In our day and age, the Internet has become the cornerstone of our existence. What was once an interconnected series of mainframes within the closed confines of military and physics labs has now become the very basis of modern human civilization. We can definitely pat ourselves on the back for bringing it to light: after all, where would we be without a bunch of cute animal GIFs to get us through our everyday work doldrums? The Internet gives us that. And it gives us online shopping too! It might also give anonymous basement-dwellers the ill-obtained ability to write nasty comments on your Instagram photos, but you gotta overlook the bad stuff sometimes.
Come on, it’s all worth it for things like this, right?
But on a more serious note, our Internet also preserves that one fundamental human right: freedom of speech. America’s First Amendment loves it, and so too do the special interest forums and blogs that make up so much of today’s international public discourse. It’s an adoration not so shared by certain entities within the world’s governments, however. Current furore over Apple’s refusal to placate the FBI with coding a security backdoor into iPhones, and the actions of authoritarian lobbying bodies such as CISPA in the US and the EC3 in Europe continue to create uncertainty over the survival of a free digital society. Well-intentioned or otherwise, such pushes to monitor user activity across the world’s networks threaten to bring down an axe of censorship that could pave the way for police states that could quell dissent with the mere drop of a network packet. The thought of silencing your trolls once and for all might be a comforting one, but when it comes with the bonus that your Facebook rants about your useless President get answered with a night visit from some dark-suited men and a van, are such proposals really conducive to a fair society?
In an age when civil rights have once again become a contentious and global social issue, a game like The Westport Independent could not have timed its arrival more perfectly. It’s an indie game with the safeguarding of freedoms in mind, specifically those of the journalistic variety as you’re put in the role of a newspaper editor whose (fictional) country’s media is about to undergo some major changes. It turns out the so-called Loyalist Party that has just gained power in office aren’t too pleased about the current state of the press and find it a bit too ‘free’ for their liking. To resolve this, they have actioned a censorship statute, subtly named the Culture Bill, to eliminate any opposing discourse that threatens to undermine their grip on the nation’s sociopolitical landscape. This bill is set to go into law exactly 12 weeks from the game’s start, and the player’s job is to manage his fledgling publication and its team of journalists, week-by-week, and decide precisely where the newspaper will stand come the day of legislative reckoning. Will you make use of liberty’s dying days to criticize the government’s tyranny and help spark a revolution? Or will you cave in to the pressure of authority and tow the line for the sake of your own business and the livelihoods of your employees, who will be the first to take the fall for any negative press?
It’s a theoretically precarious situation, but one you’ll have to negotiate in order to see the game through. You’ll spend most of each week sat at your editorial desk (detailed, like most of the game’s graphics, in a pleasing Postwar-inspired, sepia-tinted pixel style) with a small collection of potential articles to review and amend before you hand them off to your reporters for final write-up. To amend your articles requires the partaking in an action of Orwellian proportions - just click on a portion or sentence of the piece that you want to remove, and that portion will be redacted from the final cut, with thick red lines crossing it out. This simple task can leave a dramatically different effect on the full writing at hand: a report on a Loyalist Party presidential parade for example can be altered to conveniently hide the rampant protests that were recorded to have took place alongside it. Similarly, stories that attempt to put anti-government factions in a bad light can also have their cause-damaging rhetoric removed to make their plight look more sympathetic. News on government policies, criminal activity, corrupt corporations and even gutter-level celebrity gossip are all at the mercy of your red pen, and the people of Westport - broken up into four different demographics with their own specific interests - will want to hear about it all. The city is hungry for spin - and with this simple yet powerful game mechanic, you can give it to them any way you like.
But it’s not just the proles who have a vested interest in your publication. Your staff of four writers also want their paper to offer sharp opinions - particularly if they sit in line with their own. Each member has their fair share of beliefs to divulge on current events, offered up largely by conversational cutscenes of them hanging out at the cafe during each work week. Pro-government Phil will always be at loggerheads with anti-establishment Frank over the latter’s outspoken distaste for the forthcoming censorship laws, while the less polarizing Julie and Anne will fritter between the two sides. Careful management of all of them will be vital in keeping your newspaper functioning, for the eyes of the surveillance state are always watching. Assign them too many incendiary articles and the secret police may come knocking to remove them. Or, if the journalists themselves find your angles to be continuously indigestible, they may end up just quitting and leaving anyway.
This collection of checks and balances sets up an intriguing stage for subtle manipulation of the different entities at play within the tenuous political situation, and also forms a solid allegory for the effects of restricting free press. It’s also a game that definitely pulls no punches in delivering consequences too - it’s very easy to find yourself a journo or two down if you continue to carelessly dally on either extreme of the political spectrum for too long. Therefore, a basic challenge of micro-management and article-editing is at least in place for the 12-week (roughly 45 minutes real time) length of full play, although with some modicum of common-sense you should be able to make it to the end and witness the fruit of your publication’s labours more often than not. Given how the ending also evaluates you on a vast quantity of different factors, it’s also possible to get one of numerous contrasting epilogues with each playthrough, offering a decent amount of replay value.
The question though is whether or not you’d be willing to play The Westport Independent again after an initial run. Despite the refreshingly original idea, an unobtrusive soft-jazz music score and an intuitive drag n’ drop interface to drive most of your interaction, The Westport Independent is rather flavourless. For a game that puts a focus on writing, its story-driven content suffers from surprisingly bland exposition that struggles to get any real excitement going around the events that unfold on-screen. This is no more evident than with the characters themselves, who don’t stand out in any real way - save for being walking epithets for contrasting political views. The conversations between them peter out into lukewarm exchanges with no real drama, and largely feel as monotoned and washed out as the game’s visuals. It results in a curious oversight that makes Westport seem to miss a key point in the foundation of civil liberties - the protection of the people you care about. Without its protagonists possessing any investive human edge to them, the game resultantly feels humdrum to play, and difficult to feel affected by.
Without this critical fulfilment of personality, the rest of The Westport Independent’s earnest ideas struggle to hold up. Numerous game weeks in, and after the constant rinse-and-repeat of article alteration has started to wear thin, it becomes apparent that there is a deep absence of any real subtlety within the gameplay. Most of the time, the effects of your editing are obvious and elementary. What changes they make on the feelings of government and population towards you are revealed by the shifting of various horizontal bar charts displayed at the end of each turn, a visual approach that comes across as toneless and disconnected from the narrative that Westport desperately attempts to build. It results in a plodding, repetitive flow of play that outstays its welcome even though the game can be finished in under an hour - an additional shortcoming that will definitely switch off those wondering if its $10 price tag offers suitable longevity.
Ultimately, The Westport Independent is a fairly lifeless interpretation of a very good idea. It’s a shame because it’s evident that effort has been put into the game to at least try to elicit some kind of importance to its tale of journalistic struggle. In the end however, it blunders into a fallacy that lurks beneath the egalitarian idioms of free speech - that just because you think you have something to say, that doesn’t mean it’s profound.