The Occupation may not be the future of the immersive sim, but it feels like a glimpse of what it could be. In ways exciting, and disappointing. When I think back on the keystones of the genre, games like Thief and System Shock 2, I think about feelings of freedom and experimentation and more recent entries like Dishonored 2 and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided tried to woo players by making their worlds even larger and more sprawling. But all of The Occupation, White Paper Games’ independent offering in the genre, takes place across four buildings.
They may be dense, with lots of nooks and crannies to explore, but undeniably they are just four buildings on a small corporate campus. Likewise, they are occupied by a small cast of characters, most of whom will be offstage for the entire game and will exist only as voices in email, chat transcripts, and perhaps on answering machine tapes.
The Occupation may be constrained by its limitations, but it still tells a complicated story of political intrigue. You are investigative journalist Harvey Miller, recently returned from a harrowing posting in the Levant which resulted in a book that looks suspiciously like Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem (which is worth reading both as an interesting chronicle of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Israel and as an artifact from a time when Friedman was capable of empathy for people other than CEOs and war criminals), and which perhaps foreshadows the kind of choice you’ll make at the end of the story. Miller is looking into the bombing of the Bowman Carson Group, a private government contractor whose major project is the construction and promotion of an immigrant database and domestic surveillance apparatus to facilitate mass deportations.
The bombing is cause celebre for people promoting the Union Act, which stands in for a combination Patriot Act / Brexit referendum in the politics of this alternate-universe 1980s Britain. It promises to expand the scope and power of the domestic surveillance and police apparatus, but also to create loads of jobs and a new age of prosperity for Britons who will take the jobs left vacant by the immigrants who are deported. By investigating a series of buildings on the Bowman Carson campus, Miller will uncover evidence of a coverup and scapegoat operation to conceal the truth about the bombing, as well as proof that the Union Act is not really intended to help a native-born working-class.
The catch is that we already know a good deal of the truth because we are also positioned as the bomber, Scarlet Carson, in the introductory sequence of the game. Much of the story is told from her perspective, who presents herself as a secret whistleblower to Miller even as she conceals the extent of her own role in the tragedy. It’s an interesting choice in how White Paper present their narrative, one that makes it less of a “whodunnit?” and more of a “why they dunnit?”. In execution, however, The Occupation becomes needlessly confusing. Before we hit the first opening chapter, we have seen or played sequences from four different points in time. I’m also about 95% sure that a cutscene animation that sets up the main action of the game features a prominently incorrect date that further confuses the storyline.
This kind of inartful complexity is what undercuts The Occupation the most. It largely works well within its limitations. But it also feels like it is working too hard to conceal those limitations to revel in its best qualities. There’s not exactly a paucity of content here, but The Occupation puts a timer on most of its chapters to ensure that you don’t have much time to fully infiltrate and explore the Bowman Carson campus. Even on my third playthrough of the opening chapter, knowing the layout and the location of critical items and people, I was still pressed for time. Especially because you have to worry about the constant patrols (the gormless Steve, an American security guard whose thespian ambitions are the game's comic relief, searches the hallways and offices for signs of disturbance) that can catch you red-handed while you're busy with a computer terminal or listening to an audio log.
That feels like it should be a good thing, injecting a sense of realism and urgency to a genre whose pacing can be glacial (even when the story is trying to tell you that the stakes are high and there’s no time to lose). But the charm of The Occupation is in its story, in unraveling the web of intrigue and jealousies that have been festering in the heart of the privatized surveillance state. Until you bring all the important context into focus, The Occupation isn’t even clear about what story it is poorly telling about its cast of bland middle managers. Yet you’re discouraged from lingering over your discoveries and listening to the odd interrogation recording in favor of speeding through offices, sucking up every spare passcode and keycard that you can like you’re on the Nickelodeon Super Toy Run. And it’s only when you’re willing to basically cheat—using the codes you’ve written down from previous playthroughs, the knowledge you have about the routines the AI characters follow—that you can see and hear everything and, importantly, get the time to process it and think about how it fits into the story.
All of this is exacerbated by the lack of a mid-chapter save. If you quit a chapter midway through (which could mean after anywhere from 20-45 minutes of play) you will have to restart the chapter from the beginning. While this does raise the stakes when a guard is pursuing you, it also means that you’re out of luck if you have to quit unexpectedly or (as happened multiple times for me) you hit a crash bug or get stuck on a bit of level geometry. But even if it worked exactly as intended, it’s another mechanic that ends up impeding exploration and discouraging you from putting all the pieces together.
But say you do cheat, and ruthlessly abuse the rote script that each chapter follows, and the fact that passwords, codes, and key locations never change? At that point, you start to encounter the best version of The Occupation.
It’s still an investigation game. Figuring out where all the key evidence is hidden, and how you can produce proof of your claims in order to confront people during a couple interrogation sequences, will still require a lot of searching and speed. But with just a little more time to mull over the evidence, you start to see the pictures this game is painting. You find a workplace like any other, except that everyone there is working for an agency that will soon by profiting handsomely from civil rights abuses. Some are true believers, others seem almost embarrassed by their work. A few are actively dissenting from its mission, and trying to find ways to resist or subvert it.
In this portrait of a compromised workplace, in an increasingly authoritarian and xenophobic country, at a time of technological revoultion, The Occupation is a game of its moment. Its opening cutscene lays out a conflict between Order and the Truth, with the implication that if people knew the Truth they wouldn’t fall for the lies told on behalf of Order. But the messenger is a flawed one, and perhaps also self-deceiving. There is a conspiracy to unravel here, but is it the reason any of this is happening?
Before the bombing that sets our story in motion, a set of authoritarian laws were already being promulgated in the face of protests and riots. People were lied-to and told that mass deportations of immigrants would mean more jobs and a better economy, but that had nothing to do with the conspiracy and everything to do with the fact that there are always people who want to believe those lies. They resent and they hate, and given a fig-leaf of rational self-interest, they act. What is there to investigate? How do you bring a culture to justice?
There are few winners in this story. The staff at the Bowman Carson Group are all people processing various mixtures of trauma, guilt, and shame. One of the game’s villains appears to be in genuine agony about the gulf that his political choices have driven between him and people he used to consider friends and partners. A supervisor and a security guard appear to be having a flirtation that’s running aground on the differences in their class, with awkward and unspoken conversations hanging in the air around money and rank. In the wake of a bombing and internal investigations, once-friendly coworkers find themselves reexamining everything they’ve said to one another, worrying over being misinterpreted or unintentionally implicated in something. They are all participants in something vicious and destructive, made increasingly lonely and afraid as they rend the bonds of community and trust to pieces around them.
This is all that The Occupation really needs to do. It understands that the more narrative-driven branch of the immersive sim genre has always been about the interrogation of physical space for evidence of the interior life of its inhabitants. Stealth is a convenient mechanical framework for this interrogation, but it’s not the real game that people are playing. I’m not sure stealth has been the star of a narrative immersive sim since Thief.
The resistance provided by locks and keys, alert bystanders and searching guards, is mostly there to impose a pacing around each new revelation, a sense of satisfaction with every opened safe and fresh audio log. But when that resistance is augmented by a strict timer and a hostile save system, it forces you to consider it as a mechanical exercise, which is not an angle that flatters it. Ultimately The Occupation is a game that is too much concerned with hiding, when it should be focused on what can be revealed.