White Paper Games' latest is a flawed but intriguing real-time mystery
In any other game, a security officer spotting you just as you enter the password to some corporate boss’s secret PC wouldn’t be a huge issue. In any other game, you could knock him out, shoot him, or even turn invisible until he moves on. In any other game, being discovered is a temporary setback or a quick reload. In White Paper Games’ The Occupation, the stakes feel so much higher. It’s an immersive sim unlike any other, one where you’re not an assassin, a soldier, or some amalgamation of the two. You’re just a journalist; there are no stealth attacks, skill trees or equipment upgrades here, just old-fashioned investigative skill and wit.
The narrative setup for the game is unique, too: it’s 1987, and as Harvey Miller you’re tasked with sneaking around the HQ of Bowman Carson following a bombing at their offices. The company is involved in The Union Act, a controversial piece of legislation that promises everything from border control to more money for public services (sound familiar?) and you need to find out what they’re hiding with regards to the attack. The politics are more prescient than I’d expected, a blend of post-9/11 anti-terrorism rhetoric and the current Brexit debacle. A lot of the dialogue, particularly the choices you make as Miller, can feel a little clumsy, but the voice acting more than makes up for it. It’s not just well-acted, it’s thoroughly convincing, with characters catching themselves mid-sentence, stumbling over words and reacting to others in a way that doesn’t feel like a traditional script.
The Occupation takes place in real-time, with each chapter building up to a meeting with a different Bowman Carson executive. In the time you’ve got before each interview, you’re given the typical freedom of movement you’d expect from an immersive sim. A dossier keeps track of possible leads, as well as passwords and keycodes for various doors, computers and safes around the building. Working against the clock to uncover intel and track down files feels incredibly natural but never comfortable enough that you can afford to dawdle. There are some quirks introduced by the chapter-based structure, however—why do the same two security guards seem to move from building to building with me? Why do all my documents and leads disappear the moment I leave an area? Why can’t I save and quit whenever I want?
The save system is particularly annoying, practically locking you in for a full hour or more each time you want to take a stab at a chapter, with no option to reload. The problem is exacerbated by just how buggy The Occupation is. AI hiccups, clipping issues and objects disappearing into the environment meant that I had to restart entire sections more than once. There’s already been one patch that deals with some issues, but it’s in need of quite a significant amount of fixing before it becomes a frustration-free experience. Or perhaps walking through walls and falling through the floor into an endless white void are useful investigative skills.
Interaction with the world is very tactile—grabbing and pulling drawers, doors and folded up notes, clicking around 80s computer interfaces and swiping ID cards through scanners; it all feels just physical enough to immerse and panic you. Scrambling to get through a creaky grate before security walks around the corner is terrifying, more so than a lot of other contemporary immersive sims. Clicking a floppy disk into computer, copying files over to it and then carrying that disk down to the designated printing computer sounds like a lot of steps on paper, but it all serves to build the tension and connection with the world. Time is a commodity, after all.
The Occupation has a whole lot of heart that really goes some distance in counteracting the wonkier parts. The feeling of piecing together the mystery against the clock is incomparable to just about anything else on the market right now, and it’s a properly unique take on the immersive sim genre. It’s buggy, yes, but it’s not nearly the disaster that Underworld Ascendant was. White Paper Games have put something together here that’s really sticking with me, and I’ll be hopping in for another playthrough the moment it gets some solid patching.