The Occupation is set in North West England, in 1987, in the fictional Turing City, but its code isn’t difficult to crack. One character discusses the promises of politicians to ‘make England great again,’ while propaganda posters call for unity and foretell of a looming public vote. Your task, as investigative journalist Harvey Miller, is to sift through the wake of a bombing that took 23 lives, for which an immigrant is being suspected, and to shed light on the Union Act – a reactionary piece of legislation that threatens to gnaw at civil liberties. The action unfolds in real time, but it lags only a couple of years behind our time.
The best thing in the game is the setting, the Bowman Carson facility: a gloomy comb of offices decorated with dark wood and cigarette smoke, and buzzing with a nervous air. Downstairs, there are statues, lavish paintings, and artefacts – the contents of a museum exhibit, and you can feel the past, more brightly lit, pressing against the present. This mixture of the ornate and the workaday brings to mind the gaudy art of the Raccoon City Police Department, from Resident Evil 2. In place of the shuffling dead are the shuffling drones of government, and the moans that float through the halls don’t betray a lust for flesh but a litany of everyday grumbles: annoyed co-workers, lost property, and misplaced computer passwords.
In other words, all the trappings of a Looking-Glass-style immersive sim, and it comes as no surprise – after rummaging through bins, desks, and post boxes for delicious dirt – to see the welcoming darkness of a vent. Ever since John McClane squirmed and groused his way through the narrow vent shafts of the Nakatomi Plaza, these passageways have saved the day countless times over. From Adam Jensen to Corvo Attano, by way of Morgan Yu, it’s with great honour that Harvey Miller join in the rich lineage of wriggling into rooms he shouldn’t be in. (The only downside to the tactic is that its so effective it tempts you away from alternatives; why bother hunting down key codes when can see the telltale panel in the corner of the room?)
Realising the danger of becoming stale, The Occupation applies a few twists to freshen the formula. Firstly, what a place and time to be immersed in! The telephones, the clacky typewriters, the fax machines that hiss and yowl like electric cats. The mood is paranoid, and the tone is taken from an endangered breed of BBC political thriller: the likes of Edge of Darkness and State of Play, in which the stink of corruption hangs thick, and there aren’t heroes, just solitary souls that bear witness and whistleblow.
The other twist is ticking away on your wrist. You have a number of interviews scheduled with prominent personnel, who may have information on the bombing. Before each of these, you’re given an hour, in real time, to sleuth as much information as you can for your line of questioning, and you have the freedom to do as much or as little as you please. This adds a delectable fizz of tension, heightened by the idea that the harshest penalty for getting caught trespassing is losing time. It’s bolstered by smooth and satisfying UI, as you roll up your jacket sleeve to check your digital watch. Your pager will beep periodically, luring you away to the nearest payphone to call your editor. There’s no tension like that of a deadline.
There’s a modest thrill in these humble tools, and fun to be had in letting your mind wonder. The briefcase, which you can set down on any surface and rifle through, and which contains a tube for carrying coins, gives off the faintest whiff of Bond, in From Russia with Love. The folder, which binds your objectives and collates all your clues – lest the scent start to cool – feels like something Agent Cooper would clutch to his person, in Twin Peaks, the better to bring order to the madness. And I felt the crackle of Hollywood espionage as I watched the progress bar fill, as fast as dripping syrup, as I transferred a document to floppy disk.
Elsewhere, there were less intentionally tense moments of crawling technology. I encountered a couple of floating placards, which eerily broke the immersion; I was hampered by a trembling frame rate; and when I wanted to resume play, after pausing, the game seemed to take my request under advisement for three to five working days – perhaps that’s in keeping solidarity with the era of Royal Mail. These are minor quibbles – and I did note an update purring away ahead of release – but less minor is a glitch that froze in place before my final interview, causing me to have to replay the previous hour. (The shortfall of the real-time structure, as awkward as it is intriguing, is that you do have to commit to hourly chunks with no checkpoint.)
That would be more damning in many games, but in The Occupation, where the replaying of scenarios unearths new treasures, it was less of a pain. Its design is of a kind with Hitman – where a level becomes a pocket watch to be pried open, the patterns of its cogs and gears to be exposed and committed to memory. It’s this, rather than the story, that will stay with me: the potent pleasure of snooping, and the irony of doing so to safeguard the public from the invasion of privacy. It isn’t that the plot is poor; it’s just that it’s beside the point.
The real story is tipped off by the title. Journalism is a more fraught occupation now than it has ever been, and how wistful that a game with an open portal to the cynicisms of the present shares in the optimisms of the past. Privacy-invading software, distorted facts and figures, and a conspiracy that wafts to the highest offices. The notion that these scandals can be battled with bundles of newspaper is growing quainter by the day. Thank God Harvey is a man of his time; I couldn’t bear to see the sum of his struggle waved away under the banner of fake news.
Developer: White Paper Games
Publisher: Humble Bundle
Available on: PlayStation 4 [reviewed on], PC, Xbox One
Release date: March 5, 2019
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