen supply—as we’ve always tried to survive our natural world. Wilderness is replaced by the cosmos; dangerous fauna by corporate interests. It’s a bleak view of where we’re going (tempered by the optimism of the game’s final moments) but informed by a realist’s view of the modern world. If we continue down the path we’re already travelling, humanity will eat itself, churning its way toward a vision of progress centered entirely on generating profit. The crisis in Tacoma isn’t the apathetic cruelty of nature, but the same tendency in capitalist societies. This, more than the celebration of human spirit we find in other space disaster stories, seems like a worthwhile, and cautionary, tale.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.