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I spent Christmas in space

WARNING: This piece contains spoilers for Tacoma.

I’ve never totally understood why Christmas is a time for ghost stories, but please don’t mistake my confusion for disapproval. I’m very, very happy to spike the schmaltz with something creepy. Which is why, between calculating volumes of red cabbage to braise and sloshing sloe gin on the wrapping, this last December I found myself playing Tacoma, 2017’s best ghost story.

Obviously, Tacoma’s ghosts are not actual ghosts – this is sci-fi, not some haunted house hokum. Instead, they’re augmented reality reconstructions of the commercial spacecraft’s vanished crew that you (as salvage-specialist Amy Ferrier) access on your way through the station, the game unspooling its story as you walk among these shades. The incidents seem to have been preserved at random, though that fiction is belied by satisfying arcs and telling details thanks to developer Fullbright’s writerly chops; you can rewind and replay each one, moving to different points in the environment to eavesdrop on different characters.

These AR figures occupy the exact volume and proportions of the absent personnel, but they’re also round-edged and featureless. They show the space left by the missing, rather than calling the lost back into temporary existence. Meeting them for the first time, as I span about woozily in the station’s gravity-free hub, I knew exactly what they reminded me of: the plaster casts of Pompeii’s residents, caught forever in the moment the ash engulfed them. And like the Pompeiians, the puzzle of the Tacoma crew isn’t what happened to them: as sure as we know Pompeii burned, we know from the start that that Tacoma has been evacuated.

Instead (and as in Fullbright’s previous game, Gone Home), it’s about turning archaeologist, piecing together who these people were from the strangely moving jumble of personal effects and private data left behind. Watching station administrator EV St James go to a drawer, lift something out and look at it thoughtfully, then rifling through the drawer for ourselves and finding what it was: a picture of her dead sister. Opening the crew’s lockers to discover that serious, self-contained medic Serah has an extraordinary array of flexing fitspo pictures. Flicking through botanist Andrew’s desktop to uncover his money troubles and his hopes for his son.