The creators of “The Westport Independent” are either incredibly sick of hearing comparisons to “Papers, Please”, or it’s exactly what they were going for. And either way, it really doesn’t work. Not in the grand scheme of things, anyway.
Developed by Double Zero One Zero and released on January 21st, 2016, “The Westport Independent” is a strategy game about developing an independent newspaper source in the impending shadow of a totalitarian government that just isn’t in the mood for being criticized. It all takes place in 1949, in the fictional country of Westport, a vaguely Eastern European country that has recently been taken over entirely by the vaguely named Loyalist Party, who have given you and the rest of the country 12 weeks until the Public Culture Bill comes into play.
Essentially, the Public Culture Bill has been set up to protect the government from the big, bad pens of the free press. I’m sort of amazed that any totalitarian government would allow for twelve weeks for your business to get in line, but I suppose that’s what makes it a game.
So it’s you and the four writers of your newspaper, attempting to get the good word out to the proletariat without gaining too much suspicion from the big, bulging eye of Big Brother. Two of your staff are more inclined toward rebellion, while the other two are more interested in living an unobtrusive life under the gaze of the Loyalist Party. As the editor, it is your job to determine the ultimate fate of your newspaper: do you shake as many rebellious branches as you can before the Public Culture Bill is finalized? Or do you place nice and become one of many government run media sources? Between weeks you listen to the comings and goings of your staff: their quarrels, their struggles.
Conceptually, it’s something of a brilliant idea for a strategy game. And familiar, too.
As I mentioned before, the comparisons to Lucas Pope’s “Papers, Please” are inevitable. Not just because of the general theme of sweeping red Communism and your player’s role as a cog in its vast machine, but also because of basic things: things like artistic style and even the fonts. If I hadn’t known better, I would have assumed this as a sequel to the 2013 game, particularly when you compare it to Pope’s earliest game, “The Republia Times”: made during a 48 hour game jam session. The influence is obvious.
Unfortunately, the positive comparisons to “Papers, Please” are just more fuel to add to the fire of why I just couldn’t fully appreciate The Westport Independent.
In “Papers, Please”, you play a border guard in a bleak, communist-laden society. It has a brilliant Cold War feel to it, and the drudgery of your life—the increasingly complicated yet banal series of papers and passports and stamps that you have to keep track of serve the plot line brilliantly. You’re learning about the danger and insanity of your protagonist’s life through its tedium.
In “Westport Independent”, that same tedium feels less like a significant moment, and more like just another layer of strategy to get through. Instead of absorbing the atmosphere, you’re trying to figure out the math of winning. And if this was just meant to be some sort of newspaper strategy game without any hints of satire or public commentary, that might be forgivable. But the game opens up with the subtitle: “A game about censorship, corruption, and newspapers”.
Clearly, Double Zero One Zero was aiming for something loftier than your average sim game.
That’s not to suggest that it’s horrible. Effort has gone into this, and it shows with the writing. Every day you receive pitches that are yours to rewrite or delete completely. How you do this and what writers you assign these tasks to will make the ultimate difference in who buys your papers, and who is paying attention to them: whether it be the Loyalists or the Rebellion.
It has the right atmosphere and general ambiance, but in the end, “The Westport Independent” feels like a strategy game with a political flavor, while “Papers, Please” felt more like a political game with a strategic flavor.
And while it’s a very interesting exercise in story through gaming, I can’t help but wonder what might have been if the universe and the mechanics of the game itself hadn’t been deepened a tad. Let me learn a little more about my writers beyond the inter-week cut scenes. Give me more options for editing and rewriting news stories. There has to be more than this.
Maybe that’s why I was so disappointed in “The Westport Independent”: not because what it did was poorly done. But because there was so much left to explore and expound upon. And if you’re going to take on deep, political subjects like this one, you have to go big, or go home to Arstotzka.