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The Occupation and the perils of politics in games

What happens when games take on the real world?

At 11.36am on March 22nd 2017, White Paper Games announced The Occupation with a trailer and a press release. Set in 1980s north-west England, it's a first-person narrative adventure that follows a journalist caught up in the aftermath of a terrorist attack that left 23 people dead.

At 2.40pm that same day, a man drove a car at high speed into pedestrians along the Westminster Bridge. After crashing the vehicle, he got out and fatally stabbed an unarmed police officer, just before he was shot with the bullets that would kill him. The driver injured more than 50 people and killed another four in 82 seconds. It was the talk of news outlets around the world within minutes.

Later that afternoon, Pete Bottomley, the lead designer on The Occupation, received a bunch of emails from journalists he had contacted about the game's announcement. It wasn't good news. They said it would be disrespectful of them to write about the game due to the terror attack in London that day. The events in the game's fiction ran too close to the real-life tragedy.

Bottomley understands and supports the decision made by those journalists. He had a similar inner conflict to deal with himself at the time: "what possible reason can you have to promote a video game you're working on when these awful things are happening right on your doorstep?" But while the marketing push that day had failed, the effort wasn't completely useless. It proved The Occupation can hit a nerve, that it's tied up enough in current affairs to be capable of mirroring reality. That was what it was supposed to do.

Getting uncomfortably close to a real-life experience is something White Paper Games previously aimed for with its debut game Ether One. The first-person puzzler, released in 2014, has you dive into the mind of a 69-year-old woman who has been diagnosed with dementia, in order to retrieve her lost memories. "We created Ether One because everyone on the team had in someway recently dealt with dementia in their families," says Bottomley, "whether it be through personal experience or had a family member working in medicine."

The aim of the development team was to help players empathise with victims of dementia and the families who also suffer as they watch their loved one's mind degenerate. Writing about Ether One for The New Yorker, Michael Thomsen noted how the game's depiction of dementia had him reflect on interactions with his grandmother during her final years battling Alzheimer's. "I was reminded of the helplessness I felt," Thomsen wrote. It would seem White Paper had achieved its goal.

After Ether One, the team at White Paper was looking for inspiration for its second game. As before, the team was interested in taking from its own life experiences, but instead of health issues, this time around it was political turmoil eating away at their thoughts. "I think Edward Snowden was the initial catalyst for The Occupation's creation, the UK government especially being highlighted in the revelations regarding national surveillance," Bottomley says.

Cover image for YouTube videoThe Occupation - Announce Trailer

It's not hard to spot that influence in The Occupation. For starters, your role as a journalist in the game gives you the chance to be a whistleblower. The information you can leak is related to The Union Act, a "controversial act which threatens the civil liberties of the British population." In this alternative 1980s, the UK government creates The Union Act in response to a deadly terrorist attack that occurs before the events in the game. It's up to you to find out what The Union Act is and to decide whether or not you want to support or dismantle it.

While The Union Act is fictional, it's based on the Patriot Act, which was signed into law by the US government following the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. The purpose of the Patriot Act was to remove legal barriers for US law enforcement agencies so they were better equipped to investigate and capture suspected terrorists. The flipside of this is that the Patriot Act also opened the door for the US government to spy on its citizens and treat immigrants with increasing suspicion and to detain them without trial.

"We're not trying to push an agenda with this game," says Bottomley. "We don't impose political beliefs and we definitely don't tell people what is right and wrong - the game is about the grey and moral lines." The team merely hopes players take all sides into account when weighing up their own political stance. "If we can allow you to empathise with someone that did a terrible act, but you understand why and their motives for doing so, then the game will have hit the beats we're aiming for," says Bottomley.

A less obvious but no less significant inspiration for The Occupation is the city of Manchester, where White Paper Games is based. "If you walk through the city and look up there are so many old intricately decorated buildings with grand architecture," says Bottomley. "It's such a shame that they've been covered up with new shop fronts but you can't help imagine what Manchester looked liked 30 or 40 years ago." Here, Bottomley refers to the economic and social forces that changed the prosperous face of Manchester across the 1970s and 1980s. The scars can still be seen in the paint jobs and boarded-up entrances along the city's high streets.

Such context is behind The Occupation's period setting, taking place a year after when Manchester saw unemployment hit its highest point. It won't be obvious to everyone, but for Bottomley and his team, the political unrest in Manchester at that time is felt throughout their design decisions. It's most obvious manifestation is the central, circular structure in which the entire game is set.

"Previously, it was a public place - a place with a swimming pool, library, and gallery," says Bottomley. "But events in the world caused the government to take control of these spaces and turn them into offices and data stores for what became known as The Union Act." It's not a coincidence that the building has undergone the same transformation as the grand architecture of Manchester's past. In both cases, public spaces have undergone change due to hardline government policies. In the game it's done to accelerate the fight against terrorism, while in Thatcher's case it was her encouragement of privatisation that saw historic buildings smothered with the tacky facades of commercial enterprise.

But the architecture of The Occupation does more than make a direct link to Manchester's past. The takeover of public space in the name of anti-terrorism also draws comparisons to the siege on our personal lives by our current government. The intention with The Occupation, then, is to demonstrate the parallels between two moments of political unrest: the 1980s and now. Bottomley and his team make efforts to show the player that the "rising frustration with the UK government" we're experiencing today isn't an isolated incident. The anger around Brexit and the recent recession isn't dissimilar to the anger that ravaged Manchester four decades ago. History repeats itself.

What White Paper hopes The Occupation can do is encourage us to look to the past to educate ourselves on the future. Bottomley believes that, at the very least, his game could help "keep relevance in a world that can very quickly forget tragic events that happen throughout the world." He mentions how terrible incidents are quickly forgotten by the news cycle and then public consciousness soon after. He juxtaposes this with our time spent with video games which has a way of sticking with us. He wants to utilise that effect of games to help improve the political discourse.

"If there's any small way that we can bring relevance and a sense of lasting to these terrible events, ask ourselves how they're happening to begin with, and what kind of anger would cause a person to do such a thing, it can help us fix the problem," Bottomley says. "I'm in no way implying that our game will change this on even a small scale, but I think it's a step in the right direction."

The idea, then, is for The Occupation to confront people with the big political issues that affect our lives today: surveillance, immigration, law and order, government corruption. But what's most important to White Paper is giving players the freedom to engage with these issues as they see fit. The most invested players can go the whole way to become the whistleblowing journalist that put their neck on the line for what they deem to be the greater good. But an equally valid way to play The Occupation is to do nothing at all.

This is possible due to the game's format. It takes place in real-time over the course of four hours, in and around that single government building. Due to the time restraint, it's possible to sit on a bench at the start of the game and to reach its end simply by remaining there for the entire duration. But given the context of the game this inaction isn't insignificant - it is an inherently political act. "Inaction is an action in itself, a theme that we think is quite applicable to a lot of contemporary issues," says Bottomley. The most pertinent real-life parallel to this inaction is the millions of people who recently chose not to vote. It was estimated that about 64 percent of 18-to-24 year olds didn't vote in the EU referendum last year. Likewise, around 95 million eligible people didn't vote in the 2016 US elections, making for a rise in non-voters since the 2012 elections.

While inaction is an extremity that hardly any players will commit to, it demonstrates the freedom of choice available in The Occupation, which is important in a game about the politics of action. White Paper has designed a game world that advances without the player's input. But at the same token, almost all player actions, even the seemingly insignificant ones, can have a big impact on the game's unfolding events. "Even what you may perceive as meaningless interactions will have some kind of benefit," says Bottomley. "You can find tokens which can buy cups of coffee, you can turn radios on and tune into a radio station which plays no matter the time of day." He's especially proud of the radio in the game, as it plays for the full four hours without looping, filled with cheesy 80s music, classical pieces, and political talk shows.

The purpose of those small details and interactions is to emphasise how politics affects even the most mundane aspects of our lives, and vice versa. It's also an integral part of immersive sims, like those made by Arkane (Dishonored), Looking Glass (Thief, System Shock), and Irrational (BioShock), which taught White Paper how to design a game that relies on systemic and emergent behaviour. Bottomley talks about the "possibility space and affordance in a world like Dunwall," where two players can have completely different experiences within the same confined areas. He discovered the trick is to arrange a series of interconnected systems - from alarms to patrolling guards - for the player to toy around within a certain space. The difference is The Occupation will test your morality as well as place you on the political spectrum.

"With The Occupation, we've designed systems that interact and speak to each other, so if you open a window, turn the thermostat down and walk away, the NPC in that room will get cold which will then have some consequence on their behaviour," says Bottomley. Indirectly affecting a character as per that example is something you might expect to do in a stealth game. And yes, The Occupation does allow for a stealth playthrough, but Bottomley is keen to avoid boxing it into that genre, as there's much more to it than that. In fact, he says that he's designed the world so that each situation the player gets into can be approached in at least three different ways: explorational, destructive, and stealth.

"Exploration is the style of play most similar to Ether One's. You're there as a journalist to do your job. You want to get your facts straight and go to print. You can take in the world, no one will bother you, and your outcome will reflect that," says Bottomley. As The Occupation isn't a violent game, at least not against people, the destructive approach is more about the player targeting the apparatus that empowers the government. It's possible to go around turning off fuse boxes, corrupting data, and shredding files to try to shut the government and its Union Act down.

The stealthy approach is something that requires further explanation too as Bottomley refers to it as "stealth in plain sight." By that he means there aren't any guards patrolling on a loop that can catch the player and force them to restart a mission. It defies typically rigid conventions of stealth games like that. Instead, the stealth approach in The Occupation reflects the fact that it's a game about committing to actions and living with their consequences. "If someone sees you do something you're not supposed to be doing, then they'll be suspicious and treat you differently for the rest of the game," explains Bottomley.

All the characters in the game have their own personalities, routines, and agendas. "Everyone in the world has jobs to do on the day that you're visiting this building. They have motivations and relationships, they even get water when thirsty, and go for a smoke when stressed. They all have simulating behaviours in the background," Bottomley says. The player can learn the paths these people walk purely to avoid them when sneaking around. But it's also possible to meet them and learn their views. This may have direct benefits in other situations, but it can also help to shape where a player stands on the game's complex web of political thought.

As you learn more, "maybe your opinions change, maybe they deepen, maybe you think your initial judgement was justified," says Bottomley. "Whichever the case, we want you to see the world through a different lens and experience a life in someone else's shoes." As with Ether One, the hope is that players can empathise with other people, and to understand how certain political ideas are formed by a person's circumstances, upbringing, and environment.

There's also a type of observation mechanic as part of the stealth approach that lets the player invade people's privacy to get the information they need. "It's an interesting reflection on the player when they have to use the methods to gain information that they're working to abolish," Bottomley adds. The hope is that the player feels conflicted when spying on people but that they're able to construct an argument in their head that justifies it in the long term.

It's White Paper's hope that The Occupation breeds this type of critical thinking simply by having players interact with its world and find where their political views fit into it, and what actions (or inactions) are required to commit to them. At its most basic, the game can be boiled down to a single question: "Is the cost of an extreme action outweighed by the cause of the greater good?" You may not find an answer to this question during your time with the game. But its creators hope you'll explore it in your four-hour stay and take it with you back into the real world.