If there’s one feeling that sums up the first 20 minutes of both Ether One and The Occupation, it’s nostalgia. A feeling that’s been immortalised by pop culture as sentimentally British – a warm and fuzzy post-war scene full of telegrams, teapots, steam trains and jam and bread. Provoking such a feeling through storytelling is phenomenal world-building.
It’s a concept that Pete Bottomley, Co-founder of White Paper Games, is well versed in. Clearly central to his team’s design ethos, it’s imbued within the levels of detail behind the worlds the company creates. “It’s the most important thing for me”, Bottomley explains. “When you’re making environments you’re thinking about all the people that worked and lived there. We try to create space and aesthetic first and foremost.”
The Manchester-based studio are undoubtedly on an upward trajectory, fuelled by the success of 2013 release Ether One. The game received positive reviews praising the moving plot and wonderfully realised locations. Though deserted, the seaside town of Pinwheel was full of thoughtful and subtle storytelling, with echoes of a once-bustling mining community following the player’s dreamlike journey through the story.
In contrast, Ether‘s host of puzzles were, while thematic and enthralling, unnecessarily fiendish. Bottomley freely admits this and is eager to show the team has learned from their past work. “You would never make the same game that you made five years ago. People will see the natural progression we’ve taken as a studio, taking the things we did well in Ether One: narrative, world-building and the delivery of the story, and adding another level of nonlinearity.”
It’s this departure from a linear structure that is most interesting about The Occupation, described as a “first-person narrative-driven immersive sim game”. Set within a fictitious 1980s England in a state of flux, White Paper’s nine-strong development team has created key locations within the city of Turing (The Occupation’s Manchester). “Previously, a big explosion has killed a lot of people and it’s caused an impetus for a big act to be passed in the country, clamping down on immigration and taking a lot of civil liberties away”, Bottomley says. “You’re thrown into this environment where it shows how it’s affecting people on a day to day basis.”
This extends far beyond scripted events and cutscenes. Characters may become stressed, altering their route through the day to have a cigarette or drink some coffee, further removing them from a predictable, linear path.
Throughout the game, players will explore locations based upon Manchester Library’s architecture. “Think big ornate structures but also some secondary architecture built on top of it”. Much like the library this is a big, circular environment for the player to explore of their own free will.
That’s not all though, as Bottomley explains the game’s time mechanic: “The game runs in a realtime environment. One minute in the game world is one minute in our world as well. You only have a certain amount of time going through as a journalist in this big facility to figure out what exactly has happened here.”
Such time constraints encourage multiple playthroughs of a game to find previously missed content, something the team at White Paper want to make as rewarding as possible.
Players can freely explore the complex, with parts of the game’s progression completely interchangeable. Bottomley compares this feature to recent triple-A title Prey, and again pays tribute to its French developers Arkane Studios by referring to their 2012 smash hit Dishonored.
“We love those games like Dishonored, where you can have 20 different playthroughs and find something different on each one.” he says. “We like the idea of adding lots of content to the world and you only actually seeing a small percentage. We have a lot of really nice moments between characters that some players may never see!”
Though sculpting these encounters for a potentially small audience might seem like a thankless task, Bottomley and Animator Robert Beard don’t see it that way. “There’s a lot of extra work that we’re putting in but I think that helps to create those special moments when you’re talking to someone about a game that you’ve played, and you’re talking about a favourite moment you’ve had and they’re just like ‘What?! I never even saw that!’”
From a brief demo and a lot of first-hand developer passion, the signs are extremely promising that The Occupation will deliver in a way that is sure to delight fans of Ether One. It’s heartening to see the studio fully embrace their city and signature style, and with such a resounding commitment to storytelling in the future, White Paper Games’ own story has only just begun.