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2088

'Tacoma' Tackles Issues of Artificial Intelligence and Automation 70 Years in the Future

In space, corporations can watch you dream.

Leif Johnson

Leif Johnson

Image: Leif Johnson/Fullbright

Somewhere in the dark expanses between the Earth and the moon, slinking about a space station abandoned by its crew under mysterious circumstances, I found a literal skeleton in a closet.

The year is 2088. The station is the Tacoma, a relay facility between Earth and a lunar resort. Something bad happened to the crew here, and Amitjyoti "Amy" Ferrier has been sent to retrieve the artificial intelligence in charge and find out what.

The skeleton was probably supposed frighten me, but the truth is by the time I'd found Mr. Bones in the new game Tacoma, my mind had already been wrestling with potentially real and relevant future nightmares that made the encounter seem tame. In the grandest traditions of science fiction, Tacoma is a warning story. It leans heavily on our growing collective memories of fictional abandoned spacecraft in the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dead Space to craft a creepy ambiance, but its true horrors deal with the dangers of unchecked corporate power, mass surveillance, and the complications of artificial intelligence.

Above all else, this is a tale of humanity's struggles in the face of its own increasing obsolescence as technology continues to evolve. As debates over autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence show, we're already in danger of removing ourselves from most equations. It's so bad that in 2088 there's even a holiday for it—an Obsolescence Day—which marks the day in 2080 when workers aboard "commercial and industrial orbital facilities" were supposed to be replaced entirely by artificial intelligence. That didn't happen thanks to legislation, and we follow Amy as she makes her way through the space station in the wake of a recent Obsolescence Day party, digging into the personal effects and files of the six-person crew for clues as to their fates.

The great message of Tacoma is that humanity shines through even when technology strives to suppress it. It's fitting that you never actually see humans in Tacoma; in fact, the most you see of Amy is the boots and gloves of her spacesuit. Instead, she watches the colorful "ghosts" of the crew; the recordings of their movements and conversations as recorded by the ship's all-monitoring AI for playback in Amy's augmented reality device. She can scrub backward and forward in time, thus allowing her to dig through the virtual "desktops" for each crewmember and allowing for featherweight puzzles that rarely amount to more than watching crewmembers enter important passcodes.

Image: Leif Johnson/Fullbright

The technology here seems designed to dehumanize. There's every clue the corporation in charge wants it this way. The crewmembers' augmented reality avatars identify them only as colors and icons representing their job functions, and we never see their faces aside from what their digital ID tags show.

But the approach reminds us that faces and names aren't what make us human. We see their colorful outlines love, rushing into each other's arms in the face of inevitable doom, their tenderness apparent in the most subtle movements. We can read so much in the shrug of despair when a guitar string snaps hundreds of thousands of miles from a replacement. We see the shapes of their bodies, with hardly a one falling into the "perfect" idealization of form favored by so many games. Above all, we hear their voices, handled so powerfully by the voice actors that their silences sometimes say more than their monologues.

Fittingly for Motherboard, Tacoma presents us with a vision of the future that's full of wonders. Someone finally built that space elevator, and famous artificial intelligences are writing bestselling books on meditation. But it's also terrifying, and rummaging through magazines and emails reveals that the United States was broken up into smaller countries (with Texas apparently being the center of a little-too-on-the-nose "Freedom Republic" ) and there was a Tibetan genocide in the 2050s. (Oddly enough, I couldn't find a single reference to climate change.)

Yet there's also cause for hope. Tacoma shows us a future in which we've moved past most of the social hangups currently threatening to drag us down. Same-sex and interracial relationships are treated as nothing out of the ordinary. The crew itself is a melting pot, drawing from all corners of the globe. The only white male who shows up, in fact, is the corporate villain, which could come off as a little lazy if we weren't intended to make some clear parallels with major tech figures of our own day.

Image: Leif Johnson/Fullbright

Tacoma has an ambitious message—one that's perhaps too ambitious for its roughly five-hour running time. It wants to impart Great Truths about the dangers of full automation, rabid corporatization, and powerful artificial intelligence, but it ends up emphasizing the former two to the great expense of the latter. Considering that the latter is the ultimate focus of the tale, the ending fails to pack the punch it should.

It's a small criticism. The journey is the appeal here, not the destination, and Tacoma provides plenty of food for thought for those of us interested in the overlap of technology and society. It serves as a reminder to keep ourselves grounded as our aspirations reach higher. That's a lesson that Tacoma's crewmembers have learned, as revealed in the near-religious language they use to speak of returning to Earth:

"We will feel the Earth's pull, again, together."

Tacoma releases on Xbox One, PC, and Mac on August 2 for $20.