Tacoma is a walking sim from Fullbright—the creators of Gone Home—that expands upon the use of audio logs and non-linear narratives the studio set up in their previous title. This article contains spoilers for the game, so go play it if you haven’t yet!
When I was in high school, I decided that I would never work an office job. Unlike what the popular narrative dictates, it wasn’t because I was a free spirit, didn’t want to end up like my parents, or anything like that.
It was because I was afraid.
My name is Kael Langdon, and I’m terrified of corporate culture.
It’s not any one thing, but rather the whole mindset surrounding it. Constant surveillance is expected, company property—and company secrets—must be protected at all costs, and employees are looked at as an easily replaceable resource. The whole vibe surrounding corporate labor just skeeves me out.
I’m no expert in the field of labor politics. In fact, before playing Tacoma, I hadn’t actually connected my fear of office work to that of an environment that promotes exploitative labor practices. But now that I have, I feel more galvanized than ever to take a stand against those practices, even if I’m still too afraid to apply for a nine-to-five.
Tacoma takes everything I fear about corporate practice run amok and applies it to an entire society. Both on and off the eponymous orbital space station, workers live in some sort of capitalistic fever dream. Government currency has largely been forgone in favor of privatized incentive tokens called “loyalty.” Businesses control how, and where, this loyalty can be spent, as well as what happens to it when an employee is no longer affiliated with the company. It’s a system that does a lot to illustrate the fine line between capitalism and serfdom.
The game paints an environment where workers are required to weigh their personal freedoms over their financial survival. Or, in the case of the Tacoma, literal survival; the game’s biggest conflict is the logical conclusion of Elon Musk-ian capitalists attempting to destroy the orbital station with the crew still on it. When your employer owns your home—and isolates you in the cold and unforgiving vacuum of space—you live by their rules.
Things I take for granted, like open communication, are impossible in the world Tacoma envisions. Between non-disclosure agreements and corporate monitored channels of communication, it’s impossible to speak openly with the world outside the orbital vessel. A world that contains the staff’s friends and loved ones.
What kind of functioning society could be possible when information is treated as a means of obtaining capital, rather than a way to create a better life for all?
Apparently one that can ruin the self-image, and career, of a doctor like Sareh Hasmadi. A mistake made by Hekka, a depressed and mistreated AI, leads to the death of one of Sareh’s patients. It takes her years and quite a bit of rule-breaking to discover that she wasn’t to blame.
Even in the last few days of the station, Odin, the AI running the Tacoma, is unable to warn his friends and co-workers of the danger he’s been ordered to put them in. He’s forced to watch them panic and struggle—futilely—all the while knowing safety is one button away…
A world that deprives people of their voice like that horrifies me.
In an interview with Time Magazine, Guillermo del Toro once said, “Much like fairy tales, there are two facets of horror. One is pro-institution, which is the most reprehensible type of fairy tale: Don’t wander into the woods, and always obey your parents. The other type of fairy tale is completely anarchic and antiestablishment.”
As children’s horror teaches us, often the lesson is to give in: to succumb to life’s dread and be afraid of fear.
Just as often, though, the lesson horror teaches us is to lie, misdirect, and rebel as form of survival. It teaches us to recognize what is vital to our well being, and the well being of those we care about, above what is justifiable.
I grew up during an era of institutional horror—an era in which unprepared parents, kept busy by their own work, were taught that surveillance was equivalent to safety. I couldn’t take a long route home from school without calling my mom to check in, or keep a diary without stashing it in increasingly wild places. Once I even had a group of grown-ass FBI agents rifling through my preteen Gaia Online messages to check for cyber-predators.
I’ve developed some privacy issues as a result.
That’s why I looked up to Natali “Nat” Kuroshenko in Tacoma. She manages not only to not give a flying fuck about the constant invasions of privacy from Ventris—her employer and owner of the orbital station—but also to use those invasions to subvert the company’s dehumanizing treatment of Odin. In her monthly reports, she writes in a language that purposefully frames her attempts to increase Odin’s sense of autonomy as if they’re in the corporation’s best interest (among other things).
Nat’s refusal to be fazed by the horror of her situation, and her fight to free Odin from the very people in control of her home and livelihood, reminded me what it was really like to be a teen under constant surveillance. If there’s one benefit to having to justify your every action to another person it’s that you develop the skills to do your thing right under their noses.
Nat is a prime example of the anarchism fundamental to del Toro’s suggestion of the only form of non-reprehensible horror. I often find myself forgetting the importance of solidarity in actions of rebellion, but Dante Douglas put it best in his essay on Tacoma when he said, “bonds between workers can become a force to break the chains of unjust labor.”
Putting people over corporate interests is the crux of Tacoma’s message. This takes active effort in the face of constant dehumanization. Look no further than the discourse surrounding the game industry’s exploitative reliance on crunch for an example. It took many voices being raised over many years, but now a harmful (often implicitly) mandatory practice is being talked about, called into question, and hopefully changed.
It unfortunately falls on the workers to demand that change, because part of working for a corporation is becoming a number. It doesn’t matter how people-friendly the public face of the company is; to the person running the budget, each individual is a salary that has to be weighed against profits. The sad fact is, to the budgeter, the mental health of those numbers probably doesn’t even factor in.
The way artificial intelligences are treated in the Tacoma universe reflects this. The AI Liberation Front is the only group mentioned that is dedicated to treating AIs like the sentient autonomous consciousnesses—people—they are. In the environments most AIs are indentured to, it’s abundantly clear how easy it is to ignore their needs. For every Odin cared for by a competent conditioner like Nat, there’s a Hekka whose mental health is treated like a burden on tech support’s resources.
It’s hard for me to come away from a game like Tacoma and feel anything other than dread at the world we live in. The crew’s rescue was a truly great moment of emotional release and joy, but the truth of it is that there is little in place to prevent the events of Tacoma from happening on other orbital stations (or, to a lesser extent, in our world). I’m still just as terrified of corporate culture as I was coming into the game. But Tacoma has given me the tools I need to fight that fear.
Tacoma’s message isn’t that workers should be crushed by the reality of our dehumanization. It’s that we should prioritize the people around us over the good of the company. That we should unionize and fight for each other. Call your representatives in support of worker’s rights. Stand together when you see injustice, especially coming from higher up. Say fuck you in whatever way you can, especially if it turns the space you and other workers share into something a little more like a home.
A genderless eldritch beast bound to mortal flesh. Interests include games, gardening, magical realism, and the complete restructuring of America’s political and economic systems. Frequently orders too much food at restaurants. Tweets @unnnez.