In the late 1900s, as a young lad, I found myself – as one does after a long day at school – in need of whetting my appetite. Having purchased a fine multipack of Nik-Naks with car-wash pocket money during the week prior, I advanced to the room that stored these packets of unconventionally-flavoured extruded corn snacks. After locating the aforementioned crisps, I was horrified to discover that someone had taken my last remaining ‘Rib ‘n’ Saucy’ pack.
Even though the option of consuming the 2nd best flavour, ‘Scampi ‘n’ Lemon’, was open to me (which means ‘Nice ‘n’ Spicy’ is 3rd. Don’t @ me), I still needed to hunt down the yoinking rotter responsible. I could eliminate a few people i.e. my mum who doesn’t eat crisps, and my younger brother who was away. This meant all signs pointed to my older brother; the type of person who is forced to ignore the ‘Gentleman’s’ sign above a public toilet because there isn’t one signed ‘scoundrel’ (Thanks, Norm).
Before rifling through his room for clues, I realised he was inside the house – most probably concocting similarly diabolical snack-related schemes. However, I recalled overhearing from a conversation he had with Mum the previous day that he was going around a friend’s house. All I had to do was wait for him to leave. As soon as he departed, I made my move. Despite a thorough search of his drawers, bin, and cupboards, no empty packet was found. I gave up, slumped myself in defeat on the living room sofa, watched some Dale Winton’s Supermarket Sweep with a ‘Scampi ‘n’ Lemon’ pack of Nik-Naks as nourishment. I threw the empty packet into the empty bin beside my Dad’s armchair.
It then occurred to me; my brother’s bin was full but this one was empty. It must have been emptied very recently. After a brief interrogation with my Mum, she directed me to the bins outside where the living room refuse was located and lo-and-be-bald – the empty ‘Rib ‘n’ Saucy’ packet. The culprit was my Dad. But of course! (insert 5Head and Wineglass emote Twitch viewers).
In actuality, I did none of this sleuthing and Dad just straight up told me from the start that he took one not knowing they were mine. However, this doesn’t diminish the fact that I could have done all that and I’m a master detective at heart. After all, not to flex or anything, but I do have an increasingly tenuous relation to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. At any rate, my point is that snooping around, taking note of people’s itinerary, sifting through bins, and eavesdropping on conversations are exactly the sort of hijinks you’ll be getting up to in White Paper Games’ latest release, The Occupation.
Picture the scene in your mind’s eye: it’s Britain, 1987, and the polarised country is split in Mark Twain over the not-at-all controversial topics of immigration and terrorism. In response to a particularly large terrorist attack, the government have decided to implement some vaguely titled legislation called ‘The Union Act’ purportedly aimed at helping to ameliorate the issue.
Unfortunately, as we all know, attempting the impossible task of guaranteeing public safety using state power axiomatically means limiting freedoms, the proliferation of surveillance, and encroachment into the private lives of citizens. You play whistleblower journalist Harvey Miller who has been tasked to interview several big cheddars who work at a private government facility; a worryingly invasive datacenter that the government are utilising for The Union Act in order locate dissenters and illegal immigrants. You arrive at the building an hour or so early prior to each interview, giving you time to snoop around the place and dig up some proverbial dirt that you can use to your advantage during the interview.
The game progresses in real time with or without your input and all you’re armed with is an itinerary, one or two hot tips from your editor, a pager, and a briefcase to stow away clues, evidence, and the occasional Newton’s Cradle. Using only your wits, you have to navigate yourself around the building and attempt to slip into restricted sections and locked offices away from the prying eyeballs of the game’s Filch character in the form of the slightly hapless security guard Dan who patrols the corridors.
Instead of a combat system whereby damage and death are the inhibiting factors to your progress, the real life nature of time – combined with the deceptively brisk chapter time limit of an hour – means that the game punishes you by capturing you if caught and having you lose 15 minutes of precious time in a security room. The notion of a stealth-based game that operates in real-time with a time-limit amplifies the stakes and therefore the immersion more than one would expect.
Since most games operate on a video-game clock, this game exploits the player’s natural anxiety with regards to being short on time. As in reality, you find that you operate at a rather leisurely pace at the beginning of the hour but find yourself dashing around in a panic to get things done as the interview is just a few minutes away. There is so much to do. You have to find computers, fax machines, floppy disks, passwords, keycards, shortcuts, vents, notes, and documents whilst also running back and forth to the payphone at reception to respond to calls from your editor giving you the inside-skinny on The Union Act.
By the time you’ve worked out the layout of the building, how to access what offices, and what to do, the hour is nearly up. This intensity curve, that has to be meticulously designed in most games, just naturally occurs in The Occupation due to the natural progression of time. The stress is multiplied when taking into account the inability to manually save since saves only occur between each hour-long chapter.
There is also a really interesting interaction system that is worth noting (use your phone if there isn’t a pen or paper handy). Let’s suppose you wish to interact with a vending machine. In most games, you just look and press ‘E’. In this game, you need to have found a token/coin, you have to manually pull out the coin tray, place the coin, insert it, and select the item you want. This goes for doors, their handles, and the speed at which the door opens. You can even turn individual strips of the offices’ window blinds for Thor’s sake!
The number of items you can pick up and manipulate reminds me of somewhat of 2013’s Gone Home (which, although not a stealth game, uses snooping, investigating, and delving into every crook and nanny for information to drive the narrative). Whilst interesting, however, I’ve yet to find an actually worthwhile reason for this game mechanic’s existence other than creating a further obstacle to induce panic when a security guard is trying to hunt you down and you need to scarper out the room.
Whilst this could very well be the precise reason this was included, the ubiquity of the mechanic towers over the handful of times that, at any point, it becomes relevant to gameplay – similar to the rather perplexing limited petrol mechanic in Mafia II despite it being rather impossible to drive the same car long enough to warrant a visit to the petrol station.
An excellent aspect of the game is the multi-pathed objective system. Akin to Dishonoured, you are given an objective but aren’t told where the objective is nor how to achieve it. There is no/little hand-holding. Let’s suppose you need to access an office that is locked. You can try to find the floor’s fusebox and enter during a quiet moment. You can find a vent and see if it leads to the office. You can try to access a balcony (if there is one) and access the office through the window. You can try an find the office owner’s locker, steal their keycard, and walk right in. If the door is locked with a key code, you can tail the office owner and see/hear them reveal anything in a conversation during the hour that could give a hint as to what the code is – although this means you would have to have been present during that conversation at the exact time that single conversation occurs since the IRL time mechanic means the NPCs operate on an hour-long itinerary where activities they do don’t repeat.
This is unlike, let’s say, Skyrim, where NPCs in a tavern will sit down, walk over to another chair, sit down, then return to the first chair and eat a wheel of cheese all within 20 seconds*. You have to improvise which is a breath of freshly baked oxygen in comparison to many stealth-based games that make you feel like you’re stuck on rails.
* – I fully recommend subscribing to Bacon_ on Youtube where they upload clips of hilariously scuffed NPC moments they encounter in Bethesda games.
As you may have guessed from the brief précis of the plot concerning a politically tense period fraught with disagreements over national safety, immigration, and maintaining the country’s at-risk identity, although set in the 80s, even a disused draft-excluder could surmise that the game is a commentary on the current political climate of Trump and Brexit. Perhaps the choice of having the game set in the 80s creates a sort of buffer from being a direct 1:1 comparison.
I would have entirely believed this and been satisfied with the game being one large nod and wink – that is until you overhear the cleaner/caretaker of the datacenter complaining to the security guard about The Union Act, the anti-immigration policies of the party, and specifically their a-bit-on-the-proboscis slogan ‘Make Britain Great Again’; the nod and wink quickly becoming a lean-in and “This game is about modern politics in 2018/19” told straight to your face kinda situation.
Having said that, the game doesn’t shy away from delving into the grey when it could have taken the easy option and portrayed the bad people as bad and the good people as, you know, good. What happens when innocent lives are lost when trying to prevent a morally bankrupt piece of legislation? Is doing the right thing for the wrong reasons better than doing the wrong thing for the right reasons? Is it hypocritical or necessary to indulge in the same immoral actions as those you’re trying to dismantle if it was for the greater good?
The real fun comes from digging into this philosophical layer of the story. And this is where we find the game’s Hitch-22: It’s greatest strength, is its greatest weakness.
“Okay, obnoxiously verbose Architect character from The Matrix Reloaded,” I hear you say, “But what’s that got to do with the price of fishcake?”. Simple. The hands-off approach to guiding you, the realistic interaction system that slows you down, the real-time clock combined with the pam-jacked itinerary, the 80s computers and machinery that take a lifetime to boot up, the lack of manual saves, etc, etc.
All of this successfully encourages an intense, immersive, sleuthing experience. This intense, immersive game design comes at a cost though, however: all of those game elements actively work against reading into the lore and therefore the story itself. Unless you replay the same chapters over and over (each chapter redo taking an hour each time), you won’t be able to find even half the content of the story, let alone most. This is rather frustrating considering it is supposed to be a story-driven game.
It becomes even more frustrating when the difference between ‘examine the item’ and ‘stow the item away in the briefcase’ is pressing a button for a nanosecond too long and that if you immediately stow an item that you’ve just picked up, that item can simply erase itself from the game- regardless of whether or not the item was unimportant or a note in a glove compartment that was necessary evidence to progress the story. And the handful of bugs I encountered can’t be fixed by reverting to an earlier save because, as mentioned before, the save is between each hour-long chapter.
This isn’t to say that I dislike the game. Far from it. The Occupation does things that are inventive, original, and exciting that I would love to see advanced and developed in the future by other game studios who have their radios tuned into White Paper Games and the Indie scene in general. The concept of a game that runs on a locked, IRL time system as an integral game mechanic that affects the narrative, as well as having characters in the game operate on a realistic schedule, has a plethora of potential uses in games that we rarely – if at all – see in the games industry. The only example that comes to mind is The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask where, over the course of an in-game 3 days, non-player characters go about their day with-or-without your interaction, but with the ability to travel back to the first day, you can shadow specific characters, see what they get up to, and then intervene in their lives if they have a problem à la Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.
The Occupation is an imperfect but intriguing little game with excellent voice acting, engrossing Orwellian plot, and a scintillating but paradoxically frustrating central game mechanic that I’m excited to see implemented and polished in future releases. Now, time for a pack of Nik-Naks.