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Wot I Think: The Westport Independent

All aboard the censorship

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The Westport Independent [official site], once a gamejam experiment, is now a full game. As it succinctly describes itself, it’s “a game about censorship, corruption and newspapers”. As the editor of a paper in a fictional post-war country in the mid-1940s, you must work out how you will approach your job under an increasingly fascist government. Does it successfully speak its mind, or might it need some heavy editing? Here’s wot I think:

Well, it’s utterly impossible not to think of Papers, Please. I tried not to – it’s not made by the same people, it’s not fair to measure one game up against the other, but blimey, it’s impossible not to. Westport feels like it could be a spin-off, from the design, purpose, messages and implementation. It’s odd to impose such a shadow over yourself, but The Westport Independent sits directly beneath it, seemingly entirely on purpose.

This is about editing a newspaper in an increasingly fascist society, where The Loyalist Party Of Westport, apparently democratically elected, are soon to impose new rules over the news media called the Public Culture Bill. This insidious piece of legislation is a barely concealed introduction of state censorship, and as the editor of the paper, you must juggle editorial freedom with government regulation in deciding how you’ll frame your paper in the approach. This is done by assigning stories to a selection of journalists with particular allegiances and proclivities, but only after you’ve decided on what paragraphs to censor from the content, and which angle of headline you want to take. Will you attempt to tell the truth as best you can tell it, and risk your paper being shut down, or worse, you or your staff being imprisoned? Or will you toe the government line, and as such lose the respect and trust (and thus sales) of portions of your readership?

For instance, a headline could read:

“Government Burns Books In Liberty Square”

or

“Government Prevents The Spreading Of Rebel Propaganda”

Early in your progress through the twelve weeks until the bill is implemented, new elements are introduced, such as having to control your own advertising, or choosing which regions of the city on which to focus your paper. Do you want to appeal to the affluent few, or the poorer masses? Each of four districts has different tastes in #content, and dramatically different buying power. To whom will you aim your adverts? Will you attempt to sell into the 300,000 people living in the city’s terrible slums, or perhaps the 75,000 upper class citizens in the fancy homes? And what will your conscience be happy with? How you balance the tone of your advertising decides your targeted demographic, and in doing so will change the tagline of your paper to reflect that. You might publish an up-market Westport Independent boasting “New For Those With Finer Tastes” or perhaps switch things around so you’re “The Worker’s Magazine”. Or find many balances between.

Conscience immediately plays a part. Each turn you have only four slots in your paper for news stories, so you must decide which of the pile of potential articles you’re going to pick. This means not only can you affect your paper’s tone by how you approach a story (and indeed whether you’ll censor it (and further whether your staff will have the courage/lack of integrity to write it that way)) but also simply by the stories you pick. Will you grab at celebrity gossip, knowing it shifts copies, and in doing so ignore a story about your government’s illiberal acts? Aim for a compromising mix? Go balls out against the man, and see how long you last/how long your staff stick around?

Between each weekly turn, you’ll see a conversation between your staff about the state of the city, and then start again. And as you progress, it becomes apparent that the game is really all about balancing sliding meters. Each journalist, each demographic, sales, tone, all measured and worried about. Give a rebel-leaning hack too many stories that seem anti-government and you’ll get unsubtly threatening letters from your oppressive rulers, warning it won’t only be him who gets into trouble. Stories come in that look like smear pieces against particular businesses, that you could skew against that intent were you to sympathise.

And as I mentioned, it all feels strikingly like Papers, Please. This is immediately apparent from the presentation – simple (but pleasant) pixel graphics, your interaction in the form of moving pieces of paper around the screen, depositing them in appropriate places, and responding to changing tones and new information. Its attempt to influence your morality is there too, although far less successfully – but we’ll get to that.

In my first go, I went for what I hoped would be a subtle approach at sneaking through real news. Mixing celebrity gossip and relatively neutral reports of crimes with warnings of proscriptive acts. It was a compromise, certainly, but I was also taking risks. The stories aren’t all light-hearted satire, at all. You can choose how to spin a report on a midwife who performed an abortion on a 14 year old girl. Do you accuse her of “child murder” in the headline, or report that she was arrested for performing the act? Do you remove the paragraph about the girl’s age? Do you make it clear your paper is horrified that she was arrested? Stick it on the front page? Or do you ditch the story entirely?

But as I progressed, I found myself rebelling more. The tone of the stories arriving on my desk became more potentially insidious, and a desire for the truth to be more important than anything else rather got me in trouble, Julie in more trouble. And then Frank got arrested. Down to three journalists, and with Julie on the edge of being imprisoned, I compromised my values. I’d ignored the stories of the president’s birthday because it seemed wholly irrelevant to my paper. But this week I decided to throw a sop to the bastards, and hopefully give Julie a break. A big story about the president’s birthday celebrations, with all references to rebel protests removed, on the front page. I justified this to myself with the thought that regular readers would recognise the act for what it was, a sarcastic, overblown representation of the leader’s egotism. At least, that’s how I sold it to myself.

And so it goes. When given the choice between, “Riots In The Southern Docks” and “Rioters Assault Police Officers In The Southern Docks” I find that I cannot pick the latter. Because despite this being a game, I carry baggage into it. I’m horribly, miserably aware of how such stories are so frequently misrepresented by even the most respectable press, how the BBC routinely reports stories of large protests by only mentioning minority incidents of violence – I’ve witnessed it live where a BBC journalist in the midst of a protest reported live that the police were inciting the violence, and the studio anchor loudly corrected him and then reported the opposite in the next bulletin. I can’t be party to that crap. And yet… I still didn’t run that story about the further plans to use the press to impose propaganda on the people.

How you approach things defines whether it’s a madcap juggling act of trying to please everyone (and it’s not just the loyalists who will threaten you if they don’t like the tone), a defiant act of self-destruction, or a deferential descent into compliance. By the end of my first twelve weeks, despite having lost a staff member, I found myself pretty pleased with the results. I hadn’t managed to sway the upper classes, but it seems I had fuelled dissent elsewhere in a way that seemed satisfyingly rebellious. Almost too good of a result for a first go through the short game, that of course begs to be replayed now without personal principles driving decisions.

There do appear to be some issues. Frank, my arrested employee, somehow sent me a letter saying he’d be away for a week because he was helping out the rebels. Not quite sure how he’s managed that. Also, the conversations between staff after sending an issue can have no bearing on anything you’re doing, and so add very little flavour to the game. In one play through they had no relevance at all, in another they usefully fleshed out stories I’d published. Either way, they seem extraneous – so much so that halfway through the game they just stopped appearing. There’s also an odd thing where old stories you didn’t run weeks ago reappear in your inbox, with the same deleted paragraphs you may have previously considered, as if they’d somehow happened again. (Oh, and while the game’s tune is nice the first time you hear it, it repeats endlessly until I grew to be annoyed by it.)

However, my larger disappointment comes from a wish that it could have perhaps offered a little more nuance. There is no question that the loyalists and the government are utter bastards, while the rebels are those who attempt to stand up for freedom, sometimes in violent ways. You can question the rebels’ approach, but there’s no ambiguity of the big-bellied evil of the oppressors. If there could have been a greater attempt for these baddies to be convincing, it could have made things a good deal more interesting. Accepting censorship for the sake of your job/your employees safety is a very one-sided thought process. Doing it because you’re given space to suspect the government might possibly have a case would have been much more engaging, although admittedly a lot tougher to write.

Where Papers, Please managed to properly surprise me by having me make decisions I never thought I would, to compromise in ways that felt grotesque, Westport never got anywhere near to getting under my skin. This is far less sophisticated, both in terms of evolving involvement (it’s pretty much set in place after the first couple of turns), and in its attempts to manipulate you. As I say, it’s unambiguous in its representation of the various elements, making choices feel far more binary, far less conflicting.

But it’s not without its cleverness. The manipulation of a story to present a dramatically different perspective, and thus entirely change how it’s received by the public, may not be an original observation but it’s well delivered. And there’s no doubting that I was led to not run certain stories, both from principle, and from fear for staff. In that sense, the game worked, and that’s important.

For me, though, it was in repeated runs that it fell apart. Where Papers, Please kept surprising me with new twists, different directions and so on, Westport becomes pretty monotonous, and strangely less involved as you progress. It seems to go a bit bonkers on starting a new game in a new save slot, with a massive pile of mail relating to previous plays on your desk that have no bearing on anything, and make for a very confusing start. On a run where I ran the most ludicrously pro-government propaganda rag, I didn’t receive a single threatening letter from the rebels, and more concerningly, no praise from the authorities. My rebel-sympathising staff didn’t react, and by the last weeks there were no staff discussions, no letters arriving, no twists or turns at all. You’d think that going so ridiculously in that direction would elicit something. In another play, aiming to be as anti-government as I could, I discovered that on my paper’s being closed down the game crashes each time.

There are so many smart ideas in here, and the concept is neat, even if obviously derivative. But the execution doesn’t hold it together, with disappointing responses to extremes, and a strangely anticlimactic progression. I feel like if this were given another six months, the game could be as interesting to play as it is in ambition. But as it is, it’s not there.

The Westport Independent is out January 21st for Windows, MacOSX and Linux via Steam, GOG and Humble.

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Who am I?

John Walker

Prisoner

One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I tried to leave, but they won't let me. If anyone reads this, please send help.

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