I played Fullbright’s latest game, Tacoma, a couple of months ago, and I’ve been meaning to jot down my thoughts on it for a while. It’s a game I enjoyed quite a bit, and in all likelihood, it’ll end up making my year-end top 10. (It’s currently sitting at #5, sandwiched between What Remains of Edith Finch and Yakuza 0.) It tells a tense, compelling story, and its AR recording mechanic is brilliant. But it has one significant flaw that I want to address: its approach to diversity is just plain bizarre.

Over the past five years or so, conversations about diversity and representation in video games have entered mainstream games media, and these have been vital conversations, because they’ve pushed developers to be more inclusive in the way they “cast” their games. Tacoma is very much a product of those conversations. It includes a diverse cast of varying racial backgrounds and sexual orientations, and on paper, that’s a good thing. But Tacoma’s approach to diversity feels bizarre and unrealistic. The game includes several characters of colour, but all of them have English first names or first names with easy English equivalents. A couple of them are depicted as coming from mixed backgrounds, which at least sort of justifies their names, but taken as a whole, the cast feels artificial. Why do they coincidentally all have English names, not just a few of them? Moreover, they all have Western accents – either English or American – which makes no sense given their stated backgrounds.

The game actually takes place in what appears to be an alternate timeline with starkly different national boundaries from our own, so maybe that serves as an explanation for the seeming dominance of American and British speech in the game’s world. But in that case, the game needed to do the work to explain exactly how its world differs from our own. I apply something I call the principle of minimum deviance of reality when absorbing a work of fiction that takes place in a reality based off our own: I accept the version of the world that requires me to make the fewest assumptions about how it’s different from ours. Anything else needs to be explained. There’s a limit to the size of gap that a player can fill; think mortar, not bricks.

It’s almost as if Tacoma commodifies diversity, using it to tick off a large number of representational boxes, while softening it for Western appeal. That’s not to say that Fullbright is cynical or insincere; I applaud their intentions. However, it seems like telling stories about white Americans is what’s in their comfort zone, and the way they bring people of colour into that comfort zone is to make them more like white Americans.

I don’t think this facet of Tacoma would have stood out so much to me were it not for a game in a similar setting released earlier this year that largely got diversity right: Prey. To be fair, Prey had a much larger cast of characters to draw on, but none of its characters ever felt like they existed to fulfill a diversity quota. They had a wide variety of names and accents, even ones that would be unfamiliar to Western audiences. All of them felt like fully-realized humans who belonged on an internationally-operated space station. By contrast, Tacoma falls into a sort of “uncanny valley” of diversity: it’s too diverse to feel like it’s telling a story specifically about people from a certain background, but its diversity is too blunted and removed from the way the world actually is to feel real.

Like I said, Tacoma is a great game, but I feel it’s important to call out developers when their representational efforts fall short, no matter how well-intentioned. It’s crucial to keep in mind that diversity isn’t a checklist, and if it doesn’t come naturally to you, then maybe it’s time to hire someone to whom it does.

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