The Occupation Review — Stop Breathing Down My Neck, Steve!
The Occupation has a politically charged story with a moral quandary you may not be able to answer due to the game's forced stealth.
Mystery is the heart of The Occupation, from both its larger goal of presenting a moral quandary for the player to navigate and discover, to the smaller portions of how to get past a locked door and discover more clues for various leads. Taking place in the late 1980s in a not too dissimilar version of Britain, The Occupation presents political topics such as illegal immigration, corporate meddling, private security and information being violated. However, these are set dressing for the real core of the story: weighing the imprisonment of an innocent man against the passing of a discriminatory act.
In this version of Britain, the government is about to pass the Union Act, a law that would allow the Bowman Company the ability to process and expunge “illegal immigrants” from the country under the assumption it will bring peace and economic stability to the county at the expense of families and non-citizens. Despite the contemporary topics, you are interacting with floppy discs, paper notes, cassette players, and computer servers the size of bookcases as you attempt to uncover whatever the truth is behind a bomb attack, the Union Act, and the many people involved.
The main through-line of the narrative is narrated by Scarlet as a reflection on the events you are playing through. Scarlet is a key figure in the company creating and implementing the Union Act. However, during the main sections of gameplay you control Harvey, a journalist who is given free roam in a large section of a building prior to an appointment in order to pursue leads, unlock doors, gather documents, print computer files, and receive pages alerting him to upcoming telephone calls. The finale of The Occupation is dependent on the player’s performance during these sections and is challenged by both a time limit of one hour and a roaming security guard who can never seem to be shaken no matter what complicated and obscured route you take in and out of the building’s thick walls.
The Occupation succeeds in having a world I wanted to explore every nook and cranny of. There’s a safe in an office I couldn’t find, though even if I did, I didn’t have the code to open it. There’s a room I couldn’t find the access code to though I knew the clue that would give me the answer. Unraveling these mysteries, both on a micro level with the question of, “How do I get into that room?” and the macro level of, “Did Alex set off the bomb?” and, “How can I stop the Union Act from going into effect?” are satisfying. Interacting with the world itself is satisfying from inserting tokens into audio stations in an art exhibit to dialing on a rotary phone. These are things that are easily recreated digitally and despite being polygons, still imbue my mind with a sense of the tangible. From the rusty coin dispensers of public parking to the metallic texture of payphone keypads. Something about them is inherently pleasing, even if it’s just a recreation of their visual and audio presence.
It is unfortunate that a security guard named Steve is chained to your neck by an invisible bond, always prescient to your location even if you took the elevator and slipped into an air duct that circled around to a completely different location. There Steve was, curious as to what drew him to this specific spot in front of the glass doorway of the room as I hide underneath a table counting down the seconds until he left or his boss, another security guard named Dan, called him to cover as he went to get a drink of water. Seconds that eat into my already limited time available to peruse through the location.
Games are of discovery. Of the way their systems and mechanics work, of their maps, of their AI, of your mobility and limitations. This means a first playthrough in The Occupation will likely end in failure as you wander blindly through rooms grasping at whatever you can grab in terms of clues to solve the lead on your dossier that begs you to stare at it with every little update. Getting caught by Steve means a time penalty, and even being seen (even when you are 100% convinced he could not have seen you) results in a short lecture you can’t escape should he happen to see you later. I wanted to explore the world and find everything I could, with a time limit already weighing me down. Having a hostile AI that hunted me not unlike the Xenomorph in Alien: Isolation was not a welcome addition to that burden. Your mobility isn’t exactly that great either, as you move pretty slow even when sprinting. Despite the stealth mechanics, this is still what is generally called a “walking simulator” though I detest the connotation that this descriptor brings.
Faces aren’t too expressive but the voice work carries the performance enough to make up for their stiffness. Some lines can be pretty cheesy, however, such as a piece of dialogue at the beginning that goes, “Michael!… is dead,” with the raised then subdued volume that just made me think about countless other dramas. The best sound work is the music, which had me frequently questioning whether or not the music being played was licensed tracks from the era or just really well-done sound-alikes that perfectly matched the 1980s sound (it’s the latter). You can collect the soundtrack in the form of cassette tapes and vinyl scattered throughout the maps which you can then browse and enjoy in a post-ending apartment. It really is crazy how much I would listen to the music and think, “This could really just be a track I never heard from a small band during that time.”
The final large section contains a fail-state that means you are unable to fulfill your goal and are dumped into one of the lesser endings. Thankfully, The Occupation itself is pretty short so a replay, armed now with the knowledge of where to go and of the general routes to get there, can be much easier. I finished replaying that first major section with fifteen minutes to spare and even then I hadn’t unlocked every single thing there was to unlock. Save files are only created at the end of each of the major sections so you can’t just quit in the middle of one. This works since each section is only an hour at most and staying with it throughout the run time means you’ll retain the necessary information to make efficient use of your time.
Something else that didn’t hurt my time with The Occupation but is worth mentioning are the technical glitches. I was at one time trapped between Steven and a wall he was leaning against, looking up through his character model to his empty insides. Another time I watched as a character on a computer had their chair swing at a 45-degree angle to be perpendicular to the ground as she continued to type away in a sitting position. Sometimes when turning, textures in the world to become transparent but only for the split second during my turn. The funniest was when security guard Steve’s upper body was transported to another room but was still attached to his lower body as if he was stretched out until his lower body snapped into its proper position below him. It, like the chair swinging and many other smaller glitches, never ruined the game but just gave me a good chuckle.
Without the security guard breathing down my neck, The Occupation would be a much better mystery game to solve as the time limit is already enough of a motivating factor to make you feel stressed when you realize you forgot a key item and have to circle back around for it. Having to also crouch underneath a table and wait for Steve to depart was an unnecessary addition, even if you get to listen to him spout off movie dialogue as he hopes to break into acting in the future. The core of the game, learning about the world and its characters, and discovering new information is as satisfying as it is in the many other entries of this genre.
The Occupation just seems to work against itself in a finale where unfamiliarity with the surroundings, the necessary puzzle solving, and a constant threat of danger leads you to an ending that feels like something you fell into instead of worked towards. Replaying saves some of the initial frustrations, as you are armed with the knowledge you didn’t have the first time, but still requires you to deal with a ball and chain in the form of stealth. Exploring areas you shouldn’t be in, unraveling the true motivations behind lies and put on faces, piecing together clues for the big break, and confronting interviewees with evidence of their lies can be a lot of fun, just be prepared to have a wannabe actor asking you to leave as he just happened to be passing by anytime you enter a staff only area.