Wot I Think: The Westport Independent

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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36 Comments

  1. Doogie2K says:

    So in essence, it tries to be a fully-featured Republia Times, and the results are mixed.

    One of the things that I found amusing about Republia Times was the fact that, when the rebels won and the game “restarted,” it was literally the same game with a slightly different name, implicitly referencing that old Who line, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Seems like that sort of concept (similarly writ larger, and more nuanced) would’ve made things work loads better.

    • RobinOttens says:

      Yes! Ever since I saw the coverage of Westport Independent I’ve been trying to think what the name of Lucas Pope’s Papers Please ‘precursor’ was. Republia Times. Same concept, and it sounds like Republia is the better game too.

      I’m surprised it isn’t mentioned anywhere in the RPS coverage but I guess it’s been years since that game was released.

      • Llewyn says:

        To be fair, it’s been linked in several of the RPS articles on Westport.

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      Oakreef says:

      I took it renaming to “Democria Times” to also be a cute jab at the American political system.

  2. gbrading says:

    This is kind of in-line with what I was expecting. It seems that they’ve fleshed out Lucas Pope’s The Republia Times quite a bit, but the problems that Republia suffered are still here; the central game facet is just a bit weak. Still, kudos for it in trying to make the idea work as a fully fledged game.

  3. CutieKnucklePie says:

    Reminds me a bit of Floor 13, one of the best damn games ever made.

    • WhatAShamefulDisplay says:

      Would Sir perhaps like to begin his flying lessons today? :’)

      But YES, preach brother. Love Floor 13. I always thought it and Darklands were the two prime DOS candidates for a modern reboot with more features and handmade content, but alas instead we get…uh…I was going to be derogatory about modern AAA and indie games, but let’s just say “things I don’t want to play which requires very little actual game design”.

  4. StartRunning says:

    Great read.

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    zigguratvertigo says:

    Hmm. While this game is projected as illustration of the evils of communist extreme government that apparently was a thing a while ago, it isn’t really working as anything more than a small game. Whereas news media propping up blatantly corrupt anti-democratic society that we all live in every day? Possibly better. If you’re going to satirize, set your sights on something meaningful. Thanks.

  6. Geebs says:

    I wouldn’t worry too much about the copy; most people only buy the Independent for the pictures, anyway.

  7. Kollega says:

    So, the game takes on the awfully current and awfully controversial matter of media, information, and propaganda, and in the end it takes a somewhat one-sided stance, and this stance is something like “Down with tyranny!… if you please?” I can’t believe I’m saying this, but… it sounds awfully disappointing that way.

    I think it would actually work better if your newspaper was established already under the auspices of the Generic Totalitarian Government, your viewpoint and coworkers would be either loyalist, iddifferent, or agents planted by secret police, and the act of rebellion would be running sarcastic or ironic stories, slipping the meaning through the net of censorship and political demands, since blatant dissent would just get you detained and/or killed right away… or just publishing a shitty “no news in Truth and no truth in News” totalitarian libel sheet full of outrageous lies that cross the line twice, if you find that more funny. Would have made the game more complex and interesting, I think, and more like how journalists with dissenting opinions had/have to operate in real autocracies.

    (Disclaimer: that second paragraph? It’s inspired by what a user named froz said in a previous article about The Westport Independent, as well as my own limited experience with Soviet/post-Soviet tactics of propaganda and dissent. Make of that what you will.)

  8. Legion1183 says:

    Well, it’s utterly impossible not to think of Papers, Please.

    My first thought when I saw the featured image. Surprised its not by the same developers, it looks identical.

  9. celticdr says:

    This game reminds me of the PC classic Hidden Agenda, expect from a Newspaper Editors perspective, and with a more narrow scope.

    Hidden Agenda one game I would love to see remade – there’s nothing quite like that invisible tightrope you have to walk across as you rule a fictional South American country.

    • electroheadsa says:

      I have to agree. I used to play it in the computer lab in middle school. I was one of the few who had the password to take the Macs out of IIe emulation mode, if you can believe a school would have an entire lab full of Macs that were running those cards exclusively.

      After a while of repeated play, the limitations of the game’s script became pretty obvious, and a remake or reimagining would be welcome. Tropico is a great game with the same basic premise, but the game itself is almost wholly different in play and tone, particularly in the sense that there’s not really any tightrope to walk across. You’re the despotic ruler, and as far as I can tell any real threat to your rule is far less prominent and menacing than in Hidden Agenda.

      • RabbitIslandHermit says:

        It was really, really hard to stay in power in Tropico 1 on the higher difficulties as time passed. I remember building a huge army and imprisoning dozens of dissidents to protect my dictatorship, as well as frantically bribing as many swing voters as possible in my quasi-democracy. Can’t say the same about the newer ones unfortunately.

    • RabbitIslandHermit says:

      Check out Rogue State, it’s a bit like Hidden Agenda in the Gulf States. It’s not quite as good IMO but it’s worth the price of admission.

  10. LionsPhil says:

    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.

    Did they, i.e. did your meters slide the right way? Because if it can’t model that kind of nuance, it really does sound a lot like a fancy abstraction on top of a “repeatedly press the button aligned with the ending you want” ‘roleplay’ experience.

  11. TheAngriestHobo says:

    Whenever modern media deals with themes of fascism, they’re never put in an accurate political context. Fascism as a political movement arose in the 1920s primarily as a counterbalance against international Communism, which had a stated goal of violent revolution, had carried out such a revolution in Russia (one of the major world powers) and through the Soviet Union was fighting a war with Poland in an attempt to bring the ideology to Western Europe. While there’s no disputing that fascism led to horrible abuses, particularly in it’s later incarnations, for two decades it was viewed as the only reasonable means to maintain social stability in the face of a very real and insidious threat.

    It’s unfortunate that we, particularly in the West, are so often unable to see past the Second World War. The Nazis were fascists, so fascism must be evil by definition. In reality, the fact is that instability and anarchy, like that which international Communism was attempting to bring about in the ’20s and ’30s, is just as detrimental to the rights and well-being of innocent people.

    It’s too bad that The Westport Independent doesn’t try to communicate a more interesting message. We’ve all grown up on the “big state is bad, little guy is good” narrative all our lives, it’s hardly a groundbreaking or necessary lesson.

    • Enkidum says:

      “for two decades it was viewed as the only reasonable means to maintain social stability in the face of a very real and insidious threat.”

      Uh… no. That’s utter tripe.

    • Kollega says:

      Sorry to break it to you, but fascism was not discredited by World War 2 and Hitler. It was discredited by its own failings and self-destructive tendencies across the board. I’ll give you that fascism was born partially out of the desire to contain communism, and that some people in democratic countries believed it to be a necessary evil, but now we know that it was quite an unnecessary evil, what with how messy and inefficient its economic and social policies were. Ultimately, the narrative fascism rides on is “give me absolute and unlimited power, and I’ll solve all your problems for you, e.g. make your trains run on time”. And I think that by now we kinda-sorta know what kind of people make those promises.

      Like it or not, but we dislike fascists for loads and loads of other reasons than “the Nazis were evil”. A social order based on “glorious war”, blind obedience, and unlimited authority of those in power is ultimately not a very good thing, for reasons that should be obvious from history. But it’s likely that you don’t care.

    • GardenOfSun says:

      Quite surprised to see a fascism apologist on an anglosaxon media. But aye, as others seem to mention (and I want to clarify further) in no way can fascism and nazism be equated to communism. Russian communism (which is the worst of the bunch, and I believe the one you are generalizing towards) was simply an authoritarian system born out of strong and valuable idealistic principles that in time showed that it could now work because its theoretical principles were flawed and incomplete. But when Stalin rose to power, and *that* communism became as bad as fascism, the main EU fascist states were already well estabilished.

      They arrived there by spouting gibberish and falsities about communism, something that it’s odd to see people yet buy into, but in truth they were allowed to do so because the bourgeoise elite were too reactionary to effectively reform the huge inequalities of the time. As a result, suspending all civil rights and shooting on protesters seemed to them, all across the EU (and sometimes even in the USA), a better course of action. It’s thus true that everywhere there was a huge temptation to get in bed with those, ie the fascists, who, because of their medieval and militaristic mindset, were best at it. But that was hardly the communists’ fault, and more the fault of the incredibly rapid pace of change that has invested our lands since the economy became both capitalistic and international and religion has been surpassed by the far more effective and far less satisfying scientific thought.

      In this scenario, communism was merely a strong cultural movement that aimed to diagnose and give an answer to the problem – albeit in an uncomplete and sometimes violent way. Fascism, on the other hand, was the very problem incarnate, a form of social lunacy and human degradation that literally encompassed the worst of both the medieval and the modern age combined.

      • GardenOfSun says:

        *Typo in the first paragraph: “that in time showed that it could NOT work”.
        (Sorry for the reply, couldn’t find an edit button)

      • Laurentius says:

        “Russian communism (which is the worst of the bunch, and I believe the one you are generalizing towards) was simply an authoritarian system born out of strong and valuable idealistic principles…”

        Really ? So eagerness, swiftness and determination to apply mass terror means now valuable idealistic principles? That’s rich. And there is no need to bring Stalin up, just go and read Lenin’s and Dzerzhinsky’s orders, it’s all there, direct as one can imagine.

        Still saying this, I totally disagree with completely false depiction of fascism, its roots, goals etc written by TheAngriestHobo above.

        • GardenOfSun says:

          This is precisely why I included the “authoritarian” part. Or you’re going to tell me that the French Revolution didn’t have behind and even inside it some valuable idealistic principles? Because, sure enough, even there you’ll find the Terror, Vandea, ecc.

          The crux is precisely to be able to distinguish between these scenarios – that, while ambigous and tragic, held some value for the common people involved – and nazi-fascism, which was founded upon nothing but a blind fear of the future and a mob-like idealization of violence itself.

          • Laurentius says:

            In my opinion, whenever you adopt “The end justifies the means” as a method or post factum justification for actions it ceases to be idealistic principle.

        • silentdan says:

          “So eagerness, swiftness and determination to apply mass terror means now valuable idealistic principles?”

          I can’t speak for Garden, but I’m pretty sure you’ve misunderstood which parts of communism he finds admirable. Probably not so much the mass terror. Probably more like the lessened income inequality, neutered or abolished monarchy, etc. Russia went straight from Czarism to Communism. That’s one hell of an undertaking, and I’m not surprised that they drifted back to rank authoritarianism; it was all they’d known for centuries, and it takes time for people to find their new equilibrium.

          Fascism and communism share a fatal flaw: extremism. When you balance markets against social justice, you can actually get a pretty good system. Pure capitalism is pretty close to pure fascism. Pure socialism is pretty close to pure communism. Let them balance each other out, though, and you get countries like Canada, the UK, France, Sweden, and others, where people report high levels of satisfaction with their lives.

          Point is, extremist ideologies should never be pursued, but often contain valuable, noble concepts that shouldn’t be thrown out with the bathwater. There’s no one idea that can lead a society to a brighter future. You take several, and use them to counterbalance each other, adding weight to one platter as it rises, removing weight from the other as it dips. It’s a bother, but you do it because you know that if one platter hits the ground, there will be a genocide, and if the other hits the ground, mass starvation.

          • GardenOfSun says:

            Quite well put sir, quite well put.

            (Though I’d argue there’s even more to that, because the hypercomplex nature of these matters makes it so the position of the platters is itself determined by context and not fixed in time; and also because it is possible to judge the evil of one extreme against its values and in that light discriminate between them in terms of the raw potential for improvement they harbor.

            But aye, that would get a tad bit too much academic. ^_^ )

          • Laurentius says:

            Don’t you see that you are giving me pragamtic explanation? How come “lessened income inequality” administrated by collective resposibility can still be idealistic principle? That doesn’t make sense.

          • silentdan says:

            “lessened income inequality” <— good part
            "administered via collective responsibility" <—- bad part

            I hope that helps you, because I'm not sure I can put it any more simply.

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      X_kot says:

      All of these words, and no mention of the Treaty of Versailles or the social and economic volatility of the Weimar Republic?

      • GardenOfSun says:

        Well, you can think of my paragraph on the accelerated change of the modern world as addressing the main cause of the Weimar debacle (which was of course also prompted by the greed of the winning nations, but I believe that’s the lesser of the two factors).

    • TheAngriestHobo says:

      A few points, because I’m not going to spend hours responding to each of you individually:

      A) Asking that historical events be regarded objectively and in as accurate a historical context as possible is not apologism.

      B) I never said fascism was good. I said it was an understandable response to a perceived threat.

      C) I wasn’t trying to write an essay about the rise of the Third Reich (or any specific nation or ideology), which is why I didn’t touch on the domestic situation of interwar Germany.

      D) Most countries in the Anglosphere have, historically, been fortunate enough to have strong geographical impediments to invasion, which have also allowed them to develop as stable states resistant to foreign manipulation. Accordingly, they’ve given rise to political systems that do not generally require extreme measures to maintain national integrity. This is not the case for much of the European heartland, where fascism found many of its most ardent supporters. It’s worth thinking outside of one’s own social, political, and security setting before passing judgement on other systems. They don’t arise out of nowhere – there’s always a strong social impetus for their formation.

      • GardenOfSun says:

        Hat off to most of your precisations.

        In their light, I can only reiterate what the main point of my reply was, that is that: 1) that threat was mainly perceived by the capitalistic elite and, in some cases, by the lower-middle class of salesmen; that is, not by the majority of the population; 2) that threat wasn’t only less scary than what nazi-fascism implied from the start, but in many cases wasn’t even there to begin with.

        In conclusion, while it is worth to adopt, in matters historical, the anthropological viewpoint you mention, that doesn’t exempt us from distinguishing between situations *also* on the basis of the possible values involved.
        Especially when, sadly, nowadays it’s not communism that’s starting to rear its ugly head again, in many places.

      • RabbitIslandHermit says:

        “They don’t arise out of nowhere – there’s always a strong social impetus for their formation.”

        Yeah, like anti-semitism!

  12. NephilimNexus says:

    Funny, that picture about monitoring comic books for sedition reminds me of exactly what the US government did to Mad Magazine way back when; accusing them of being “UnAmerican” and “Commie Sympathizers” and trying to get them banned.

    Oh how I love how Americans try pretend the McCarthy era never happened.

  13. Eight Rooks says:

    I was vaguely interested in this, but I guess I shan’t be buying it after all. What a shame – though I’m not terribly surprised.

    You can question the rebels’ approach, but there’s no ambiguity of the big-bellied evil of the oppressors

    This is the exact same thing that sunk the writing in Blackbar (the mobile game) for me. CENSORSHIP BAD, ABSOLUTE FREEDOM OF SPEECH GOOD etc. If your plucky little rebels are sticking it to nothing more than a reductive caricature, do you honestly expect me to care “just because”? (See also: Bioshock Infinite.)