By: Brian Gunn
The Westport Independent started life as a gamejam entry that the developers thought was promising enough to expand upon. Players are tasked with managing a newspaper under a dictatorship and are forced to choose between the truth and censorship.
Controlling a newspaper is surprisingly easy if The Westport Independent is to be believed. Players will receive articles and letters and simply need to drag an article to the center of the screen, click to remove lines or change a headline, and then toss it into a writer’s folder.
Everything is simple and functional and clearly designed around mobile controls first. Some elements of the UI could use work, as establishing if a story will count as coverage in certain topics can be a little hard to tell until you’re in later steps.
The game is clearly meant to evoke some of the movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s, and it mostly succeeds doing so. Everything is black and white, and what little is seen outside of the newspaper office appears to be a blend of noir and art-deco. Things are kept relatively clean and simple, and I enjoyed the ever shifting newspaper cover you can get depending on how you handle advertising.
Audio is similarly simple and drenched in film noir. A handful of what appear to be public domain tracks that have made their way into a dozen noirs in the past, or ones attempting to mimic them, are present. There’s not much else to speak of beyond that light soundtrack, though the production values for the intro propaganda reel are great.
In the fictional city of Westport set in a vaguely American country, the government has effectively decided to end freedom of the press. In 12 weeks, a bill will be going into effect turning the titular newspaper into a government-owned propaganda factory. Fortunately in 12 weeks you can affect a lot to change the world around you.
Players are tasked each week with writing a few stories, but even with the law yet to take effect, the government won’t sit idly by if you libel them by printing the truth. And so it is suggested perhaps to edit out embarrassing details, such as the cost of a statue honoring the President.
While you can comply with their requests, you can also spin the narrative against them by leaving that information in or tweaking a headline. Westport is struggling between two factions, the Loyalists and the Rebels, and the paper can help sway the population to one side or the other.
After deciding what stories to print, you’ll need to assign them to your writers. Each writer has their own personality and opinions, so a hardcore rebel might not like printing pro-government drivel. However, there’s also suspicion mechanics at play, so if you’ve been letting him write a bunch of Rebel stories, forcing a puff piece into his hands might save his hide.
Lastly, players will get to decide how to layout the paper. Each story has one of four attributes, and the placement of stories closer to the front page will strengthen them. In turn, each attribute appeals to certain sections of the city, and you’ll need to decide who to market the paper to depending on your content. The district that likes society and crime news might not buy your paper if it’s a bunch of celebrity gossip, after all.
A lot of this may sound good on paper, but the execution is a bit lacking. First off, the game is extremely short, and so it can be hard to really get a feel for the world of The Westport Independent. Everything is also a bit too vague.
Your reporters, for instance, have little actual character, and so caring about their fate or comfort is hard. Half of the ending goes into what happened to them, but I couldn’t tell you anything about most of them other than if they were Loyalists or Rebels. They felt like resources more than characters.
Similarly, there are often few interesting choices to make in the articles. Often the headline is the big thing, offering one that’s clearly offensive to one side or the other. The body of the articles is typically three or four sentences long, and a lot of the time articles didn’t feel like they had content worth removing or keeping in that would affect much. More in-depth articles that allow players to clearly shape the narrative were desperately needed.
In the end, the bill is coming, and you’ll get endings depending on the status of each of the four districts in town. Rebels will riot, Loyalists will party. There are a decent amount of alternate endings to achieve, and some meta-game goals like attempting to get all districts to be Loyalists or Rebels at once.
In these scenarios, managing your writers’ comfort, sales and government suspicion are quite a challenge, but first-time players aren’t likely to know the mechanics enough early on to seek these out, and the relatively bland first run isn’t going to intrigue many to return.
OVERALL (2.5 /5)
The Westport Independent is a great concept, but there’s not enough follow through. Those looking to manage life in a dictatorship are more likely to find enjoyment in the game’s clear inspiration, Papers, Please.