The name’s Narcisse. Yeah, numbnuts, I’ve heard all the jokes. I’m a newspaperman. No matter how hard I try every night, I can’t scrub the newsprint off my palms. Problem is, the bastard politicians running Westport are threatening to add bloodstains to all that ink.
Out today from indie studio Double Zero One Zero for PC, iOS and Android, The Westport Independent is a game that has players acting as editor-in-chief at a privately owned newspaper. The titular publcation comes out in a fictional locale ruled by a totalitarian regime. At the game’s start, a newsreel rolls, explaining that the passage of a new law requires media outlets to present news in a way that pleases the ruling autocrats.
Players abide by these rules by spinning or censoring the news articles that come across their desks. Clicking on a headline toggles between two options and doing the same to paragraphs will cross them out, leaving them out of the final version of the piece. The choices you make—which also include how much to spend on marketing in different politically aligned—neighborhoods will either make the Westport Independent seem like a propaganda tool for the draconian Loyalist government or express sympathies for the Rebel insurgency trying to defy their rule.
You can see the first and third acts of my first playthrough—weeks 1-4 and 8-12 of the game’s twelve-week cycle—in the video above. Some of the raw copy that you handle has obvious pro-government bias and, depending on the editorial decisions that you make, certain members of the paper’s four-person staff can balk at transcribing them with their bylines attached. You can force them to do it, though, which lowers the comfort level of the person being coerced.
After the paper is published every week, the quartet of men and women drink and chat in a bar. It’s in these scenes that you’ll hear Anne or Julie talk about the pieces with their bylines attached or listen to Loyalist true believer Phil spar with fascist-hating Frank, who hates the fascists who run Westport. If a player’s editorial leadership keeps the paper alive at the end of the game’s twelve-week cycle, they’re treated to another newsreel with details about Westport’s political temperature and the fates of various employees.
Simply keeping the paper going and making sure I had a full complement of writers was the primary concern of my first playthrough of Westport Independent. Worried about inflaming civil unrest and calling down the wrath of the Loyalist strongmen, I tried for balance in my editorial decisions. Later on, I tried slanting my paper’s content more towards a Rebel point-of-view, uneasily confident that I could get away with the shift less than a month before the Public Culture Bill came into effect.
But when my endgame assessment scrolled out, I was surprised to see my iteration of the Westport Independent interpreted as Loyalist-friendly. So, I went full rebel for my second runthrough. We ain’t doing celebrity fluff anymore, I declared, and seized on any chance to stick to those assholes in government. As you play Westport Independent, you’ll get letters from both Loyalist and Rebel factions with serve as feedback to the articles you send out into the world. Some of the letters I saw on my second playthrough were much different, sharper in tone and increasingly more threatening. Those weren’t idle threats either; that follow-up playthrough only made it to week 7. I sat down at my desk as usual, but didn’t get any updates about sales. No employee dossiers either. One more fateful click and there it was: the notice that the paper had been shut down.
Westport Independent is didactic and heavy-handed, placing players in a fictional construct with a black-or-white morality continuum. But, like This War of Mine and Papers, Please, its unexpected triumph comes from making me care about the lives of the people I was managing. Even Phil—the abrasive Loyalist stooge who defended violent police beatings of innocent people—garnered some empathy from when he talked about talking his infirm brother to the hospital for physical therapy. Some feeling was coming back into his toes? Well, damn, that’s a minor miracle, right? Yes, I had a paper to run and vital truths I wanted to transmit into the minds of readers. I wanted to keep the paper alive, make it popular and use that popular to resist the in-game autocracy.
But it was my writers who paid the steepest costs. Was Frank—who’d called in “sick” and was later disappeared by the government—alive? Were any of them? I had no way to know. My writers were gone and the news was dead, shut down because I’d pushed things too far. The chilling effect was real, and as cold as an empty bar chair.