I’ve been an inconsistent gamer for years. I’ll start a game, then lose interest or hit a wall; there’s some games, however, that I’ve really loved and found extremely satisfying to explore. I just finished Return of the Obra Dinn, and it reminded me a lot of Tacoma, so I’m gonna talk about them.
Admittedly, I don’t have an interest in “git gud” style gameplay; I’m not going to spend lots of time getting my timing just right on a particular sequence just to get through a level, when that experience is just not that valuable to the overall plot. I’ve generally loved RPGs and strategic games, as well as exploratory games that involve lots of deduction.
When I picked up Tacoma, I loved the worldbuilding, I was incentivized to just explore this fascinating and unsettling station. In some way, Tacoma is less of a game and is closer to interactive fiction–but it still uses the mechanics and controls of first-person games, and it has some aspects of puzzle solving that are purely incidental to the story, not really needed to complete the main, “present-time” arc at all.
Comparatively, Return of the Obra Dinn absolutely has an advancement mechanic; the good ending is only achievable when you resolve all of the causes of death across the ship, and the game will helpfully announce that you’ve completed everything feasible on the ship. The play style assists in achieving this, and it’s very relaxed. That relaxed environment encourages wandering around, re-exploring, and testing out hypotheses.
Tacoma relies on the player having a sense of curiosity. I don’t say this flippantly–if you follow the instructions as presented at the outset, not only will the ending not seem to follow from any particular plot point, but it lacks any sort of necessary context for emotional impact or really, anything. Only by exploring the biomes of Transfer Station Tacoma and watching and re-watching the recordings of the station’s inhabitants do you get an understanding of the world Fullbright has created here.
This stands in contrast to Return of the Obra Dinn, which places a distinct value on finding out all aspects of the doomed ship’s travels, with very distinctively different “good” and “bad” endings. It’s clear that to get the true ending, the player is required to examine every event closely. In some ways, this removes the self-discovery that Tacoma includes, but it does make the developer’s intent plain.
Both of these games disregard lots of tropes of their respective genres’ gameplay, in favor of focusing entirely on storytelling. Any sort of combat element is gone, as is most of the immediate suspense and peril that both sci-fi and horror rely on. Instead, we’re seeing the after-effects of the peril, reconstructing it from fragments, and learning about the characters of each respective story, and how they handled the adverse situations they were placed in. The result is a very contemplative style of gameplay, that promotes re-investigating areas again and again, revisiting story threads to see if new information has changed their relevance.
At the same time, both games carry on essential tropes of their respective genres; in Return of the Obra Dinn, there’s the late-Victorian timing and politics, while in Tacoma, we’ve got fanciful, but believable political structures that feel sufficiently derived from current politics. Even though they’re subverting or avoiding the usual core gameplay from each genre, these worldbuilding details are enough to assert the overall setting for us.
This is really just a moment to appreciate, deeply, the 1-bit art direction of Return of the Obra Dinn. Setting this up as an Apple II-era game, but with much higher resolution graphics, enhances the gameplay significantly. The limited color depth means that you can’t move quickly, and any sort of quick actions would lose their context–so gameplay needs to be relaxed and at the player’s own pace. The book is also a fantastic mechanism to track the player’s progress, and oddly doesn’t feel too anachronistic or bizarre, compared to the events of the game; alongside the pocket watch, it feels completely diagetic.
I had a similar reaction when playing Tacoma to the concept of using sign language to interact with the station’s computer; that element of the setting, addressing the limitation of interacting with the station’s computer away from normal terminals, provided so much to the setting. Combined with the use of the idea that the station’s interface is projected directly on each person’s optic nerve, therefore we’re seeing exactly what the character sees, means the necessary HUD elements for gameplay are also diagetic (with the exception of hotkeys/button assignments) and their existence doesn’t distract from the environment; it’s not a stand-in visual for grabbing an item from your pocket, or scrolling through your phone-it’s the actual interface the character would be experiencing.
I really love these sorts of puzzle games, with partial and sometimes unreliable storytelling; it’s got a lot of capacity to be applied to other genres and styles, and really I just love games that give you a puzzle to look at, and remove the aspect of peril. They’re great! Especially these two, if you’re interested in these settings.