If you don’t report on an event in The Westport Independent, it never happened. That’s the rule. You control a newspaper covering the four districts of Westport under the control of a dictatorship in 1949. Speak out against the loyalist government in print, and you risk being shut down. Twist and censor your stories to remove any sign of dissent towards the guys in charge, and you’ll drive support towards the rebels and maybe even alienate your team of writers. This adventure, which emerged from a game jam last year, is clearly influenced by Papers, Please in visual style and even tone, with a challenging take on media censorship.
This is a game about being an editor, which is novel to me in particular, because no other games are about that subject matter (probably because, in my experience, being editor is mostly about not especially fantastical things like eating vital organ-sized burritos and making sure PC Gamer doesn’t use too-many-hyphens-when-it-isn’t-necessary.) This is a marginally more politically charged editor role than mine, though, as The Westport Independent tackles complex subjects you might see in the regular news: tuition fee increases, unemployment, outsourcing, police violence, even the pointless behaviour of celebrities.
The version of events you choose to show to the people will influence the perception of the government by the population, or conversely, whether the guys in charge find your behaviour too suspicious and subversive. An early story I encounter covers the closure of a magazine that dared speak against the loyalists, telling me that a similar fate awaits if I strongly call them out for wasting too much money on building a statue of the president, for example, and continuously spotlighting their most problematic moments.
Running the paper is represented by choosing four stories a day to run in any order you like. For each article, you craft the details of the story then pass it onto your writers. You can choose between two different headlines. One is usually a literal explanation of events, and the other is either sensational, a cover-up of the truth or a complete lie. You then pick which parts of the story you’d like your writers to focus on out of a list of bullet points, crossing the parts out you don’t want to run. Using the aforementioned president statue story as an example, you can either use it to call the government out for wasting money, or delete the information about how much it costs entirely, so it’s just a story about building a statue. That’s exactly what I did: I concealed the cost of this obvious vanity project so it basically became a piece of propaganda. You can censor, or crusade in the face of possible threats.
Once you select the parts of the story you want to focus on, you pick a writer for each story out of your staff of four. They all have different allegiances for and against the government as well as personal interests in certain subjects. You have the option to force your team to write some articles if they tell you they can’t bring themselves to write it, much in the same way PC Gamer’s Andy Kelly would react if I told him he had to write about FIFA forever instead of Metal Gear and Euro Truck Simulator 2.
Having chosen who will write what and the order in which the stories will run in that day’s edition, you then pick where the paper will be distributed in the four regions of Westport. Each of the North, South, East and West regions have specific interests in types of stories, as well as various socioeconomic statuses that you have to be mindful of when choosing what slice of your print run will be sold there.
The goal is ultimately to sell newspapers, but you have scope to do that however you want. I tried nuking the Northern, richer districts with celebrity news-focused stories, for example. While my sales went up in those regions, there aren’t as many customers there as in the poorer Eastern and Southern districts where they’re more interested in societal news. My sales suffered. The next time I published the paper, though, I sold more copies in the Northern districts because I’d expanded my readership there. There’s a whole host of different values you affect through your choices. It’s far from binary, though aside from the stats measuring the suspicion of the government and support for the rebels, it’s hard to work out at this point exactly what the endgame is of pandering to either side.
A series of smaller stories play out depending on what you publish, as well. The game’s celebrity news is focused around the long-suffering fictional actor Harold Finn, who I decided to criticise multiple times in the paper, including running one sensational story about him gaining weight that had no editorial value whatsoever. Running an initial piece about one subject can trigger a whole running narrative over the next few days. You make the news in The Westport Independent, or you choose not to. That’s the point.
The main thing I wonder is how the promised dynamic endings will reflect my approach as the editor, and how accurately this can be measured in a game with so many different stats operating in the background. I found this first snapshot of The Westport Independent to be really engaging and mostly well-written, though, and I applaud developer Double Zero One Zero’s attempt to tackle real-world ideas that games never normally touch in a way that’s still breezy and entertaining to play.