As I entered the government facility, I made like a journalist and broke all the rules. Missing all of my appointments by meandering off-route to follow other potential leads, got caught snooping in various restricted areas, and ended up in the security office being strongly reprimanded by someone who looked chillingly like an ex-colleague. In The Occupation, time is a precious resource, a commodity with consequence.
Let’s rewind a little, how did I end up like this? I always push demo builds to the limit and breach areas that have not yet been explored by your typical passer by. It seemed rather fitting that it would be a journalist playing a journalist, who ended up being too inquisitive for her own good. However, this is all part of the experience in The Occupation – it’s what you choose to do with your time, that determines how your four hours will play out in this real-time, immersive sim.
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You are not necessarily the ‘hero’ of the story, sitting as a third party as you enter the facility on the day the Union Act is set to pass: “Our version is called the Union Act, but it’s based on the Patriot Act of America,” said Pete Bottomley, Designer and Co Founder at White Paper Games, “with a big focus on clamping down on immigration and tightening the borders.” This has come about following a devastating explosion, terrorising the Manchester city; a theme with immediate relevance, striking close to home.
There’s a conflict of interest between the two protagonists: Scarlet is moving to destroy all the files and stop the act from passing at all costs, while Burman believes the attack is the reason why these acts should be in place to ‘protect and prevent’ in the future. As a journalist, it’s up to you to weigh up the decisions: “You see how this change to the country is impacting people on a personal level,” explains Pete, “The characters in the game all have jobs to do and tasks to complete. It’s your job to observe, find all the pieces of information, and discover their stories.” Pete revealed a very interesting tidbit about a particular character you can encounter: “We have BSL (British Sign Language) in the game via a deaf character, this presents an interesting role-reversal,” explains Pete, “people that are hard of hearing don’t always get the payoff we afford ourselves, so what happens when that table is turned? They can get this piece of information and use it, while you may have to go off and find it in a different way – if you don’t understand BSL.”
Forget everything you think you know
As I started playing, the mechanics themselves seemed simple, but you have to throw away many of your ‘gamers instincts’ that have been adopted in the age of modern gaming. Forget waypoints, HUD features, in-game menus, and any general hand-holding. “We all love the immersive sim genre in the studio,” said Pete, “but the question for us was: what can we do with our approach to game design?” The Occupation may have drawn inspiration from the likes of Dishonoured and BioShock, but the RPG elements synonymous with this lineage of games have been stripped out to focus fully on narrative driven, emergent gameplay: “While we’ve been inspired by the designers of Dishonoured, like Harvey Smith, when you try and replicate an existing formula – especially one as incredible a team like Arcane has created – you are never going to get to an interesting place. For us it was about taking the world building, emergent gameplay, and story elements forward. What can we do with those high-level themes and put into our own narrative driven games? What is our independent version of the immersive sim genre?”
I discovered that common sense is key in The Occupation, as you think in more realistic terms. Oh, I’ve picked up a floppy disk (it’s the 80’s, dude) where did I put it? In my briefcase. I have a meeting in an hour, best keep an eye on the time with my watch. Where was it again? Ah the room number is on my pager. Crap! I missed the first meeting, due to crawling about in vents and picking up a hidden tin box adorned with the image of an owl – ooh a walkman! What else is on the agenda? Back to the briefcase it is. You can place your journalistic briefcase of journalism anywhere in the environment, from chairs and tables to pipes… Open it up to access what you’ve collected along the way; chuck an apple in there – why not? It’s all filed away, as you would expect, but instead of scrolling through a menu of items – you identify everything as you see it in the case. When you initially enter the facility, you are presented with a keycard that grants press-level access (to be lightly abused), and two tokens which can be used in various vending machines. I brewed a coffee for myself and passed by a cigarette machine, then stumbled across a mini-museum in which you could use your tokens to play audio-logs attached to exhibits.
As Pete mentioned earlier on, everyone has their own tasks to be getting on with. However, while there’s a linear idea of ‘routine’ there are environmental interactions that aren’t necessarily pre-scripted; feeding back into the core idea of player-driven, emergent gameplay: “They’re all simulating,” said Pete, “so, if they get stressed out they’ll drink coffee or go for a smoke, and then use the bathroom!” It’s little things like that which are a joy to see in The Occupation. “Creating AI and locomotion systems aren’t necessarily things you usually see in independent games,” explained Pete, “we took a lot of concepts from the Elizabeth BioShock talks in creating characters. Elizabeth feels believable in the world, she knows about her surroundings, she’s familiar with everything. This was a big technical challenge, and we spent a year and a half, just trying to figure out how to get characters moving around.” The Occupation build I played was pre-alpha and honestly? It looks like their diligence is paying off.
Through the passage of time
After losing myself, for what must have been at least half an hour, I came out of the experience wanting to see more – even though I had technically passed beyond the demo realm. The reality of time and consequence left an impression on me. It forces the player to think about how you will balance your chosen priorities going forward, and felt a bit like a real-time Hitman; favouring investigation methods rather than assassinations, of course. Which conversation do I choose to eavesdrop on? How much time do I have to check this floppy disk on the computer, before security patrols through? There are no mission breaks to take advantage of: “That’s where I disconnect from games, for example in GTA or Far Cry, which follow a linear story narrative,” said Pete, “you can go off and do lots of side missions for 15 hours of gameplay and then return to what’s happening ‘right now’. With everything in real-time there is indeed a consequence, time becomes a precious resource in that respect. We don’t have health bars or ammo, so it’s our way of presenting tension with the idea of losing time.”
And so, there we have it – I’m back in the security office where you found me, contemplating my next move after a firm slap on the wrist. From the studio which created Ether One, a Myst-esque take on dementia, White Paper Games follow through with hard-hitting themes and build upon immersive, interactive fiction by looking to take it to the next level with their new IP The Occupation.
I don’t know about you, but we look forward to seeing more of The Occupation – this is a game which should definitely be on your watch list.