The pre-amble to the British 1980’s fixed time investigation-‘em-up The Occupation is one of the smartest pieces of narrative design I’ve experienced in quite some time. The game begins with you in control of Scarlet Carson who’s about to partake in some political espionage. Disillusioned by an unabashedly racist and xenophobic bill, The Union Act, that her employer Bowman Carson is about to deliver, she’s attempting to steal some documentations in order to leak them to the press and put an end to it. You’re not told explicitly the details of any of this, but it’s all inferred via some masterful voice over delivery from actor Amelia Tyler which provides just enough wriggle room for you to read between the lines and agree with her motivations and course of action. Unfortunately, Scarlet is unsuccessful in her attempt and after being escorted out, the unimaginable happens – The Meta centre where she works is hit by a bomb. Evidence is found which points the blame for the explosion at a foreign employee of the government, which accelerates The Union Act and raises tensions within the country.
This is all seen and experienced by the player. Playing as Scarlet, getting a feeling that something underhand is obviously going on, knowing in advance that things are not as they seem and that there’s secrets to be found, colour how you approach the rest of the game. After the introduction, you take control of Harvey Miller for the rest of the game, an investigatory reporter who’s looking into the explosion. Harvey doesn’t know what Scarlet knows, but you, the player, have at least a sense that something untoward is going on behind the scenes. By giving this knowledge to the player, The Occupation inspires an investigatory nature to the way you play. Without this first chapter, playing as a journalist who has no real reason to break rules and go snooping around the in ‘Staff Only’ areas of the building he arrives at, you might take everything at face value – but as the player, you know not to trust anyone and are inspired to dig deeper, find evidence and ask the difficult questions.
The Occupation is a fixed time, first person investigation game. This means that the game runs at a real world speed and events happen at pre-determined times. One character will talk to other character at a certain time, the security chief will leave his desk at determined times and the janitor will open locked doors in a certain order. It’s your job as Harvey Miller to discover these events and exploit them to uncover evidence which prove or disprove Alex Dubois, the Frenchman that is accused of blowing up the Meta centre, had anything to do with the explosion. All of this has to be done between a number of deadlines such as interviewing someone (and using any evidence found to frame your questioning). The Occupation has no traditional failure conditions. There’s no combat, no health bars and no game over screen. Instead, if you’re found in an area you’re not supposed to be in or found to be doing something you shouldn’t, you’ll be dragged in front of the security chief which wastes precious time.
To get the most out of The Occupation, you are going to be breaking a lot of rules, the Journalistic code of ethics be damned. Crawling through vents, exploring spaces that you are forbidden to enter, copying personal documents onto floppy disks, listening in on conversations you’re not a part of, riffling through people’s belongings and generally being a real pain. The ends do justify the means and that initial chapter of the game make these actions feel vindicated.
The core of the game is to follow several ‘leads’. At the start of the game, you’re given one lead by a helpful voice at the end of a phone which nudges you in the right direction. As you explore, you’ll find more leads which require you to find evidence which will eventually lead to the truth of that particular subject. In the first hour, you’re breaking into an office to listen to a tape. The tape directs you to a particular box which contains all manner of documents, one of which is the smoking gun you need to cast dispersions on the evidence provided elsewhere. Then you’re pilfering key cards in order to access a locked office but you also need a key code which can be acquired by finding notes or shoulder surfing someone when they enter. Later you’re using computers that are typically 1980’s slow to boot and copying files to a disk which takes a tension filled too-long length of time. This being a fixed time game though, you almost certainly won’t find an answer to each lead on your first attempt. The Occupation is built for iterative game play. Each attempt at the game allows you to discover more within your time constraints and while the minute details don’t track between play-through’s, you can constantly test the constraints of the systems and mechanics.
Unfortunately, by gaming the system and messing with the AI, you can really disturb the stability of a play through. Break into office’s and set off alarms enough times and would-be actor turned Security Guard Steve will continually approach you with the same message. Divert his attention too much from his usual routine and he’ll end up doing so even though you’ve not stepped foot in a restricted area. In another play through, I was caught by Steve in a place I shouldn’t have been but managed to escape his wrath long enough to get to a scheduled appointment with a Bowman Carson employee. After a discussion with said employee, a cut scene was triggered with disjointed vocal tracks from the security chief who half wanted to scold me for adventuring where I shouldn’t and half greeted me warmly to take me to another building.
Then there’s the bugs. Despite completing all the criteria to satisfy a ‘lead’ in exactly the same way I’d done it previously, I’ve seen a lead remain unfulfilled in my note pad (which tracks progress, hints and goals). Despite having the evidence in my possession to call a characters motivations into question, the option to present it was completely missing. When this evidence is integral to the narrative process, having the game glitch out on me then save (which the game automatically does each chapter without any option for manual saves), it means having to restart the game.
Then there’s some curious design decisions. At any one time, despite lugging around a brief case with you at all times, you’re only allowed to carry one item. Got a floppy disk? Something that could easily be stored in a briefcase (which, in the 1980’s actually had a special slot for disks that size)? Nope. You’ve got to carry it in your hand and if you want to pick something else up, you swap it out for whatever it is you’re currently holding. The UI can be a bit tricky too. When accessing a PC, you’ll often back out of the computer entirely rather than just go back a page (although, I guess this is true to how horrendous operating systems were back in the 80’s) and when trying to punch in numbers on a key code lock, it’s often difficult to spot the target reticule. Type in the wrong number and you can’t just delete a digit. You have to submit the full wrong number and start again.
Despite its issues, The Occupation is thrilling, even with its lack of traditional life threatening situations. Hiding behind chairs to wait for Steve the Security guard to leave after you’ve accidentally set off an alarm, nervously awaiting the full 2 minutes for a safe to open while desperately hoping someone doesn’t walk in on you, hiding under a desk while a file slowly transfers to a disk, waiting just out of view until someone opens a door than attempting to follow them in unseen – The Occupation is full of moment to moment nail biting situations where time is your enemy and your most precious resource. Narratively, this game does some pretty smart things to justify the means to the ends, visually it’s a real treat for the retinas and it features an excellent voice cast that bring depth, humour and humanity to their roles. It’s just a shame about the bugs…
The Occupation is available now on PS4 (review version), Xbox One and PC.
Developer: White Paper Games
Publisher: Sold Out, Humble
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review we were provided with a review code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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