It’s rare, but sometimes I sit in front of this computer, and I experience the dreaded writer’s block. Usually reserved for the novelists and the screenwriters, the writer’s block a critic gets is a uniquely challenging obstacle. But regardless, I must try my very best to concisely explain The Occupation to you. How it’s a game that I love, and respect for its many quirks. How you the viewer may love its eccentricities. But how do I start talking on this game I adore, and the many things I admire about it? For you see, I don’t feel like I love it as much as I should.
It’s 1987. Following an attack on a government building that killed 23, the British Government is poised to set “The Union Act” into motion. A controversial bill, citizens see this as a threat to civil liberties. In the lead up to a series of interviews, Harvey Miller, an investigative journalist, is prompted by an anonymous source to investigate the government closer. Is the suspect pegged for the bombing the real culprit? Is there a cover-up of the true perpetrator? What, if anything, does this have to do with the Union Act? Sneak around and find the information to get to the bottom of this conspiracy.
This is a pretty great story that The Occupation has laid before us. A political thriller that really strikes the right tonal balance. On one hand, we feel as if we are at the helm of some great political machine, tearing through the city. We alone can stop it. We are responsible for what happens. Will we be complicit to whatever the Union Act will bring upon the people? Or do we expose the truth?
On the other hand, it never feels like it gets to far beyond the characters. Despite it being such a big political thriller, it still manages to feel like a very personal, claustrophobic drama. The truth is I didn’t uncover a lot of the leads and thus the story, but even the general premise shone through. Suffice to say I’ll be returning for another playthrough soon to uncover the rest this game has to offer.
Let’s start with the things I straight up like, no questions asked. This game is damn pretty. It’s got a lovely little style to itself. The architecture is amazing and has a shocking amount of work put into it given that it is an indie title. On a similar level, the audio is fantastic. As someone who is currently learning game sound design, they have nailed the auditory atmosphere. The music shrinks perfectly into the background of this wonderfully organic feeling game. Bonus points for whoever put all the important gameplay audio cues into the subtitles for our hearing impaired players.
The Occupation, simply put, does some really exciting things for gameplay. Let’s set the scene. You are Harvey Miller, a journalist. It is 3:00 pm. Your first interview commences at 4:00 pm. You’ve just been tipped off that there is more to this case than is being publicised. So for the next hour, you have to follow up any leads you can find. Did the suspected bomber have their keycard stolen? Is the company trying to push the Union Act exaggerating their figures? Both are important questions, and to find some answers you need to investigate. However, be forewarned, there is security on the prowl trying to keep you from the many restricted areas in the building.
It’s a super exciting, enthralling idea for a gameplay loop. The ability to unlock information and story is dependent on your abilities as an investigator. There is so much about this interaction of gameplay and plot that I adore so much. This is the kind of game I have dreamed of making. However, there’s a small, tragic wrinkle in this review. I don’t like it as much as I wanted to.
I love The Occupation and its very freeform kind of nature. My psyche was less enthusiastic. There’s a lot of freedom that this game provides, with the main restriction coming from time, and the need for stealth. What I felt it lacked at times was some structure. I often felt a bit lost on what to pursue. There are objectives but often times their full extent is a bit unclear. None of this makes the game “bad”, but suffice to say I didn’t gel with this as much as I’d like.
What also didn’t help was the glitches here and there. Now these bugs were neither awful nor very numerous. Unfortunately though, they were in areas that I was on edge about already. For example, consider the alert systems. When there is some threat going on, say you entering a restricted area, or being in close proximity, an audio cue is played (also is shown in subtitles, golf clap for that).
“I was at quite an informational disadvantage… I felt a bit lost in the sea of this game.”
The problem is that these at times didn’t properly reflect the scenario. Riding in an elevator going past a restricted floor could trigger an alert. Conversely, a few times I was caught by characters, despite the audio cues seemingly suggesting they had moved on. In one case, the audio cues were not even enough to stop the security being able to basically sneak up on me. So it felt that I was at quite an informational disadvantage. The issues with the game’s geometry that made the game’s traversal break from time to time? Well, that’s just straight up mechanical disadvantage.
It may be my anxieties bubbling to the surface, but I felt a bit lost in the sea of The Occupation. The information didn’t feel at a premium here. Tutorials failed to explain certain elements properly, leading to bad choices. Systems and strategies that are integral to the game were things I found out about halfway through. What it all culminates in, is you get caught a bunch. And if like me you find yourself in that situation, the game only becomes harder.
Generally, when you start playing a game you experiment and test things out to see what you can do. The Occupation can be a bad place to try that. Start out on the wrong foot and that can be the push that gets the snowball rolling. In a game that plays upon the anxiety of managing your fixed time period, it feels a bit abrasive to have the slow dawning realisation that you’ve messed up your campaign beyond repair. If you’re not a big stealth nut, I seriously suggest you play through part of the main story and then double back to make sure you’re properly on top of things.
The Bottom Line
I never take pride in talking negatively about a game I like. I feel nothing but envy for those who are more in tune with this kind of experience. As it stands, The Occupation is a game that I am certain is fantastic and worthy of any praise it receives. But being the person I am, I cannot lie and say it was smooth sailing for me. That is not entirely on me, the player, though.
The game, whilst very impressive, has some bugs. Not game-ruining, but it did exacerbate issues I had with the game as a whole. A very fantastic idea, with some execution issues. I hope that these issues are soon resolved, and those that choose to take the dive on The Occupation can enjoy it as much as I wish I could.