Home is often a place of closeness and familiarity. Yet in 2013’s first person exploration game Gone Home, you return to your family residence estranged, having been travelling overseas. Your old house now lies dormant, a ghostly half-place of scattered memories—distance has detached and driven you apart from there. Markedly, two things stand out in the development of Gone Home: its relation to the earlier Bioshock series—a game that also renders intense feelings of alienation through (underwater) distance, and the origins of the developers Fullbright themselves. Gone Home is not an industrially-produced blockbuster, but a small, virtual home which uniquely, was built within a real one: Fullbright made Gone Home together in a house in Portland, Oregon, a place in stark contrast to the corporate offices of 2K where the team met and first worked together on Bioshock 2 expansion Minerva’s Den. Whilst never quite stated as explicitly, the team were clearly dissatisfied with the creative process under a big corporate publisher. Johnnemann Nordhagen (now head of his own separate indie studio) told Polygon that “triple-A development had kind of turned into a means to an end—getting a paycheck… instead of something that inspired purely for its own sake.” This creative disconnect flared up in 2013 when Minerva’s Den developer 2K Marin were hit with massive layoffs. Followed by Bioshock dev Irrational’s disintegration, these acts of corporate restructuring appear to leave creators dispirited, alienated and even crushed—feelings which Fullbright now struggle against in their digital exploration of place, home and estrangement.
Tacoma, the game’s titular space station, is the site of a struggle between the individual and the corporation
Whilst Gone Home’s family residence was an intentionally familiar setting, rainy and domestic, Fullbright’s latest, Tacoma, could not be set further from home. Their new game takes place on a space station owned by the megacorporation Ventura, which alongside the likes of Hilton Hotels, Carnival Cruise Line, and Amazon, control the future. Mega-corporations in outer space aren’t new. In Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien, “the company” lingers omnipresently in the background, as dark, callous and uncaring as the xenomorph itself. Towards the end of the film, the company’s android, Ash, explains to Ellen Ripley that securing the alien, and not the crew, was the priority all along. “The company” would be named in later films as “Weyland-Yutani”, a corporation that returned to underpin the horror of 2014 game Alien: Isolation, with its cathedral-like space station staffed by “Working Joe” androids. Science fiction films and games continue to dream up worlds in which corporations exploit their space-faring employees in the blind pursuit of profit—the consequences are always disastrous.
Tacoma, the game’s titular space station, is the site of a struggle between the individual and the corporation. It’s easy to see why creators keep coming back to the space station as the battleground for this conflict: space is inherently hostile and stations are claustrophobic, oppressive and isolating containers. The inhospitable atmosphere of the space station works to strengthen the recurring theme of alienation so often being communicated by these types of texts. Alienation is often felt when working for a large corporation—something Fullbright know more than a little about themselves. It is felt particularly when you have little or no attachment to what is being produced, which comes to the forefront in Tacoma where the crew, like those of Alien’s Nostromo, realise they have become expendable. Their mission is not to maintain the space station as it is, but to perform a duty that serves only the good of the corporation.
Tacoma teaches us to distrust and question the structural greed of the corporation
Tacoma’s fictional Ventura company is not too dissimilar to many companies working today. Twenty first century private enterprise have been championing a new age of exploration and, presumably, exploitation. The multimillionaire Dennis Tito has become a figurehead for “space tourism”, an industry which has boomed in Tacoma’s future. Somewhat ironically, today, all seven space tourists have travelled via the “Soyuz”—a Soviet designed craft—but that hasn’t stopped private companies becoming increasingly confident in their space-faring potential. With the help of “corporate welfare”— including privatisation, tax breaks, contracts and subsidies—companies like Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and Blue Origin are, with government handouts, racing to profit from outer space. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is particularly noteworthy as Tacoma references the somewhat comical concept of an Amazon in space. However, these are real movements towards an actual space tourism, and they provide a background to Tacoma’s world, where the company purposely mismanages in order to further their grand vision of a “Venturis Belt”—a set of floating bungalows in Earth’s orbit. Like so much science fiction, Tacoma teaches us to distrust and question the structural greed of the corporation, as their drive to exploit and tendency to alienate extends far beyond the orbit of Earth.
Whilst corporations drive anxieties, the space station is the chosen site for intensified social alienation. The player interfaces with Tacoma’s alienated crew from a distance, observing them as ghostly virtual entities via three-dimensional surveillance recordings. You observe as they struggle to uncover the truth of their work on the station. This is a story of isolated individuals and anxious paranoia made more powerful by the choice of setting. The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has written extensively on the relation between space and place, stating that the two concepts “require each other for definition”. “From the security and stability of place we are aware of the openness, freedom, and threat of space”. Whilst space is abstract and often purely geometric, places are differentiated and laden with experiences and values. Outer space, for example, is inherently spatial—it’s difficult to ascribe value to a vacuum so hostile to life. Alternatively, the house in Gone Home is a place: known and memorable. Whilst space is threatening, place is stable and even comfortable. There are some places in Tacoma, pockets of personality that the crew have worked hard on establishing, which starkly contrast with the unsettling and disconcerting nature of the vacuum that lies a window’s width away. But the majority of the station exhibits more uncanny characteristics-this is not a place or home, but a space of home-sick individuals, lost and untethered to familiar reference points, trapped on a hyper-modernist island, outside of which the negative landscape looms.
In almost every room is nestled a window or skylight pointing nostalgically home towards Earth
Yi-Fu Tuan uses the metaphor of movement and pausing to distinguish space from place. Your arrival on the space station Tacoma involves large stretches of movement and forward momentum through sparse, functional spaces. The docking of your spaceship, long cylindrical corridors and zero-gravity tubes and elevators push you towards more specific, localised “modules” on the station: personnel, biomedical and engineering quarters where the crew live and work. These smaller, more enclosed areas represent the pauses; places where the crew have managed to eke out a living amongst this vast, cold and mechanical lunar station. Whilst the efforts of the crew are painted as noble, their living quarters populated with scrutinisable analogue memorabilia, like the setting of Gone Home, the station is an abandoned failure. In almost every room is nestled a window or skylight pointing nostalgically home towards Earth, highlighting both the impossible distance and the encroaching darkness. The space station Tacoma isn’t just a poignant setting for describing a process of intense alienation, but also a symbolic site of conflict where we see humans struggle to make a new home and turn space into a place.
If you enjoyed this study please consider supporting the Heterotopias project through purchasing our zine. Issue 003, which deals with how games reflect, distort and represent the spaces of reality is available both on its own and in a discounted 3 issue bundle here.
Thank you for your support.