As the Editor at The Westport Independent, you have 12 weeks to decide whether you will support the radicalised government or join the rebels at the risk of your newspaper being closed or death threats in the mail. Where will your allegiance lie?
Set against the backdrop of a 1920s-esque America, The Westport Independent is a black and white simulation game that sets out to teach players about censorship within journalism in a society fuelled by propaganda.
Developed by Double Zero One Zero and published by Coffee Stain Studios (Goat Simulator, Sanctum), the game sets the scene in a fictional society, ruled by an iron fist and a wealthy, public-school-boy President. You are playing as the newspaper’s Editor and you get to decide whether or not to be a “loyalist” and support the government with its radical, right-wing policies, or you can join the rebellion but risk facing harsh consequences – not least the closure of the publication.
Each of your four journalists have certain traits and personalities, and though you never see any of them physically, they all have unique quirks to help you distinguish which article will go to whom. This can prove difficult as the writers can refuse articles according to their political alliance.
Depending on your editorial decisions, the government itself can become suspicious of you and your employees. Should you lean too far towards the rebellion, they can take certain writers into custody, make them disappear mysteriously, or even shut down the paper altogether. However, should the government completely trust you and your ideals, you run the risk of rebel threats or writers quitting on you.
The basis for the game is relatively simple: at the start of each week you are given a desk, a pile of articles to edit, occasional letters to read and a file of information on each of your employees. You are told, through the menus of an old-fashioned television announcement, that you have 12 weeks before the “Public Culture Bill” is brought in, which will dramatically change journalism as a whole. You must then select each article and edit the headline and paragraphs accordingly, to suit whichever political persuasion you fancy, before passing it on to a writer who will transcribe it.
As you progress, you will also get a choice of layout and where each article will be published in the paper, in addition to choosing who your target market is, what percentage you will distribute in each area of Westport (from the middle-class areas to the slums), what topics your newspaper will focus on (celebrity, societal, industrial and crime), as well as what the front cover will look like. Every element will of course affect how you are perceived, how many copies you’ll sell, and who your supporters will be.
The gameplay alone can be deceptively thin. At the start I assumed it would be clunky and repetitive, and after struggling to realise it’s a “drag and drop” game after violently clicking on every object and nothing happening, suddenly two hours had passed and I was completely absorbed into the game. It has an addictive quality a lot of games struggle to portray; it is repetitive without being boring. Each week new problems arrive that require clever thought and decision making skills on the player’s part, making the game an interesting variety of challenges.
It is not an intense game as such, and by that I mean that it’s not an intricate game there for the long-haul. The choppy nature of it suggests it is meant to be played over and over, so players can experience each side of the totalitarianism, and produce different outcomes each time.
The Westport Independent is also very stylish. The retro 8-bit aesthetic works wonderfully with this kind of game, and the monochrome effect only adds to the “look”. It is incredibly unique in that respect, and it is rare to find a game that has been intentionally stylised this way, while not losing any of the overall game’s value.
Moreover, the background music is a continuous flow of film noir hi-hats and smooth jazz. It is catchy enough that it doesn’t become annoying, but atmospheric enough to incur a certain sense of impending doom. Combined with the subtle aesthetics, the game is like a cinematic experience.
Overall, The Westport Independent looked to be a boring, simple, repetitive game, but after hardly any play time it becomes so much more. Reminiscent of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, it’s ideal for hardcore gamers, casual gamers, journalists, writers, editors, and anyone who wants to learn more about real-world political issues, censorship, and how the media influences us, while also discovering their own political persuasions.
A deceptively simple game, The Westport Independent is enjoyable, interesting, unique, and utterly immersive. I was thoroughly captivated playing it and I look forward to playing it again.