The Occupation Interview — To Be or Not to Be, Edward Snowden
We chat with White Paper Games Co-Founder Pete Bottomley about all things The Occupation, including its dynamic AI, the possibility of a console release, and why the UK developer decided to make a game about whistleblowing, and much more.
2014’s Ether One was the debut project for UK developer White Paper Games, who at the time was only a compact team of six. And it was a succesful debut project, one that put the studio on the map and allowed it to follow-up with another new IP: The Occupation. And if Ether One was White Paper Games getting its foot through the industry’s door, The Occupation looks like the game that will bust that door down and demand your attention.
From the moment of its announcement, The Occupation is personally a game that garnered my attention with an interesting premise, unique sounding gameplay mechanics, and an exploration of narrative topics and themes often not explored. Which is simply to say, in a less drawn-out manner, that it looks and sounds good.
The Occupation is a politically driven, first-person narrative game where you play as a whistleblowing journalist in the 1980s. A terrorist attack has left 23 dead, and has served as a catalyst for the creation of The Union Act, a controversial piece of legislation that threats the civil liberties of the British population.
Over the course of the next hours, where events happen in real-time, you will need to gather information and evidence to make a decision that will determine the outcome of the act, as well as the future of the country. You’re the report, and the narrative is in your control.
Recently, I sat down with White Paper Games Co-Founder Pete Bottomley, to dive deeper into The Occupation.
Editor’s note: the following interview was conducted via email.
Tyler: What’s the story behind this game? Of all the games you could theoretically make — why are you making The Occupation?
Pete Bottomley: I guess you have to start somewhere, and it develops in an organic way from there. The game we started concepting and developing isn’t the game we have today, and it will most likely not be the game we ship with. Everything goes through iteration and although the core direction has stayed consistent; things change and adjust depending on what’s working and what isn’t. You scrap the elements that aren’t and focus in on the elements that are.
Each person of the team coming off Ether One had things they wanted to explore and learn. For me, it was the idea of emergent and system driven gameplay, similar to what you would find in games like Dishonored or Thief, but without weapons and upgrade systems. So it’s a very organic process, and I think you can make any game you want to as a team, and if everyone is super passionate about what they’re working on, the results, in theory, will appeal to enough people to allow you to make the next game.
T: The first sentence of the game’s description mentions The Occupation is politically driven. You’ve been in full-scale production for roughly 20 months. Again, a lot — politically — has happened in 20 months. Has recent events changed the vision or anything about The Occupation, or has the new intense fervor around politics have you any more nervous or feeling under pressure in such a climate?
PB: Narratively, the game changes daily. It’s always going to be the same with anything we’re making. As I mentioned before, if a certain element of gameplay becomes more interesting and we focus in on a particular mechanic or system, then the narrative has to envelop it.
On the day we announced the game, shortly after our trailer and press release went up, the awful incidents on London Bridge happened. How can we even begin to promote a game when everyone is hurting? It just didn’t feel right. Shortly after, in our home city of Manchester, we had another terrible attack. So these subject topics, although personal before, have impacted us on much deeper levels than they did 20 months ago. We’re always reflecting and deciding on the experience we want to deliver to players. I don’t think we’re locked in on exactly what that is yet, it gets tighter and tighter each day, but hopefully next year we can deliver something that everyone can connect and relate to.
T: I know it has been said in the past that the team isn’t trying to make any political statement with The Occupation. But the game’s Union Act is clearly a reflection of the Patriot Act in the United States. What’s interesting here is I’m guessing if the player disagrees with such an act, you’re going to want to role-play Edward Snowden. But if you don’t disagree with the act — well it seems like there wouldn’t be much game to play. I’m guessing things won’t be this black and white though?
PB: Yeah exactly. There are two central roles – Scarlet and Bowman, who you saw in the announcement trailer. The player is more of a bystander. They’re not the hero in all of this, but they’re the ones deciding which direction things should take. We’re never saying in the game “this is the right thing to do” or “this is the wrong thing.” We’re giving the player the tools and presenting them with information to make their own choice. Something we sometimes don’t get in everyday life.
The openness and real-time aspect of the game’s design plays a lot into this. You may find some information that sways you one way that makes you think about a certain event very literally — someone else could find some conflicting evidence against that. Our aim is to create a believable and consistent world, much like real life, and allow players to approach and explore in the way they want to. The game’s core focus is definitely to make everything grey rather than black and white.
T: Politically driven movies and television shows are far more common than politically driven video games. Why do you think that is?
PB: I think the most likely reason for this is that the respective mediums have had a lot more time to develop and break off into different areas. The invention of services such as Netflix and Amazon Video have produced some incredible shows and films that I would have never otherwise checked out. That being said, we find more and more games exploring the topics we are touching on in our industry. I’m not sure whether it’s because we’re in this space that we’re noticing them more, but there’s a lot of interesting titles out there. I think more and more larger budget games are moving into the space, with the more recent Hellblade by Ninja Theory doing so well, I think it’s going to open the gate for more higher-tier investments and budgets.
T: The game’s four hour narrative mechanic and dynamic AI sound quite interesting. Could you perhaps elaborate more on these, and how this translates from concept to moment-to-moment gameplay?
PB: So as I mentioned, the idea of a persistent world reacting in real-time is what drives the game forward. If you imagine a general working day, everyone has their own routine. So the workers in our game all have their own jobs and tasks they need to complete. However, also on a daily basis, certain issues crop up which may distract you from your key focus for a while. This, layered on top of some internally simulated systems, such as stress, tiredness, and thirst creates believable, predictable behavior with a random element.
For example. I know I need to go to this place at a certain time, but if I need the toilet first, I may be a little late. It helps to telegraph what the NPC’s desires are, which allows the player to plan whilst creating a believable reason for them doing so. Planning out your objectives and then executing on your plan with a consistent world and ruleset is the most important aspect to our game, along with any other games which approach this type of system driven, emergent gameplay. Hopefully we’re providing our own unique take on it which isn’t sci-fi and fantastical, but more real-world and mundane. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that in a game before, and from the reception we’ve had so far, people seem to enjoy the approach.
T: From watching the debut trailer I got the feeling that your character’s watch and briefcase in the game play into some type of feature or gameplay mechanic. Is this true?
PB: Yes, exactly. On a core level, the watch allows you to tell the time, so that you’re able to plan around certain events happening at a specific time you’re interested in. It’s also useful for setting alarms. For example, we have time-delayed safes in the game which take a certain amount of minutes to open. You could set your alarm to go off when the safe is due to unlock and use the remaining time to explore and find more information.
The briefcase is our version of an inventory. You carry your briefcase whenever you go and can place it on any flat surfaces such as the floor or desks. You can take with you any items or documents that you find important. The foundation of this idea came from our previous game, Ether One, in which we had a physical space called ‘The Case’, almost like a HUB, which the player could travel to at any time to reflect on their current gameplay process. So the natural evolution of The Case from Ether One is a briefcase in The Occupation!
T: Are there any specific reasons why you chose 1980’s Northwest England? I imagine making a game where you need to sleuth around without having to account for modern surveillance technology is perhaps a bit less restricting. Did this factor in at all?
PB: I think world and universe is one of the most important aspects of development to our team and the games we create. I love the idea of a consistent universe so Pinwheel, were Ether One is set, exists at the same time as the city of Turing from The Occupation. We have lore references based on our previous game and everything is integrated. It doesn’t require you to have played our previous game, but it all helps as a world building mechanism for those people that like to look into those types of details. As for the north-west, we’re based in Manchester so we can’t help but be influenced by the architecture, pop-culture and history around us. We love the city and wanted to recreate our own fictionalized version of it.
T: It is said that in the game events happen in real-time and you make decisions based on the evidence you have gathered. Further, as the player you decide the narrative. How branching is the game’s story, and how dynamic are these decision choices? Are we talking about varied, multiple endings? “Good” or “bad” endings?
PB: On a high level, yeah, depending on the player’s outcomes, they’ll get a certain ending. That’s not to say the player won’t expect the outcome; it will reflect the way they’ve played and it’s designed to be the ending the player orchestrated through their actions. Throughout the game though, we do have lots of narrative changes through the interaction with the AI which changes the way the player has to play.
For example, if the player is doing things they’re not supposed to do for their job, AI will become more suspicious, and in turn, change what they’re doing in the environment, i.e, they may start locking doors behind them and being a little more vigilant. Hopefully all these systems reflect how the player wants to play and we have the stealthy secretive gameplay on one hand, but if you’re the type of person that wants to do the job you’ve been assigned and approach it more in an environmental explorative way without getting in trouble, that’s also a totally valid option.
T: Whistleblowing itself is kind of a controversial thing itself — not to mention it can be both legally and ethically complicated. Does The Occupation dip its toes into how it can be a not a black and white matter? Is the player ever confronted by a feeling that perhaps what they’re doing isn’t the right thing (no matter what they decide)?
PB: To be honest with you, it’s not something I’ve considered as it’s more the overtones of the game, much like The Union Act you mentioned before. They’re all narrative framings to set the world’s events up. The story is more focused on the people in this world and how it affects the individual that we’re trying to hone in on. I like the idea of always questioning the player’s motivations so it may be something we try to reflect upon the player for endings – we’ve just not had to cross that bridge in development yet!
T: What made you want to tell a story about whistleblowing?
PB: When we were concepting the game, the story of people wanting to voice wrongs that were happening and getting persecuted based on old laws felt wrong and unjust for us. With Ether One, we based the game around mental illness focusing on dementia with luis bodies, but with The Occupation we want to try and create more of an empowering feeling of your voice being heard if you speak up against certain wrongs. I think the topic could have been any number of things, but whistleblowing felt the most current and relevant to the experience we want to deliver.
T: Your last game Ether One initially released only on PC, but did eventually come to PS4. However, at the moment The Occupation has only been confirmed for PC. I know you have nothing concrete to announce at the moment, but for your fans on Xbox One and PS4, what should they honestly be expecting? A good chance the game will come to either console? How about the Switch, is there any interest in bringing the game to Nintendo’s new platform?
PB: There’s always an interest to bring our games to as many platforms as we can. Since we use Unreal Engine to develop on, they do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to platform support. There’s a lot of discussion to be had, most notably, what the platform can do for your studio.
As we’ve seen with the PC platform, even great games have the risk of going unnoticed in such a busy marketplace. When Sony said they wanted to help get Ether One onto the PS4, that created incredible exposure for our small studio and without it, I’m not entirely sure we’d still have a studio. So platforms can definitely have the power to help you succeed.
Right now, we’re in a situation where both Sony and Microsoft have shown interest in the game but we’re not in any concrete place to say “yes it’s coming to X platform,” but it’s definitely the plan to get it to as many players as we can. Switch is a massive unknown for us; we’ve not been able to get our hands on a development kit yet so I have no idea how games like The Occupation will run on it.
We’ve just been fortunate enough to hire a second programmer this week, for the past five years we’ve only had one programmer, so that should help us put more focus into supporting additional platforms. All I can say for now is that the team is excited to get it to as many people as possible, but it’s ultimately in the hands of the platform gatekeepers as to what direction we’re able to take with The Occupation.
T: I’ve seen a lot of conflicting release windows — from late 2017 to Q2 2018. That being said, what is the most specific release window you can provide?
PB: As with most creative endeavors, they end up taking longer than you would have thought. It’s the classic story of us thinking we knew the game we wanted to make, and then we saw a direction we wanted to take, which would take a little longer to develop.
We’re moving out of pre-Alpha and into Alpha, which means we’re focusing on being content complete for Christmas. It will then take a few months to get the game ready to ship. This is also dependent on what platforms we’re releasing on at launch and how much extra support we are to provide.
We have a release date set internally, which we know we can hit, but right now we don’t want to say as unforeseen things have a habit of cropping up which take you a little while to figure out. This becomes amplified when you’re in a small team, and you can’t just throw money at it or hire more people. We just have to do the best job we can as a team to make it as stable at launch as we can.
Personally, I had an incredibly hard time on Ether One’s release on PS4, as it went out to the world on PS+, which is more people than we ever imaged playing. It highlighted and put focus on a bunch of bugs which took us longer than we would have liked to fix. We want to make sure we’re confident we can deliver the quality of the game we know we can hit, and that just takes time to smooth off any of the rough edges, so that when people are able to play our game, it’s the exact experience we want to deliver. Since we’ve now been through that process, hopefully we know in advance a few of the hurdles we have to pass, but each time out there will be a new set of issues to overcome.
T: What type of audience is The Occupation for?
PB: Anyone that enjoys a strong narrative drive, emergent and systemic gameplay, which reacts around you and your decisions. People that enjoy a sense of exploration and piecing clues together to solve small mysteries. People that enjoy getting lost in worlds and reading into all the small details of the lives around you. And for people that want a shorter, more focused, personal experience, which may differ to what someone you know may have experienced.
The Occupation is poised to release sometime next year on PC. In case you missed it, be sure to check out our recent feature story involving White Paper Games and why it might not even exist right now if it wasn’t for Sony.