Why you should care
Because deciding the fate of a nation while searching for floppy disks is four hours well spent.
After stealthily making your way to the second floor of an office building, you slowly open the office door and slink inside. In the moonlight seeping through slatted window shades, you swiftly and silently rifle through a desk, scanning handwritten notes and official memos. Then you find it: the damning piece of evidence. Suddenly the door swings open and a flashlight-wielding security guard demands, “What are you doing in here?”
This is just one of the moments that may take place while you’re playing The Occupation. The first-person game puts you in the shoes of journalist Harvey Miller, and your sleuthing smarts — or lack of them — will determine a country’s fate. But The Occupation is unlike any immersive simulated game you’ve played before. From start to finish, you have four hours — that’s real-time — to build your case. And the only weapons you have are your detective and time management skills.
The game is set in the United Kingdom in an alternate 1987. Following a terrorist attack, the government has proposed the controversial Union Act, legislation that will limit civil liberties and deport immigrants in the name of national security. You are tasked with uncovering the truth behind the attack by searching offices for evidence and conducting interviews with key eyewitnesses, each of whom has a different account. The evidence you gather in your interactive briefcase will determine which narrative the public hears. Your version of the attack could either uncover the government’s role in it or lend support to the Union Act crackdown. Do you take the methodical approach or go the direct and disruptive path?
Every second spent rooting around in a storage room or slinking through hallways is one you’ll never get back.
It’s all about the ’80s in The Occupation, which was released in March for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One by indie game-makers White Paper Games — the game’s elements include the search for incriminating floppy disks. As you search for clues and question crucial witnesses, you’re also trying to avoid the guards intent on keeping you from finishing your investigation. Every second spent rooting around in a storage room or slinking through hallways is one you’ll never get back — and you have only four hours to complete your report. “We wanted to create a game concept based around fixed time, where every decision you made sacrificed something else in gameplay,” explains Pete Bottomley, co-founder and game designer at White Paper Games.
In The Occupation, you have no weapons to defend yourself. It’s part of a trend: video games, including the genre-defining Thief and Dishonored, that use strategy and smarts instead of weapons to thwart enemies. “The systemic, immersive design elements” of The Occupation were “hugely inspired” by such games, Bottomley says. Creating nail-biting tension without violence was something the developers were eager to explore. Tension is built instead through moments like peeking through an office’s blinds and watching for the beam of a security guard’s flashlight.
White Paper’s previous game, Ether One (2014), received critical acclaim for its unusual storyline about journeying into the memories of a person with dementia. With The Occupation, Bottomley says, the team hoped the nonlinear elements — which aren’t often found in purely narrative-driven games — would resonate with players.
The Occupation has been a hit with critics, who have called it “courageous” and a “hidden gem,” although many knock it for its buggy state at launch. Matt Laughlin, who reviewed the game for the Gameumentary YouTube channel, agrees, saying the early version left players “wrestling with the controls” during tense, high-stakes moments. However, he does praise many of the game’s elements, from the storyline to the design of its levels and its mission. The game has also been criticized for its binary ending — you either finish and deliver your verdict or you fail.
Whatever the outcome — whether you choose to expose the government’s role in the attack or opt to sacrifice freedom for supposed security — in the four preceding hours you’ll have found that playing The Occupation is a methodical, tactile experience punctuated with suspense. And its clever connection between the current anxieties of the Brexit era to ’80s Thatcherism, well, that just makes the game even more unnerving.