The Westport Independent
By: 0010 (Double Zero One Zero) & Coffee Stain Studios
Before getting into my review of Double Zero One Zero’s The Westport Independent, let me first say that I appreciate that the developers of a game about censorship and corruption set no embargo on reviews. I don’t know if that was specifically to tie in with the message of the game, but it feels right. It’s also nice when a game releases on iOS and PC at the same time, so those of us who prefer mobile don’t have to wait longer. I especially appreciate it in this case, because I don’t think we iOS gamers get enough games that try to make players think about the world around us versus simply entertaining us. Some games have moments where they reflect on our society, but that is rarely the main focus. Papers, Please is a good example of one, but it came to iOS later than PC. There’s also Neven Mrgan’s dystopian games, Blackbar and Grayout, which are only available on mobile. Dead Synchronicity is a disturbing iPad and PC point-and-click adventure game that makes you do morally questionable actions to achieve your goals. I know This War of Mine is supposed to send a message about the tragedy of war, but the gameplay turned me off. I can’t really think of many others at the moment. So when I heard of The Westport Independent, I was excited about another iOS game trying to be more than art or entertainment.
I really like the concept of the game. You play as editor of a paper called The Westport Independent in a state run by the Loyalist party, which has passed the Public Culture Bill. The bill comes into effect on May 16, 1949, which is twelve weeks from the start of the game. The government claims that it “will improve the quality of independent media outlets” but then proceeds with a list of guidelines that the paper has to follow to ensure its readers remain loyal to the president, the government and its police force. This also includes making sure that rebels are never glorified so their movement can be easily quashed.
Each week, you’re given a number of articles to choose from. You have four employees, each of which can publish one article per week. Two of them have Loyalist leanings, while the others favor the rebels. Your job as editor is to pick which four articles your employees will publish. You can also choose between two headlines
and censor parts of the article to change its meaning. Loyalist employees will protest publishing anything against the government, but you can still force them to do it. And vice versa for the rebel sympathizers. The government will be paying close attention to each employee, so the articles you give them to write will also affect their own lives. They might get arrested for what they write, or simply decide it’s all too much and quit. You’ll then be left with fewer employees to publish articles.
Additionally, there are four districts in Westport, each one consisting of either the upper class, the middle class, the industrial class, or the lower — mostly unemployed and homeless — class. Part of your job as editor is to try and sell as many papers as possible in the four districts. Each area cares about different topics, such as celebrity, industrial, crime, or societal news. Publishing articles geared towards a district’s interests will make the paper more popular there, effectively selling more copies. You can also decide on which districts to spend the most marketing funds, but I didn’t notice any discernible difference from this. I think this aspect of the game should have been left out or expanded upon. As is, it just feels like filler. When I didn’t see any difference from my choices there, I just started assigning random amounts to each district. I’m also not sure how important the sales and popularity are for the ending. Each district seems to be affected by how much power the Loyalists have over the people, with the wealthy northerners being pretty happy no matter what happens. The sales appear to be linked more to topics than the paper’s political leaning, but I could be wrong.
My first play-through was pretty enjoyable. Reading the articles for the first time elicited a few smirks and even some chuckles out of me. I think the articles are the strongest part of the game. My favorites were those that reflected our own political climate — such as questioning a woman’s right to an abortion — and the ones with tongue firmly in cheek, like “President Struck By Tomato.” I decided to go the rebellious route on my first game, promoting the truth and publishing primarily anti-government and anti-police stories. I even avoided as much celebrity gossip as possible, trying to focus on being an informative publication. My paper didn’t make it the full twelve weeks and I loved that. I’m not sure if I saw the whole ending, because the game hung at that point. But I liked that there was a line you could cross where the Loyalist party would exert its power like a true totalitarian government and shut the paper down.
On my second game, I decided to go in the opposite direction and promote Loyalist propaganda as much as possible. I also had fun publishing a number of fluff pieces such as “Movie Star Has Gained Weight” and using fear mongering to cause undue panic (although, sadly, I didn’t notice any actual panic). Another favorite is the article below about the health benefits of tobacco, because it’s a great example of how the media can twist the truth by simply omitting certain facts. As a writer with a responsibility to my readers, I enjoyed being able to publish clickbait and celebrity gossip pieces without any real life consequences. I managed to make it the full twelve weeks, upon which I was rewarded with an ending, consisting of a summary about what happened in each district and to each employee based on the choices I made.
My favorite articles were those in which censoring a part of it could completely change the meaning. There were a number of these, but not as many as I would have liked. Too often, censorship had very little effect on the meaning of the article. The different headlines were usually much more effective, but I do wish there were more than two options for some of them. Also, perhaps more content in each article, so censoring would feel more meaningful. Most articles only have 3-4 ideas, so if you censor two, there’s not much left in the article you’re publishing. In general, I think the censorship part of the game wasn’t fully realized.
I played a few more games, trying to see if I could support the rebels just enough to still see the ending or anger the rebels enough to get them to bomb the paper. I did get angry letters from them, but they never took it any further. That was disappointing, but doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t happen. I’m hoping that since there’s one premature ending, there might be more. Unfortunately, I’m not enjoying the game enough on multiple play-throughs to try and get all the endings. I only got eight out of twenty GameCenter achievements, which are all related to how much support each district has for the rebels or the Loyalists. While I do like that there are different endings caused by different actions, I was put off a bit by the wall of text at the end that gets slowly typed by a typewriter. I recorded a full play-through and the text took about eight minutes to type out! I wish it could have at least been sped up, because I would lose patience waiting for the words to make their way up the screen. I tried tapping once to see if it would speed it up, and it just exited the whole thing, so I had to start the ending over if I wanted to see it. To compare, I’ve only gotten two of the Papers, Please endings so far, but I found them more effective. They were short and to the point, more like cutscenes. I think the text endings in The Westport Independent don’t do the game justice. They felt tacked on. I didn’t learn enough about the different districts or employees during the game to care about what happens to them at the end, so I just read through it with half interest.
Speaking of the employees, there are cutscenes at the end of each week of them chatting over lunch. Sometimes they discuss meaningful topics, like how they’re not thrilled with the way the editor is so anti-police. But other times they’ll just talk about coffee, and not even in an interesting or humorous way. They literally just discussed making coffee. I have no idea why that’s in the game when it could have been an opportunity to tell us more about the employees themselves or the districts they live in.
I also often disagreed with the game about what it means to sympathize with the rebels or glorify their acts. I would think saying “President Viciously Attacked By Rebel Sympathizer” would make the rebels sound bad, but apparently the game considers that glorifying. There were many instances like this, where I could tell what the game thought by trying to give the article to either a pro-Loyalist or pro-rebel employee, but it differed from what I thought the article was saying. Having these arguments with the game took me out of the moment and made it feel forced. Another example is the article below. Why would a Loyalist employee refuse to post it, especially with most of it censored? It seems pretty harmless to me. The alternative headline is “Government Plans to Censor Teaching Materials in State Schools,” and I can see why that version would be seen as negative. But simply “new teaching materials?” It sounds like they’re just updating everything, very neutral. I don’t see how that in and of itself would be considered brainwashing if I left out most of the details. There were even times where I thought I was being very pro-government but they still sent me warning letters about disobedient employees.
I should mention that I encountered a few minor bugs and some typos. The first one caused the game to get stuck on the ending, with the only way out to kill the app. There were also a couple of times where I got repeats of articles I had already published, with the line I censored earlier still crossed off. Also, even though I had the music slider all the way down, the app would always open with both music and sound on full blast. Another bug is that I started a fresh game and it had a ton of mail I shouldn’t have gotten that early in the game, as well as an article that I shouldn’t see yet. But restarting fixed that problem. It would only really be an issue if that happens on your first game and you don’t realize it’s not normal. But I do wonder if some of the other weird things I encountered might have been related to this, such as getting letters about misbehaving employees even when I was giving them pro-government articles to publish. And last, I encountered a few crashes when trying to multitask while playing. I even got some crashes on startup, but I think it might be related to memory. When I cleared out all the other apps from my taskbar, it crashed less. Most of these bugs aren’t deal-breakers, but they can be annoying if you encounter them.
I played mostly on my iPad, but I did try it a bit on my iPhone and it worked great. The game is perfect for touch screens, as everything is about tapping and swiping to drag things across the screen. Sadly, there’s no iCloud, but since each game is fairly short, you can always have two separate games going on your devices.
To sum it up, I think the game is worth trying if you like satire and dystopian games, but you need to keep your expectations in check. Mine may have been a bit too high. It has its interesting moments — primarily the different news articles — but as a whole, it didn’t leave me wowed or feeling enlightened, or even all that disturbed. I expected a game about censorship and control to get into my head, keep me thinking about it for days or weeks. But after a couple of short play throughs, I felt I had my fill, like there wasn’t much more to get from the game. Once you’ve seen most of the news articles, it’s not that exciting to see them again, and you’ll rarely be given any brand new ones. Getting my paper shut down seemed like the most interesting thing in the game and I got that on my first play-through. There’s a lot of untapped potential here and it’s hard not to be disappointed about what could have been versus what we actually got. If you want to try out the game for yourself and see how you fare managing a newspaper in a dystopian world, you can download the game here.
If you want to see the game in action, I streamed an entire play-through here: