You’ve got to give British developer White Paper Games credit. The studio made its debut with Ether One, a first-person puzzler depicting the difficult subject of dementia, but now it’s back with a 1980s-themed political thriller examining the thorny subject of immigration. Releasing against a modern day backdrop of Brexit, it’s the kind of boldness that this industry rarely ever sees.
Crikey, though – The Occupation is a conceptual home run. You play as an investigative journalist named Harvey Miller, who’s inspecting a terrorist attack which led to the loss of 23 lives. With an immigrant named Alex Dubois vilified for the deplorable act, a company called the Carson Bowman Group is trying to push through a controversial new law which threatens to deport all non-nationals.
Cuts close to home, right? While the title is grounded in fiction, its inspirations extend to the real-world, with its setting heavily inspired by English cities like Manchester, and its politics critiquing laws like the Patriot Act, which the US government passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The title’s generally deft enough to put its own bias aside, leaving you to make up your own mind.
And this is where the game gets really clever, because it all takes place in real-time. Miller has a watch and a pager which he can refer to at any moment, and it’s ultimately up to you what you do. You have an agenda, so there are meetings for you to attend, but you can choose to skip them if you prefer. You can also opt to either turn up early, or play fast and loose with your itinerary.
The fact that everything occurs in real-time opens up all kinds of investigative opportunities. As you may imagine, you can choose to go snooping, but you’ll need to pay attention to the routines of the people that work in the office. The bumbling cleaner, for example, may open the stock room at a specific time, allowing you to gain access and disable any security alarms.
Bingo! Now you’re in a restricted area and you’ve got access to the computer terminals – but what exactly are you going to find? As you read documents and follow leads, you begin to build up a body of lies and subterfuge, which you can then use to cross-examine your subjects during interviews. Your job is to uncover the truth about the terrorist attack, and inform your readers.
Or not, as the case may be. While you don’t have any real abilities in this game, you do have a lot of clout: the power to influence the future of an entire nation, in fact. Maybe you choose not to use the evidence that you’ve assembled, concealing it and allowing the divisive Union Act to pass? Or perhaps you go to extreme lengths to ensure your findings reach the public – it’s up to you.
It’s a superb premise, but the game struggles under the immense weight of its own ambition. There are only two missions where you have full freedom to follow your own leads, and the rest of the game is restricted to a more linear formula. While outstanding voice acting means that these segments are BioShock-esque, they don’t quite hit the same highs as the exploratory missions.
Moreover, the title can be far too obtuse for its own good, forcing you into decisions that aren’t reasonably explained. While it’s phenomenal that you have the autonomy to go about your investigation as you please, it doesn’t feel right that your outcome can be coloured by outright confusion; if the game isn’t clear about what you’re doing and why, then how can you reasonably make just choices?
These issues are amplified by a laundry list of bugs, which can be so prolific that you may have to restart entire chapters over again. We had one issue where our watch and dossier disappeared, meaning that we couldn’t adequately plan our next steps. A shoddy save system means that it’s possible to lose progress of up to an hour or more – irritating beyond belief.
As a stealth game, it’s a poor one, too. It’s possible to get a “talking to” from wannabe-actor-cum-security-guard Steve when you’re in public areas, and the controls are just far too finicky to fully avert his attention when you’re behind red lines. It just feels like the mechanics aren’t developed to the degree where they can support the developer’s ambition, and that’s unfortunate.
It’s perhaps most frustrating because the game genuinely is superb outside of that: the setting is thoughtfully designed, and it has its own political commentary to make – a public building converted into offices for the elite. And then there’s the soundtrack, with its 80s inspired electronic beats and wailing guitars. The voice acting, too, is among some of the strongest you’ll hear all year.
The Occupation is bold, ambitious, and a bit of a mess. Its bugs and occasionally obtuse storytelling severely detract from the overall experience, and yet it will live longer in the memory than the average game. There’s something fascinating here: a real-time thriller that puts genuine political power in the palm of your hands. But it’s strangled by its own ambition, and that’s as inevitable as it is unfortunate.