There is a moment in season 2 of Occupied—a pretty-good Norwegian political thriller in which the country is conquered by Russia and slowly transforms into a collaborationist security state—where a half-dozen intelligence agents are taking part in a depressing LAN party. They are playing, of all things, DayZ on PS4. Fittingly enough, they look slightly miserable and harassed as they run around a fog-shrouded, vaguely Eastern European battlefield and occasionally shoot zombies before getting gunned-down by other players. Then they reload and get back to work on their mission: trying to find where on the map the ex-prime minister of Norway is using in-game voice chat to speak with resistance leaders.
This is not a throwaway product placement, either. This is a major part of Occupied’s second season: Even in the cold open, we find the exiled prime minister pretending to waste his days playing on a PS4 in his bedroom. Later, we see a general hiding in a forest cabin taking his marching orders, while a young enlisted soldier plays the actual game. When the intelligence services learn about the scheme, they immediately buy gaming chairs for every operative and HyperX headsets to match. I’m not surprised there’s not a sequence where they’re giving Norway a tour of their gaming house on Youtube: “Hey guys, Team Panoptic here...”
It’s one of the weirdest, most audacious pieces of product placement since the Prince of Persia: Two Thrones debacle on Life, where a group of LAPD detectives “hack” a drug dealer’s secret database by having his little sister play through the entire game until a cutscene triggers and a spreadsheet fills the screen. But it’s also remarkable for how joyless it appears to be: nobody in Occupied seems to be having fun. They just wander the zombie wasteland, trying to find their contacts while counterintelligence teams lurk behind walls and monuments. When they encounter each other, they keep their guns trained on each other until someone says the right code, at which point they make their character models visibly relax as they stop aiming down their gunsights.
But it also left me wondering… would this work? If your country’s phone lines were compromised, would in-game voicechat create a needle-in-a-haystack situation for spies trying to listen-in? As one of the supervisors explains, first they needed to know which game the resistance was using… and then they needed to isolate the server. That’s a clever workaround to a surveilled communications network in a work of fiction, but I’m not sure in-game voice chat is so different from traditional VOIP that it would pose a serious obstacle to government spies who control their country’s physical infrastructure.
In its way, the DayZ subplot is also emblematic of what’s bothering about this second season of Occupied: It’s an obvious contrivance that exists to serve a purpose that’s external to the show’s narrative, which is then extensively adjusted to accommodate it. Occupied’s great strength was showcasing the ways its characters positions shifted and eroded until they found themselves picking sides and crossing lines that would have been unfathomable at the start of the story. In its second season, much of that development is retconned away. Characters are repositioned into artificial scenarios because it reintroduces conflicts that were already resolved.
And now, thanks to a promotional deal, they also have to play DayZ. For the resistance. But in a nod to the show’s attempts at realism, nobody looks happy about it. The game looks dated and uneventful. Everyone seems slightly perplexed and put-upon that this is now a part of their lives, all because it is the last place anyone would think to look for the leaders of a resistance movement.