As my reviews of Gone Home and Firewatch make clear, I am favorably disposed towards exploration games (sometimes described as “walking simulators) where the player explores a story-rich world with relatively few action or puzzle elements.
Tacoma is the second game by the makers of Gone Home, Fullbright Games from Portland, Oregon. In Gone Home, the main character (a woman named Katie) returned to an empty home and tried to find out why her family wan’t there to meet her. In Tacoma, the main character (a woman named Amy) visits an empty space station and tries to find out what happened to its crew.
But where the world of Gone Home was littered with notes and other papers for the player to sort through, Tacoma tells its story through the experiences of the crew, which Amy can review through recovered Augmented Reality recordings. The ghostly figures of the crew can be observed in conversation, taking a smoke break, or playing AR games.
In the lounge of the space station, watching an AR recording of the station’s medical officer talking to its AI. (Credit: Fullbright Games. Fair use.)
Ostensibly, Amy’s job is to recover the valuable “wetware” that powers the ship’s Artificial Intelligence, but in the process, we are learning more and more about the events that caused Tacoma to drift through space without its crew. It quickly becomes clear that an accident happened on Tacoma, but we still don’t know the fate of the crew, and whether there is a deeper mystery to uncover.
In addition to AR recordings, Amy can access some of the crew members’ most intimate personal files—calls and instant messages, emails, private notes. Much of this does not add to the main story, but paints a more complete picture of each crew member’s motivations and emotional connections.
There are no real puzzles, but there are countless objects you can interact with, from books you can pick up to a zero-g basketball game you can play. These details serve no purpose other than to create a richer world for the player to explore.
There’s also a fair bit of world-building to center the story of Tacoma in a future where humans and AI must learn to co-exist, and a small number of corporations is fighting for control of people’s lives. This world is intelligently constructed, and whether or not you find it plausible, it’s internally consistent.
In spite of all this, you’ll likely finish the game in 2-3 hours—double that if you add another playthrough for more exploration or to access the commentary track.
In short, Tacoma is an atmospheric game that lets you feel like you’re on a space station, without having to deal with demons or aliens. As a story, I found it less compelling than Gone Home, in spite of the clever storytelling mechanics. It’s hard to become invested in any of the characters, and the clues we get about their backstories provide very little narrative payoff.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the time I spent on Tacoma. I wouldn’t recommend paying full price for it, but it regularly drops to $5-$7.50, at which it offers good value.
Is rudimentary consciousness a fundamental property of matter? The idea strikes many people as bizarre, because it evokes notions of self-aware household objects and tomatoes screaming in pain as they make their way into the pasta sauce. But it deserves more precise articulation and a fair hearing.
In “Galileo’s Error”, philosopher Philip Goff makes the case for this idea, known as panpsychism, for a general audience. He begins by outlining the problems with dualist mind/matter explanations (where the mind is a separate “thing” that somehow interacts with matter), and with strictly materialist explanations that neglect to offer any explanation for the quality of conscious experience.
What if those qualities are the intrinsic nature of matter itself? In this view, the human mind is continuous with the universe in which it is embedded. There’s no need to postulate “special mind stuff”, to invent deities, or to wave your hands and say “emergent property”.
Instead, in this view, subatomic particles like electrons experience change, and more complex forms of consciousness can be built up (or indeed arise) from simple ones. The qualities of human experience—the color red, the smell of coffee, a loving touch—must have their foundations in matter itself.
Of course, this is not a new idea, and many philosophies and religions have embraced forms of panpsychism. It is not even new to Western philosophy, and Goff especially cites the debates between Bertrand Russell and Arthur Eddington. This context is where the book offers what I consider to be the most succinct argument in favor of the panpsychist hypothesis (p. 134):
Eddington’s starting point is as follows:
Physical science tells us absolutely nothing about the intrinsic nature of matter.
The only thing we know about the instrinsic nature of matter is that some of it, i.e., the matter inside brains, has an intrinsic nature made up of forms of consciousness.
It is hard to really absorb these two facts, as they are diametrically opposed to the way our culture thinks about science. But if we manage to do so, it becomes apparent that the simplest hypothesis concerning the intrinsic nature of matter outside of brains is that it is continuous with the intrinsic nature of matter inside of brains, in the sense that both inside and outside of brains matter has an intrinsic nature made up of forms of consciousness.
Aurora Borealis, seen from Iceland in February 2014. The complexity of the nonliving world invites the question whether it is fully discontinuous with embodied human experiences. (Credit: Schnuffel2002. License: CC-BY-SA.)
Yet, current scientific attempts to explain consciousness rarely consider it a phenomenon that is even worth studying outside of the context of a brain. And these “explanations” (e.g., efforts to show that certain neural activity is correlated with certain conscious experiences) are at best predictions—they don’t get us much closer to understanding what conscious experience is.
Goff points the finger at Galileo Galilei for setting science on a path that is strictly quantitative, a path where any effort to explain the quality of an experience (the color red, the smell of coffee, a loving touch) is out of bounds, or at least suspect. Goff argues that to disregard these qualities is to disregard fundamental scientific facts. Indeed, no fact is as foundational and undeniable as the reality of our own conscious minds.
Panpsychism is an attractive hypothesis. Like the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, it elegantly resolves tricky questions at the very “bottom” of existence. It also has similar difficulties of testability, which could put it in the “not even wrong” realm of speculation. Perhaps, as our ability to predict conscious states increases thanks to efforts like integrated information theory, we will predict them in places where we wouldn’t expect them. Then the more difficult claim to defend may be that “mere matter” is not continuous with conscious experience.
Philip Goff presents a cogent and beautiful argument in defense of a thesis many “materialists” will seek to dismiss as New Age woo. But the idea that consciousness needs no rudimentary precursor in nonliving matter may itself turn out to be woo. Goff does not assert that the panpsychist hypothesis is correct—only that it should be considered seriously in our efforts to understand consciousness.
The book is strongest when it presents this core argument. Goff lost me in the last chapter, where he makes what I consider to be a very weak argument for a non-deterministic universe and the existence of free will. He argues that “free will” is the “responsiveness to rational considerations”, but it’s not clear why a deterministic brain cannot be “responsive to rational considerations”, and why determinism must be a constraint to be “freed” from. Perhaps that is a matter for another book; in any event, it seems out of place in this one.
I recommend Galileo’s Error not as any definitive answer to questions about the nature of consciousness, but as a very well-reasoned argument for expanding the Overton window of science, especially when it comes to explaining the very qualities that make life worth living.
Can a game be a place?
As the player of Firewatch, you are a man named Henry who starts a job as a lookout in Shoshone National Forest, in Wyoming. In the preamble, we learn that this is an escape from dealing with your wife’s early-onset dementia.
Your only regular human contact is by radio, with a woman named Delilah who works in another lookout tower. Delilah is your boss, and she soon gives you your first assignment: to investigate some illegal fireworks near a lake.
Your relationship with Delilah is influenced by the dialogue choices you make. Mostly, the game keeps you on rails to uncover a larger mystery. This involves a lot of walking around through beautiful landscapes, using your map and compass to find your way.
This is an exploration game—or, as some would say, a walking simulator. The biggest challenges for the player tend to be of the “how do I get from A to B” variety. Nonetheless, Firewatch manages to be immersive and at times even menacing. The game targets an adult audience—as the developers put it, it is a “video game about adults having adult conversations about adult things.”
Firewatch offers many scenic views of its version of Shoshone National Forest. (Credit: Firewatch by Campo Santo. Fair use.)
After you finish the story, you can still continue to explore Shoshone National Forest at your leisure (and collect the game’s soundtrack in a mini-game). The landscapes really are beautiful, whether you’re walking through Thunder Canyon towards the lake, admiring a sunset, or exploring the forest at night with your flashlight on.
It is a very short game, and like life itself, its story is ultimately a bit untidy. You’re unlikely to get more than 4-6 hours of play time out of it. But it is a game that is also a place, and years after playing it, you may be tempted to visit it again.
The current regular sales price for Firewatch is $20. It has repeatedly been on sale for $5, so I recommend wishlisting it and buying it at a lower price.