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The Occupation and the perils of politics in games

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.