The video game industry has seen a peculiar trend emerge in recent years, as more developers attempt to characterise real world issues in their work. Between the constant barrage of sports games, Clash clones on iOS, and shooters, we’re starting to see a growing stable of titles centred around heavy themes like overcrowding in prisons, immigration, the human cost of war, and now, censorship.
Despite sporting such an outlandish concept, those familiar with Lucas Pope’s “Papers, Please” should feel right at home when playing The Westport Independent. Although both games task players with completely different objectives, the layout – whether on PC, mobile, or tablet – will be mostly familiar.
Before we get into the nitty gritty, it’s worth taking a small step back in order to gain an overview of what this game actually entails. The Westport Independent, if you haven’t guessed already, is a newspaper published in a semi-fictional city riddled with crime, economic worry, and political factionalism. Of course, as in the real world, these depressing stories are punctuated by tidbits of celebrity gossip and other drivel many would say is not of public interest.
As the editor of one of Westport’s few remaining news publications, it is up to you to decide which stories fill the pages of your daily rag before it gets sent off to the printers. There is a slight twist, however, and one that arguably mirrors the journalistic practices of papers in other parts of the world today. You see, the government plans to pass a bill in twelve weeks, to effectively gain control over the media and the content it broadcasts to the public. It’s a dystopian paradigm and one that helps set a fittingly worried mood among the people of Westport.
Although this looks like an end to political pluralism and freedom of speech, as editor you have an important role to play in shaping the views of the public. This is done by selecting which stories are printed and how or if certain parts are edited by your team of four journalists. With a healthy crop of news items turning up each week, you ultimately have the final say in tailoring the Independent’s contents to suit one of several agendas.
Of course, as with any game, there are rules in place. Although the censorship bill has yet to be passed, the state will look disapprovingly upon stories which cite their apparent corruption and impropriety. In response, they’ll send strongly-worded letters to your paper, encouraging you to desist unless you’re prepared to face to the consequences.
They’re a force to be reckoned with as I found out during my first playthrough. With each of your journalist’s harbouring their own political opinions, I often allowed one of my workers to expose the government’s wrongdoings freely. Needless to say it wasn’t long before he strangely disappeared, prompting me to think twice about my editorial balance.
Apart from deciding whether or not to challenge the state, there are several other factors to consider. Although seemingly under the thumb of an oppressionist regime, Westport has a strong rebel presence that can gain influence depending on the stories you publish. Then, as touched on before, there are the preferences of your writing team whose individual comfort needs to be monitored closely. Making up the final part of this spectrum is the audience, which the game divides between Westport’s four districts. Publishing what you observe as newsworthy is one thing, but appeasing each of these areas is arguably more important, with sales being a direct result of the Independent’s popularity.
Gameplay is both intuitive and simple, requiring no more than a few basic gestures with a bit of light reading. Each turn/week you’ll be presented with a small pool of news items to pore over, dragging each one from the file and onto your desk. Here you can skim through the text, choosing whether to censor material before passing it onto one of your writers. Once satisfied, the remaining articles will enter the discard pile as you decide the order in which your chosen stories appear. After selecting which districts to target with the Independent’s advertising, it’s finally sent off to the printers.
What follows is a breakdown of results, represented using three gages that monitor popularity, as well as public sentiment and the government’s suspicion of your editorial practices. These reports are also accompanied by dialogue between the paper’s journalists as they reflect on what’s happening around them.
Given how much liberty developer Double Zero One Zero affords players, the game’s story is largely customised by what you choose to pursue. Where some will encounter emerging plots that surround industrial strikes and underground gangs, others may opt to expand different storylines or cram The Westport Independent with celebrity fluff.
Even with twelve weeks of newspapers to fill, you can easily finish the game within an hour. As that final week draws to close, you are treated with a supposedly dynamic ending that reflects the numerous choices you made along the way. Naturally, as the credits began to roll, I couldn’t help but wonder about the other endings I could have encountered if I’d have played a little more boldly and in line with my own political beliefs.
It’s not a terribly expansive game, and The Westport Independent feels closer to an experiment or personality test rather than something you would go back and play again and again. Still, it’s unique and thought-provoking, showing how the pixelated pen can be mightier than the sword.
The Westport Independent is now available on iOS and Android, as well as PC through Steam, GOG, and The Humble Store.