For the media, censorship has long been a contentious issue and not just top down censorship by a government that wants to curtail free speech. Market forces and currying favour can lead to a situation where companies take the path of self-censorship, where a media house chooses not to air or publish content that may be deemed offensive or obscene. If you've ever wanted to experience the constant struggle between publishing the truth and fighting censorship, you should play The Westport Independent.
The game is set in the fictional town of Westport in 1949, under the fascist rule of the Loyalist Party. The party passes a law that promotes censorship, which is to come into effect in 12 weeks. Your goal is to ensure that your publication doesn't get shut down in the meantime. Since you are in the shoes of the editor-in-chief of The Westport Independent, you'll be choosing the stories to be published, and making decisions on whether to take a pro-Loyalist or a pro-rebel stance in your coverage, while balancing that against the news your readers are interested in, to keep the circulation up.
After you clear the first stage in the game, your marketing agency will be shut down by the government so you will also have to do the marketing of the paper on your own. This involves choosing how much of your marketing budget you want to spend on the four districts of Westport. Choice of news reports combined with marketing spend will determine how much your paper sells in each district. If your paper is very popular in a district, you can influence public opinion.
The game has a very vintage feel to it, thanks to a sepia-ish theme to the art. This works well to create a post-World War II look. The Westport Independent is played through a series of simple menus with plenty of text to read, and not much else. This game will remind you of Papers, Please and that's not surprising considering its developer Lucas Pope gets a special thanks mention in the end credits. Pope also made a game called Republia Times, which is closer in theme to The Westport Independent.
Papers, Please links your pay and family's well-being to the number of applications you processed every day, and this gave the game a level of intensity that's lacking in The Westport Independent. Adding a bit of deadline pressure would definitely have helped The Westport Independent put you through the challenge editors face every day.
In an ideal world, you'd expect newspapers to print the truth and help shape public opinion. But Westport's world is far from ideal. Here, the government starts pressuring you to print pro-Loyalist articles and threatens to take your employees into custody if you don't toe the line. Printing the absolute truth about either the rebels or the Loyalist Party each has its consequences, presenting you with a weekly quandary.
If you want to survive in the game prepare yourself for a tough balancing act between running your business and publishing the truth. Every headline has one boring and one sensationalist variant, while you can easily use the articles to promote your agenda through censorship. Remove one key quote from an article and the story becomes lopsided.
As a journalist who's worked in a newspaper before, you'd think that the game would be pretty easy for me. I've worked under various editors, and all of them have always encouraged me to steer clear of publishing just one side of the story. Similarly with headlines, it's better to err on the side of being boring rather than picking a misleading headline. I used all of my experience as a journalist while playing The Westport Independent and the result was one of incredible frustration and disappointment.
In my quest to highlight the fictional Loyalist Party's anti-poor, anti-immigrant policies, and to expose the anti-labourer measures adopted by Westport's industries, I ended up selling very few copies of the paper in rich districts of the city. That's not to mention the constant in-game hounding by the government, taking my employees into custody, and one of my employees leaving because my stance was apparently too anti-Loyalist, leading to the eventual closure of the newspaper. I must add that I never really supported the rebels either (would you, if you knew that they bombed the president's rally, killing several innocent civilians?). But that didn't do me any favours either.
Your choices in The Westport Independent's world will sway people towards the government or the rebels, both of which have serious problems. While I tried my best to highlight the problems with both sides, I couldn't ensure that my newspaper survived for 12 weeks. In another playthrough I was a little more conservative and began printing the truth only towards the latter stages of the game. This led to rebellion in two districts and an ending that I can only describe as mildly frustrating.
If you've ever worked in a newsroom, you probably know that there's no such thing as unbiased reporting. Every story has an angle and our job as writers is to ensure that all parties in the story are well-represented. The reports in The Westport Independent are often in line with this basic tenet of journalism but it's on you to follow or ignore this rule when you're playing.
You can't give Westport's poor people a voice without incurring the wrath of its fascist government. You can't make the paper sell unless you adopt sensationalism. The rich districts will only buy your paper if you publish news about celebrities, while the poor also need to know about the industries they work for. This is the tightrope that you must walk in order to survive in the world of journalism, and a few embarrassing typos aside, The Westport Independent does a pretty good job of simulating it.
Version 1.0 of the game has a few annoying bugs on iOS. When my newspaper got shut down by the government, the only way to start a new game was to force close the app. Similarly, when I'd resume playing the game after checking a few messages or mails, quite a few elements in the game would turn black, making them unreadable. Barring a few such technical issues though, the game performs well, and is very accessible on the iPad's touchscreen.
Score (out of 10): 8