As a journalist of both the video game and newspaper variety, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say The Westport Independent really gave my curiosity bone a tickle. Not only is the subject matter unprecedented for a video game — you play the rebellious or cow-towing editor in chief of a newspaper in a dictatorship where free speech is as alien as any little green man — but, on the surface, everything about it looks like 2013’s indie darling Papers, Please. Legitimate comparisons between the two games begin and end with the minimalist gameplay and art style they share; this goes double for the overall quality of the games themselves. I hate cliches as much as the next writer, but this is definitely a curiosity-killed-the-cat sort of moment for me.
As mentioned before, Westport takes place in a dictatorship in 1949, a week before the government is set to pass a bill which will more or less put the newspapers under complete government control. The titular newspaper is the last remaining free publication in the state and you, as the head honcho, choose the articles that go into your paper. However the articles themselves aren’t the determining factor, but the way they’re written; you can choose to slant the article to make either the loyalists or rebels in any sort of light you choose simply by changing the headline or omitting certain parts. Publishing anti-government sentiments will gain unwanted attention, but that’s the driving choice of the game.
This is great and all, but I really found myself not giving a shit about any of the characters. This could be due to the short length or the monotonous gameplay, but what I believe the issue stems from is the writing. This mostly applies to the dialogue; the breaks between publishing weeks take place in the break room of the office, witnessing your writers conversing with each other. These conversations either beat a dead horse by spouting the already obvious political views of the cast, or they’re just plain boring or irrelevant. Like the one about coffee. As important as writing is in a game that essentially amounts to a dystopian visual novel, I’d be totally able to let it go if the game delivered on its implied promises.
“When you’re forced into making choices that have absolutely no tangible effect on the game at all, I would call that poor and lazy design.”
The problem is, there are so many potentially excellent gameplay elements to get excited about that just never get fleshed out at all over the course of your half-hour playthrough. An egregious example of this: you may publish four articles per week (one for each of your writers, who all have unique opinions on the state leaders) and, after deciding your pieces, you place them in the newspaper in any order you please. If you want to make the front page about a car bomb exploding and then make the back page about a celebrity arrest, go for it — it doesn’t matter though. It’s a shame because I would’ve loved to have utilized cover stories to target various neighbourhoods, all of which enjoy different types of articles (eg. The affluent North side loves hearing about celebrities, while the working class South wants to hear about local industries). When you’re forced into making choices that have absolutely no tangible effect on the game at all, I would call that poor and lazy design. Even worse is how I would publish an article with a slant that I found to be rebellious, only to gain favour points with the loyalists. I won’t go into details to save anyone interested from spoilers, but I can assure you this is a glaring, recurring problem.
While the gameplay fails to emulate the editor-in-chief experience, there is something to be said about the art style and music in Westport. The graphics aren’t technically impressive, but the dreary monochrome art style really suits the mood, as does the film noir style soundtrack. Although there are very few songs — and the song that plays during the editing phase never changes — the soundtrack sets the mood, at the very least.
“It’s not without merit, but it’s a bare bones package that is more of a novelty than anything.”
Playing through this game for the first time took me exactly thirty three minutes, which would be acceptable if there was incentive to replay. But the writing and plot is messy enough that any alternative endings aren’t too worth seeing. I’d give it a generous five to six playthroughs to see every single nook, cranny, and megabyte of Westport.
Quite frankly, as great as the concept and ideas are, The Westport Independent is such a disappointment for me it’s saddening. It’s not without merit, but it’s a bare bones package that is more of a novelty than anything. This would’ve been an excellent demo, but the budget, indie game price is still a bit too high. Unless you’re interested in the subject matter — and, really, I was — you’d be better off spending your money elsewhere.
*** PC code provided by the publisher ***
- Intriguing gameplay and plot ideas
- Fitting art style and music
- Poor writing
- Gameplay falls short of potential
- So short it could be a demo