Three years on from the release of Ether One, White Paper Games is currently working on their sophomore effort, which takes the studio in a bold new direction and introduces some ambitious tech.
The Occupation will put players in the role of reporter following a massive terrorist attack in North-West England. Following the attack the government has announced plans to create The Union Act, which will potentially affect many of the civil liberties British citizens possess. It’s up to the player to decide the outcome of this act.
The world White Paper is building is completely dynamic and will continue forward without any interaction from the player. As you’ll see in our interview, The Occupation is more than just a simple narrative adventure.
GAMEUMENTARY: Let’s start with what was going on at White Paper Games following the release of Ether One: Critical reception of the game was pretty good, and people seemed to like that you took a mature route with the story, tackling some pretty heavy themes. What was the feeling around the office like post-release of Ether One?
Pete Bottomley: I think we were all super happy with the reception. You never quite know how people will receive a game like Ether, and it was great to have so many conversations about it with people. We went through a lot of massive challenges trying to get Ether One out, so we weren’t only trying to create a game, but also set up a studio and figure out the business side of startups.
Thankfully, it allowed us to make another game!
GAMEUMENTARY: At the time did you know you wanted to be a studio that focused on narrative subjects that are a bit more…controversial?
Bottomley: For sure the narrative focus, but not necessarily controversial. It’s the type of game we really enjoy playing. I’m less interested in mechanic-focused, pick-up and play games, and mostly enjoy something I can get invested into with the narrative. I still think we have a lot of learning to do on that front, but it’s a good challenge.
GAMEUMENTARY: Did a lot of people just run through the story then, or did they take advantage of the freedom you gave them and experience the whole game?
Bottomley: I think there was definitely a mixture of play styles, which was nice to see. Some people just wanting a core narrative experience could take everything in in the world. A lot of the time, though, we found that it was a mixture of both. There’s 20 puzzles in the game and, more often than not, people would solve six to ten puzzles and get to the ending. It was more with the completionist type of player (which you’d obviously expect) who wanted the trophies, who solved all the puzzles.
GAMEUMENTARY: When did you guys decide The Occupation was going to be your next project?
Bottomley: It was around Christmas 2014. We were deep into the move from UDK to UE4 (the game engine we use), which we had to transition Ether onto PS4. It was basically rebuilding the entire game from the ground up. We approached it with everyone on the team contributing what they wanted to try and achieve creatively, whether through game design, audio, characters, art – it was a culmination of all the disciplines that came up with the game’s design.
I’m personally not the type of designer than has a document of 100 ideas I’d like to create. I mostly focus my energy into one project and try to put everything into that.
GAMEUMENTARY: Was The Occupation heavily inspired by current happenings in the world, or are you looking more towards history for inspiration?
Bottomley: It was a bit of both, to be honest. You can’t help but take inspiration in from around you. I remember the moment that became The Occupation’s core arc(although it’s changed a little as production has gone on): I was in the cinema watching The Hunger Games. I was currently playing GTA 5 (which I only played for 30 minutes or so) and Papers, Please.
I’ve been super interested in system-driven gameplay from games such as Bioshock and Dishonored and knew that’s the type of game design I personally wanted to tackle, so you never know where the influences come. As we broke into the design and figured out the story, things like Citizenfour with Edward Snowden were big inspirations. We didn’t actively search these things out; it’s just the environment we’re taking in around us.
GAMEUMENTARY: So what exactly is The Occupation? It’s a narrative driven experience no doubt, but your website talks about how events will happen in “real-time,” which is very intriguing since most detective games seem to happen after the fact.
Bottomley: Yeah, so the game is set on the day of a big act being passed in the country (think The Patriot Act in the US). This is something that will massively impact the country and it’s up to you to decide whether it’s the right or wrong thing. When you begin the game (after a brief tutorial of sorts) the clock is ticking towards the act. If you decide to sit down outside and watch the world go by, the game will continue to progress. Since you’re an investigative journalist, this is a reflection of you almost sitting on the bench and your inaction is your decision.
You could chose do just do your job and report on the events, or you can do the slightly more destructive approach to the gameplay to try and prevent this act from passing. Think of it as at its core being narrative exploration similar to what you’d find in Ether, but with a continuously simulating world where the people that inhabit it had jobs, motivations, and desires. If they get thirsty, they’ll go for a drink. If stressed, maybe they’ll grab a cigarette. We don’t actually know what they’ll be doing apart from their job, and everything else is simulating around the player.
GAMEUMENTARY: Interesting! So aside from the tutorial section, do you lead the player in any direction or is completely up to the player where they go to next?
Bottomley: It’s pretty much up to the player where they go. There are certain sections of the environment that are off limits to the player at the start of the game, but we then give the player the tools to unlock those areas. Essentially, we don’t know where the player will be at any given time and there will be multiple ways to solve each objective.
Think about the world as being a little like Dishonored or Thief, apart from there won’t be mission select screens. Instead, it’s one large environment that is continuously simulating.
If you decide to sit down outside and watch the world go by, the game will continue to progress.
GAMEUMENTARY: So, I’m assuming there’s going to be plenty of puzzles in The Occupation, but I’m also getting the vibe that you’ll be making sure players use their head a bit more in regards to the actual investigation.
Bottomley: The puzzles are more environmental than literal like Ether was. We have a bunch of systems interacting with each other, and it’s up to the player the approach they take. For example, you may need to get a file from a computer and print it. We have floppy discs which you can take files on, but some PC’s don’t have floppy disk drives.
If they do, maybe there’s no printer attached. Or maybe if there is a printer on the network, it’s in a room where you’re not supposed to go. We also have magnetic wipe gates in corridors that won’t let you take magnetic media out of the area so it will erase anything on a floppy disc if you take them through. You could also opt to send it via a pneumatic pipe to a different area or drop the floppy disc in the trash chute and go to retrieve it from the basement.
We create the world and all of the systems, and then it’s up to the player what they do and how they manipulate each system. The intended result is that we see some solutions to puzzles that we didn’t know existed. The world having a consistent rule-set is the most important thing to us as a team.
GAMEUMENTARY: From the trailer, it looked like there was a stealth aspect to the game as well; mechanics-wise I should say, a whistle-blower journalist should always be careful…
Bottemley: So, that’s the approach to the environment. I’m trying to create three core approaches to the gameplay: exploration, destruction, and stealth. Exploration is going through the world, finding all the notes and really digging into the environmental storytelling to try and achieve your goal.
Destructive would involve things like flipping fuse boxes off and shredding paper to see how the AI reacts. The more stealthy approach would be trying to go through undetected, and we have a bunch of interesting mechanics and systems that work well with that approach also.
Each should hopefully be rewarding. You can, of course, do mixtures of all, but there won’t be a ‘mission failed’ if you get caught or anything. We think we have an interesting solution to keep the tension, but we don’t want to spoil that just yet!
GAMEUMENTARY: I’m really interested by how the game is heavily focused on how your actions affect the world. A lot of games seem to promote that, but more often than not it ends up being a minimal effect.
Bottomley: Yep! I’m super aware of that also. I think we’re putting a lot of constraints on ourselves. We only have a small group of characters that we want to focus on, and they all have lives and rich backstories. How you interact with them will influence their actions. We also don’t have to worry about combat or upgrades or other complex systems such as those, so it allows us to focus our efforts into a very specific place. Hopefully, the rich interactions in the world and sense of place will support those actions.
GAMEUMENTARY: As far as the narrative goes, are you leaving it mostly up to player interpretation, or is there a clear beginning and end?
Bottomley: There’s definitely a clear arc in there, and it pertains to the conversation you see between the two people in the trailer. We’re hitting very specific, core narrative beats throughout the game. I also like having a more designed beginning, middle and end – something more tailored and controlled, which reflects the player’s experience.
GAMEUMENTARY: Will the world visually change based on the narrative or it more focused on the action/reactions of the characters inhabiting the world?
Bottomley: That’s definitely the intention. It won’t be massive global shifts, but your actions will have believable consequences. We’re very much grounding the experience, and I guess I can most relate it to a British gritty drama, but with lots of gameplay interaction and simulation.
GAMEUMENTARY: When The Occupation is finished, what do you hope players take away from it after playing?
Bottomley: We’re hoping a similar thing to what they did in Ether – a continued conversation about the subject topic and their play experience. The thing I love about games like Dishonored: when you’re talking about your playthrough and someone did something you had no idea you could do, or experienced a core piece of narrative that changed your entire perception of things.
Hopefully, The Occupation caters to lots of different world interactions and players will have different perspectives of characters in the game based on the choices they made.
GAMEUMENTARY: What has been the most challenging aspect of developing The Occupation thus far?
Bottomley: For sure the technology. We spent a lot time creating the gameplay systems we needed. Our benchmark for the AI has been Elizabeth from Bioshock: Infinite: having a character that’s not running and gunning, and is aware of the world and the actions they can take, along with being able to explore an entire environment and keep simulating when the player isn’t there, has been a massive undertaking.
It’s been our main focus, and there’s definitely still a long way to go, but we’re super happy with the progress and quality-bar we’ve been able to hit. Hopefully people see the hard work we’ve put into expanding our skill set since Ether.
GAMEUMENTARY: Following up on that: will there be a companion character alongside the main character or are you just referring to the characters in general in the game?
Bottomley: There won’t be a companion character as such. There is a key protagonist and you, as the player, aren’t the main person “saving the day.” I think that’s a really interesting dynamic when the player is there purely as a supporting role to the world. That being said, that doesn’t mean you can make big decisions that impact the gameplay, but instead that your actions will reflect someone else’s ending.
GAMEUMENTARY: You’ve got me really interested in seeing how this all comes together. Guessing sometime in 2018 is the expected release for The Occupation?
Bottomley: Yeah, definitely. I think we’ll be done more Q4 this year. But, we want to hit more platforms than just PC, and we really want time to test and tweak the systems in the game before release.