I’m exploring the incident site. Here, my husband was taken from me just days ago. All that remains of the building is a shell, the blast having ripped apart walls and floors like a vulture engulfing carrion and leaving nothing but bones. Dust suffocates the atmosphere as I make my way downstairs through the detritus. It’s not safe for me to be here. But with my heart heavy from regrets and what-ifs about the loss of my husband’s life, I find it difficult to care for my own.
Then I find it. Locked within a pneumatic tube, the data disk Michael spent his last moments frantically trying to access. The disk that could have stopped the tragedy. I try to pick it up, but the door is stuck. So after restarting the fuse board, I post the disk over to a different machine. But as I reach to pick it up, it gets stuck again. I mean, really stuck. I’m frantically mashing the buttons on my controller but I’m unable to pick the disk up or stop examining it. Sighing, I restart the level from the beginning, again.
Is this what killed my husband? A game-breaking bug?
Unfortunately, this was typical of my experience with The Occupation, a fascinating investigative thriller with an original mechanic: you’re a journalist for which time passes in real time as you scramble to gather evidence and solve mysteries. Despite already being delayed twice – first from October 2018 to February 2019, then to March – it’s still fundamentally broken.
Yes, there’s the minor stuff. AI has the tendency to be a little erratic. Sometimes the game gets confused and mislabels objects. And some objects float in the air, like coffee cups and sink taps. Once I saw an office chair hilariously fly around the room when an NPC stood up from it. Though immersion-threatening, this kinda nonsense is forgivable. But some issues are critical, and this is where The Occupation’s unique selling point, its real-time format, becomes its undoing.
You see, aside from a few short filler sections, The Occupation is structured into four hour-long stints within which you explore a level and gather as much evidence as you can. The game saves at the beginning and then not again until you complete that hour-long section. See where this is going? A minor issue can be inconvenient and waste part of your precious allotted hour, but a major one can have disastrous consequences.
Once I got stuck on top of a bookshelf when sneaking into a room, which took a substantial amount of button and stick mashing until I managed to work myself free. Soon afterwards, I snuck into another room through a vent but inexplicably couldn’t leave again through it. The door was locked. I was trapped.
I had a particularly bad time in the second of the four scenarios. Fifty minutes in, I crawled through a vent (those bloody vents, again), and suddenly clipped outside onto the roof. After stumbling around trying to find my way back in, I fell through a hole into a bottomless void. Restart. Fifty-five minutes into my second attempt, I somehow triggered an event that teleported me into a different room, glued to a chair, unable to do anything. Restart, again.
What’s so disappointing about all of this is that The Occupation is a stunningly designed game. It looks absolutely gorgeous, from the intricately architectured and furnished buildings to the picturesque outdoor environments of late-eighties Britain. The attention to detail is exquisite, bewildering even. Take the CRT screens of the gloriously dated computer terminals. Each renders a basic operating system UI which you can operate. But further still, you can physically put floppy disks in the drive, and even open a flap on the monitor to adjust the screen brightness knob. I practically squealed with delight at the record players, on which you can move the needle, push all the buttons and turn the dials.
The systems of the game are equally complex. To retrieve information from a computer terminal, a common task, you’ll need to turn it on, work out the password, navigate its file structure, put a floppy disk in the drive, copy the file over, carry the floppy disk to the print room, print it out then carry the sheet to a fax machine and fax it to your colleague. Make the blunder of walking through a data-wipe door and you’ll need to take the corrupted floppy to a data recovery station and restore it.
This demanding task is further complicated by the fact that many doors are locked with keycards and passcodes which you’ll need to locate elsewhere in the building. Each level has multiple floors with labyrinthine networks of (deadly) vents, scaffolding and structural exploits providing numerous access points – getting lost is a very real liability. Not to mention the patrolling security and janitorial staff, which chuck you out and deliver a stern, time-wasting talking-to when apprehended.
Needless to say, an hour rarely feels enough. You’ll frantically check your watch and investigation notes countless times as you work to acquire information. It’s convoluted and stressful but utterly engrossing. Every level is a tangled web of puzzles which test your resolve and feel so satisfying to solve. Fail to uncover much during your investigations, however, and The Occupation continues, relegating you to a more passive role in the story and likely concluding with one of its less favourable endings.
The Occupation is one of the most elaborately designed games I’ve played in years, delivering heaps of atmosphere and enthralling puzzle-solving and exploration. The ambition here is palpable. Unfortunately, there are just too many moving parts at work, and they seemingly got the better of the small but clearly passionate team at White Paper Games. In time, I’d like to believe, The Occupation will be amazing. But I can’t, in good faith, recommend it in its current state.
[Reviewed on PC]
James loves a deep action-adventure game, RPG or Metroidvania. He can often be found in The Indie Game Website’s review section casting his critical eye over the latest indie games.