The Occupation is a journalist investigation thriller, wherein I am tasked with saving Britain’s liberty. I’m granted a few short hours, a pager, a pocket watch, a couple of helpful allies, and a schedule of interviews. I need to write the report that can turn public opinion down on the ominous Union Act. Adding to that pressure cooker is a recent terrorist attack, leaving two dozen dead.
Developer White Paper Games describes The Occupation as a first-person immersive simulation. A game centered around journalism risks being dry, but The Occupation sings thanks to its core mechanics. I am tasked with navigating a government office, with multiple routes and objectives. Some of these objectives are as simple as being at a certain room or phone at the right time; other times, I have to snoop.
My interview subjects aren’t inclined to be honest with me, and so I have to find the evidence to prove them wrong. I break into staff-only areas, crack safes and disarm alarms, and crawl through vents. I learn when the staff take smoke breaks or leave their desks, and then I rifle through their drawers and break into their computers.
Stealing keycards, switching the power off, stalking a guard to learn his schedule, eavesdropping on conversations ... it’s all fair game to me. Much like the recent Hitman titles, or 2017’s Prey, my play time is focused on a dense, smaller environment that opens and evolves over time as I find out information.
The game is wonderfully tactile. I stop to play with blinds. I can pull the cord to open or shut the entire set of blinds, or I can manipulate them one by one. A door open requires multiple inputs to take the handle, pull the door open, and close it again. These little prompts affect my success; an unusually open door can draw suspicion, for instance.
There are multiple ways to get around. A locked door might need a keycard, or I can shimmy through a vent. Harvey, the silent player character, meticulously tracks leads and clues, allowing me to build a case. Then, when the time for my appointment comes, my success influences how my interviews go. If I’m ill-prepared, I flounder, letting my target lead the conversation. If I’ve done my job right, I get to pull out evidence and learn the real facts.
It’s deeply satisfying to do the detective elements of the game. Even the little prompts, like the task of opening creaky doors or manually entering a code on a keypad, feels great. That potential doesn’t follow through to the interviews. When I complete leads, I have more conversation options, which are helpfully noted and bolded so I know they’re the right choice. The investigation portion of the game gives so many great choices, but the interviews feel much more like a set of binary choices.
Luckily, the investigation portion is the meat and potatoes of the game, and a lot of work went into building the world for me to explore. It’s not always joyous — at one point, I encounter a wall of unique memorial cards, each with messages written in pen. The messages are so sincere, and the writing on the cards looks so real, and there are so many cards, that I surprise myself and choke up with tears. The world being real cuts both ways; the fun is shot with undercurrents of stress and sadness.
That’s not to say the game is unduly difficult. When I am caught by a guard, he just puts me in time-out, not a full failure state. The real-time pace is stressful, but I can pause at any time and walk away to get a drink without the clock advancing. Subtitles alert me with text when entering an off-limits area or to incoming figures, and I can get caught multiple times in a chapter before the game ends in failure. All of my information can be accessed in an easily navigable folder, from clues to overheard snippets of info to my main priorities. The game is tense, but never feels unfair.
Detective games often struggle with pacing and tone, and have to find their own solutions to them. L.A. Noire, for instance, punctuates the humdrum of detective work with firefights and car chases. Its detective leans heavily on both sound and fury, hollering at anyone from victimized teenage girls to hardened murderers. Capcom’s Ace Attorney games are threaded through with silliness that can be downright manic, leaving players with plenty of times to enjoy jokes before the emotional parts of a trial.
The Occupation, on the other hand, is completely content to let me marinate in uncomfortable situations. Sometimes, that means I take the role of a woman who monologues about her husband’s death for a brief, but heavy, sequence. Other times, I listen to historical stations set up around the building that discuss the glory of imperialism. There’s very little in the way of comic relief, unless you count character quirks like a guard who moonlights as an aspiring (but bad) actor.
The game is comfortable with stretches of low activity and silence, which heightens the moments of hiding and evasion. When I’m caught, I’m forced into a fremdschamen-heavy encounter where multiple people chide me for my rude behavior. I know I’m trying to do a very vital job, but the people in this world are, well, people, and all they want is for me to stop going into the vents and reading their mail. They have reasonable concerns, and that makes me feel worse than a game over screen ever could.
There are a few bugs and glitches that make things a little less immersive — a floating phone; a moment where I step out of a staff-only area and a guard sees me but the alert doesn’t prompt because he saw me after I left the area — but these are small concerns that mostly stand out because the rest of the game’s AI is otherwise good.
It’s impressive to see a concept that could have easily fallen flat be pulled off so well. Playing The Occupation is like puzzling over a dense little knot of tangled priorities, information, and pressures. It’s tense to play through, and even more fun to go back and try the process again, armed with information from previous runs. The game can be bleak, and the stakes are high, but there’s still a pleasure to be had at figuring out a system and carefully dismantling it via subterfuge, cleverness, and patience.
The Occupation will be released March 5 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed on Windows PC using a final “retail” download code provided by White Paper Games. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.