Review: In The Occupation, the Immersion Is Total But Broken

The Occupation’s fierce commitment to immersing the player in its credible world is also the game’s undoing.

The Occupation
Photo: Humble Bundle

Games sell immersion in varying extremes, and with varying success. Metro: Exodus dedicates a button to wiping off your gas mask, and Red Dead Redemption 2 simulates details to such a painstaking degree that it can grow laborious. Players may want the feeling of reality, but they also don’t want to feel over-encumbered by its limitations, which is a conflict that plays out over and over again during White Paper Games’s The Occupation.

The game takes immersion so seriously that it plays out in real time: You’re conducting a series of interviews with one hour of prep time before each, which gives you one real hour (excluding any press of the “pause” button) to snoop around a building to gather interview questions, evidence, and other materials—as much as you can find, and as quickly as you can find it. But like many games before it, and likely many games to follow, The Occupation isn’t quite able to keep its vision of reality from devolving into frustration and tedium.

Appropriately, The Occupation is patterned after the titles in the Deus Ex, Thief, and Dishonored series, immersive sims that prioritize interactivity with the world and the interplay of different systems to accommodate a variety of approaches. But where such games cast you as assassins and secret agents, The Occupation has you play as a journalist, Harvey Miller, who’s writing about a fictional Britain’s controversial Union Act.

Written at the behest of a private company called the Bowman-Carson Group, the proposed law hasn’t gone over well: People are rioting in the streets over its effect on immigration, and an employee named Alex Dubois, himself an immigrant, is accused of bombing Bowman-Carson headquarters. But he maintains his innocence, and an anonymous contact insists that Harvey should use the time between his interviews to investigate Dubois’s claims, as well as any of the Union Act’s undisclosed details. “The country is being lied to,” she insists.

As a lowly writer, Harvey can’t knock out guards or shoot out lightbulbs with a silenced pistol. His toolset is limited to those other mainstays of the immersive sim: crawling through vents, reading emails, and finding passcodes written on sticky notes. Throughout the game, he has to peek around corners or hide under desks to avoid the roaming security guard, Steve, who’s both an aspiring actor and an accomplished tool. The Occupation sports an impressive degree of interactivity to sell its immersion, as you uncrumple notes found in the trash, stuff important documents into your briefcase, set an alarm on your wristwatch, and press the “play” and “eject” buttons on cassette players scattered around the Bowman-Carson offices.

The Occupation takes place in 1987, which means the developers of the game offer up an analog world of tapes, faxes, and floppy disks. Most processes take valuable time, which means you’ll sweat a little as you glance between a computer’s progress bar and your watch and the door, praying Steve hasn’t come to investigate. One important part of the evidence-gathering process might find Harvey copying an incriminating email to a disk, avoiding the magnetized floppy-scrambling security gates, and inserting the desk into a print station, at which point the document can be filed away for a “gotcha!” moment in the looming interview.

The best moments of The Occupation and its chunky, tactile world easily reach that transportive ideal of the immersive sim. But at other moments, the game seems to take the idea of immersion too far. The player will fumble with multiple button presses to unfold a letter while the beam of Steve’s flashlight materializes down the hall, and you’ll sneak around with no cues for how visible Harvey is or how much sound he’s making.

The game’s stealth elements are only an occasional irritation in the first area, where there’s a more equal division between sections open to the public and staff-only rooms you have to sneak through. But the game only relies more on sneaking about as the real-time hours wear on and the staff-only rooms grow in number. Where most stealth games are happy to explain the different systems you’ll be working with, The Occupation’s dedication to a no-UI, “realistic” system turns the game into a series of questions about how the hell Steve figured out where you are. How did he know to stand outside the room you entered through a vent? What did he hear to pique his interest? What difference did he notice for a split second out of the corner of his eye? The game has few answers, to the point where Steve begins to feel like a weaselly supernatural force psychically drawn to your vague location.

The only time he ever seems to leave you alone is when he glitches into a wall, unable to move, which might not be a problem if The Occupation didn’t suffer from a variety of additional issues. Other times, Steve’s character model will trap you in a corner, demanding that you leave until your inability to comply leads to a stern talking-to in the security office, robbing you of precious time. And the time really is the issue here: Even when you know what you’re looking for, the time limit demands a level of precision that the game simply cannot accommodate in its current state, especially without a mid-level save function.

It’s bad enough to struggle with the fiddly climb and crouch functions when the time is ticking down, but other problems seem to outright break the game: Objects won’t function properly, floppy disks will spontaneously corrupt when you’re nowhere near a security gate, and necessary programs or documents will outright vanish. You’re left with little choice but to start the hour over again or simply accept that you’re going to botch parts of the interview, if the interview doesn’t fail to begin and require a restart anyway.

It’s a shame to see The Occupation get so bogged down in these issues, because what it tries to accomplish is genuinely fascinating. Worlds so detailed and interactive are generally not present in games about such “mundane” subject matter, nor are they generally navigated by someone with such an unglamorous job description. These choices go hand in hand with a considerable level of restraint; though its conflict about immigration and data-gathering gets muddled as the story continues (and it rarely lets immigrant characters speak for themselves), the game never tips its fictional world into over-the-top dystopia. Its propaganda feels chillingly realistic, and the people behind it are quite, well, mundane.

Bureaucrats slide around accusations and evidence with a slimy ease, sounding almost reasonable and assured while making no villainous overtures; their banality is the game’s most terrifying contribution, far more tense than any of its horrendous stealth sequences. Evidence is buried in papers and emails and computer programs, steeped in dry, inoffensive corporate language to be parroted by a man in a nice office who’s dead behind the eyes. But The Occupation’s fierce commitment to immersing the player in such a credible world is also its undoing. Things like its time limit become near-insurmountable hurdles as players are weighed down by an infuriating stealth system and a host of technical problems.

This game was reviewed using a download code provided by Humble Bundle.

Score: 
 Developer: White Paper Games  Publisher: Humble Bundle, Sold Out  Platform: PlayStation 4  Release Date: March 5, 2019  ESRB: T  ESRB Descriptions: Alcohol Reference, Use of Tobacco, Violent References  Buy: Game

Steven Scaife

Steven Nguyen Scaife is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Buzzfeed News, Fanbyte, Polygon, The Awl, Rock Paper Shotgun, EGM, and others. He is reluctantly based in the Midwest.

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