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‘The Westport Independent’ lacks narrative depth

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Journalism is a tricky business. I should know, I’m writing for a newspaper. The ethics of choosing what to publish or not publish in a prestigious, widely-read paper are complicated. That issue is compounded depending on who funds the paper, who the audience is, or what government happens to be listening.

If you’ve ever complained about what the media is or isn’t covering, “The Westport Independent” is the game for you. It puts the player in the circumstances that a real copy editor might find themselves in — wondering if it’s really ethical to cover things like celebrity news when riots are happening in the streets.

The game takes place in a government that has recently passed a “Public Culture Bill,” meaning that all media must comply with the government’s messages of loyalty and peace, which will come into force 12 weeks after the game begins. You run the titular Westport Independent, a reputable newspaper. Other newspapers are closing around you, and the people’s attitudes towards the bill aren’t exactly positive.

It’s here that you, the paper’s copy editor, must choose which direction to take the paper. Do you follow the government’s guidelines and appeal to those who are on the upper end of the pay scale, or do you risk your paper’s existence just to tell the stories that you think need to be told?

There are a lot of political undertones, and the game’s world portrays a very black and white rebels-versus-oppressive-government vibe. There are shades of gray here and there, and you can remain neutral if you wish — as I initially chose to do. However, the game’s writing encourages you to pick a side.

Unfortunately, the consequences aren’t really there. Well, they are — you get a stats sheet after every week showing how your paper sold, or how suspicious the government is of your paper — but they’re “consequences” in the same way that making a tough decision in “Knights of the Old Republic” might get you a Dark Side bonus. You rarely see the world actually changing around you aside from some remarks from your coworkers. The only consequence metric aside from that is your readership in different parts of town, and that reinforces the black-and-white themes. If you write a rebel-biased paper, more people from the lower-class areas are going to read it.

Compare this to a game like “Papers, Please,” where every single action you took influenced something later on down the line. In that game, if you let a certain person in the country, there’s a very good chance that it will come back to bite you later. Here, if you choose to publish a story about riots instead of a parade, well… you’ll gain some points with the rebels. It’s all quantitative, no qualitative.

It’s also very short; a single play-through will take an hour or two. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. If the game told a powerful story about journalism in that time span, it would still be a worthwhile experience, especially at its $10 price point. It does hit some marks. If you want to play a neutral run, some of the choices get really grueling. Regrettably, though, the consequences of those choices are limited to numerical, quantitative values, which robs them of their impact. “The Westport Independent” has the skeleton of a great journalistic story; it just needs a lot more muscle.

Game: “The Westport Independent”

Developer: Double Zero One Zero

Genre: Copy editing simulator

Platforms: PC (reviewed), Mac, Linux, iOS, Android

Release Date: January 21, 2016

Rating: 3/5

Written by George Hyde