THE WESTPORT INDEPENDENT Review
Back in 2013, developer 3909 released a game called PAPERS, PLEASE, which placed the player in the role of an immigration worker controlling the border of the fictional state of Arstotzka. It was championed for its unique gameplay hooks as players explored backstories of characters and decided their fates with a single stamp on their passports. It was tense, simple, and refined all at once.
Now in 2016, Double Zero One Zero has released the game THE WESTPORT INDEPENDENT. I mention PAPERS, PLEASE because the resemblance between the two games is almost uncanny, from their minimalist aesthetic to their premises of working under oppressive regimes. For a solid portion of my playtime, I assumed the two were created by the same developer and, unfortunately, this comparison only serves to hurt THE WESTPORT INDEPENDENT.
THE WESTPORT INDEPENDENT casts players as the editor of a newspaper in a fictional state controlled by the Loyalist government. In an intriguing gameplay hook, players are tasked with following a set of strict guidelines for what articles to publish, and how to edit them, throughout the 12 weeks leading up to the implementation of a massive censorship bill. For each week, players sit at a desk and edit articles and headlines, tweaking them to either follow the guidelines of the government or to boldly resist their control. For example, players can approve an article with the headline “FACTORIES CLOSE UNDER FINANCIAL PRESSURE,” or change it to read “THOUSANDS LOSE JOBS OVER MANAGERIAL INEPTITUDE.”
Randomly ******* articles since 19**…
The paper can sway opinions of the state depending on what articles are published and how popular the paper is in certain districts. The popularity of the paper is determined by what the districts consider important, such as celebrity news or societal changes, and thus determines how well the paper sells. This all sounds clever in theory, but the game tasks the player with making subjective opinions without ever offering an objective view of current events. While PAPERS, PLEASE offered a view of an increasingly militarized border crossing that clashed with the placating propaganda cluttering the player’s desk, this game offers no such exposition. THE WESTPORT INDEPENDENT asks the player to decide what the articles should be about and what the headline should read, but both of the options are highly subjective. One headline will place blame on the government, and the other on a rebel group. Which is the objective answer? There isn’t one to be found, and the game offers the player about six sentences per article to create their own.
The ideas going into THE WESTPORT INDEPENDENT are fresh and fun, but the end result feels a little heartless. At the end of the game, which takes about an hour or two to reach, all of your gameplay is summarized into a series of statistics and long, sprawling pieces of text. There is a lack of real emotional impact. Furthermore, depending on who the player assigned to write each of the articles, the writing staff’s future changes according to their ideology and standings within the state. But the only real connection the player has with these writers are these tiny coffee break segments between weeks where the writers talk about nonsense such as “that game last night.”
“I’m tellin ya, Moe, games journalism is a thankless grind”
This disconnect from the central conflict hurts the overall power of the game in that none of the player’s actions really feel like they matter. The only accomplishment that I felt was that I had kept the paper open and had managed to not be shut down by the Loyalist government after breaking so many of their strict guidelines. When I got to the end segment and saw how my actions had impacted the overall state of the country, I was mostly confused about how my edits even correlated to their real world impact. Repeated playthroughs can be completed to reach the “best” ending to the game, but I didn’t feel any real pull to do so. The game feels emotionally, even thematically, hollow.
THE WESTPORT INDEPENDENT strives so hard to be a game like PAPERS, PLEASE, and in many ways it is just as clever and interesting, but it lacks what really makes that game special and memorable: a careful balance of refined gameplay and also emotional resonance. How is the editor expected to pick a faction to side with when they spend the whole game in their windowless office, sealed from context? Why even care about the country’s fate if you’re not living in it? THE WESTPORT INDEPENDENT has some great concepts, but ultimately squanders them due to this dissonance and lack of heartfelt connection between the player’s choices and the game’s final moments.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend
Reviewed on PC, also available on Android, iOS, and Mac