The Occupation really bums me out. This methodically constructed immersive sim hits all the bullet points for a compelling game, but misses the mark in terms of readability, pacing, and a coherent narrative. More than anything it hammers home just how difficult it must be to create homeruns like Deus Ex, Dishonored, and Prey.
The Occupation is full of big ideas, and this seems to be its ultimate downfall. Set in an alternate history 1980s Britain, the game puts you in the shoes of journalist Harvey Miller as he investigates a terrorist attack. The attack gives momentum to The Union Act, legislation that will deport immigrants and stoke the flames of nationalism. Meanwhile, The Bowman Carson Group, the company the alleged terrorist worked for, is creating powerful surveillance technology that could be tied to the act. Think Brexit by way of 1984 with a synth pop soundtrack, and you have the basic gist.
The problem is that that’s just the premise on the back of the box. That’s the first five minutes. And it already feels like one too many big ideas, especially when the gameplay features a branching story, a constant real-time countdown clock, and non-combat stealth.
The confusion begins almost immediately when yet another wrinkle is introduced. From chapter to chapter, you bounce between two different perspectives and timelines: journalist Harvey Miller, months after the bombing; and Scarlet Carson, shortly before and after. You begin by playing as Scarlet, following objectives rather blindly while trying to learn the basic mechanics of the game.
As a way to familiarize yourself with the controls, it’s a nice enough little tutorial, but as a storytelling structure it’s a nightmare. Game stories are inherently a bit harder to follow than other mediums because there’s usually some amount of multitasking. But developer White Paper Games seems to be ignoring this quirk of the medium entirely.
Rather than consistently guide the player along with an audience surrogate character like Harvey Miller—who is coming into this whole scenario even more clueless than the player—the game keeps putting you in the shoes of Scarlet the unreliable narrator. Every time I returned to Scarlet I left the chapter more confused than I started it. Any grasp of the plot I gained in the Harvey Miller sections would be obfuscated by her vague internal monologue.
Even when I did have control of Harvey, making sense of what he was doing, where he was, why he was doing it, what the Union Act was, and who all the main characters were wasn’t easy. In order to answer any of those questions you have to break into offices, sneak into ventilation, avoid a security guard that’s more relentless than the xenomorph in Alien: Isolation, and do it all in real-time with a 60-minute timer and no checkpoints.
Ducking into cover or shutting the blinds in an office is slow and awkward. And even still, the guards will walk into every important room you find almost as soon as you cross the threshold. This is a game about scouring offices for clues, reading documents, and carefully considering your environment, but it refuses to give you the necessary breathing room to appreciate any of that sleuthing.
The result is that I was caught early and often. I’d sneak into a room through the vents and find Steve standing in the hallway outside staring right at me, as if on cue. I’d be reading over an important document only to hear him ask “who’s in there” one paragraph in. I’d successfully shut off an alarm using the correct code and I’d still have Steve come rushing in thirty seconds later. By the time the hour was up I’d failed to learn many details that would allow me to unravel more of the story.
This all ignores the fact that the fundamental gameplay makes no sense. I understand a journalist trying to be sneaky here and there, but this is pure spycraft. Harvey Miller spends 10% of the game interviewing suspects and 90% of the game hunting for keycodes, hacking computers, and crawling through ventilation.
Aside from that, you have to assume that a decent journalist would have a basic understanding of what they were getting into. Miller would know the ins and outs of the Union Act, the surveillance concerns, and the major players he’s interviewing. Inhabiting his body for the vast majority of the game, it would be nice if he would share those details with me. Maybe a few extra files in that briefcase of his that you could choose to read?
It’s fine to watch a movie and—from a third person perspective—be forced to piece together the plot on the fly. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy didn’t provide bios of all the key characters and the historical context of the time period before the movie started, and I wouldn’t expect it to. But first-person narrative games are not the same as Hollywood films. Not having the same knowledge as the character you are playing as is maddening.
Ultimately, by the end of the game I was beyond frustrated. I understood the basic twists and turns and finally grasped the roles each of the characters had played, but I didn’t understand why I had to work so hard to get there. Immersive sims usually give players the opportunity to succeed through creativity and diligence, but The Occupation made me feel like a failure again and again.
With a more focused narrative, some clearer signposting, and a few less oppressive game mechanics, I could imagine The Occupation being one of my favorite games ever. As it is, I never want to touch it again.