Out of Three is a review series that gives three writers their own space to give perspectives on a single game. Find out more about it here.
The Westport Independent has all the trappings of a game I should like. Its Papers, Please-inspired interface and graphics (Lucas Pope is thanked in the credits) delighted me, as did its main premise of caring for a stable of writers against the needs of a small publication and a rapidly-encroaching totalitarian regime. The music was charming and moody, and the unfolding story of the world was engaging. But despite all this, the game flounders. At the end of the day, The Westport Independent is largely surface and little depth, a wading pool rather than the deep end.
Let’s start with the writers: I myself am an editor, and I see my job as one of stewardship as much as being a jerk about grammar. I wanted to develop relationships with my in-game writers, even the most conservative. I wanted them to be happy, I wanted them to thrive, and I didn’t want the Loyalist government to kidnap them as it sought to preserve its reputation in the face of the encroaching Public Culture Bill. When the government threatened one of my reporters, I forced her to take stories I knew she’d hate in the interest of keeping her alive. (She hated me for it, incidentally. I didn’t blame her.)
But ultimately the characters are hard to tell apart; they become little more than sliders of political beliefs, job satisfaction, and government suspicion. They would chat with each other in silhouette at the beginning of each day, a moment of camaraderie I envied from my lonely desk, but even then I had a hard time truly caring about them as characters. Their dialogue lacked nuance or defining characteristics. They were nothing but nametags who might give me trouble, as much as I wanted them to be something else.
This may be due to the game’s essential simplicity. You, as the editor of the titular paper, are tasked with editing and assigning stories that will please the government, your readership, and your writers. While “Loyalist” and “Rebel” are presented as part of a spectrum, the stories themselves are at one extreme or the other, with no middle ground. You can make a headline inflammatory or propaganda, run a piece shaming the government or praising it. Edits are done by striking out certain lines wholesale, with no room for the tinkering and subtlety actual editing entails. While this means you’re free to go to extremes and experiment, there’s none of the gray areas and moral dilemmas that made Papers, Please so memorable and affecting.
In my first playthrough, I created a paper full of crime news and celebrity gossip, with left-leaning articles hidden in our back pages. I tinkered for hours with the right balance, changing where the paper sold, trying to play it safe while still sticking to my guns. We still got our government threats, and some writers still disappeared, and the Public Culture Bill passed with us having influenced very little but most of us being alive.
The next time around I tried to go full Rebel, but my Rebel writers disappeared and I ended up limping to the end, having incited riots in some parts of the city but not all and with writers who hated my guts. It was satisfying to learn what became of my Rebel writers later—my departed radicals went on to foment revolution, which seemed a fair trade for the extra work they left me when they vanished—but it felt like a victory I’d managed to stumble into, rather than one I’d earned.
Any personalization or depth these different approaches entailed were largely supplied by my own imagination rather than the content of the game; I got the most value from the stories I made up on top of the game’s mechanics. While this could certainly be seen as a positive—making room for the player to create their own story out of the game’s green-and-gray building blocks—it can’t help but feel a little disappointing as well, like the player is forced to do more than their fair share of the work. With so many interesting ideas to play with and exciting moral quandaries to throw the player into, I wanted the game to bring more to the table than it did. I wanted it to push me, but I mostly ended up pulling it along.
I think The Westport Independent wants to be more than it is. It wants to say things about the media, censorship, and working as a reporter, but the writing and mechanics ultimately don’t support it. It’s an enjoyable and interesting experience, but one that left me wanting much more than it provided. I was disappointed to feel disappointed in it; it was a game I followed for a long time and wanted very badly to like. A more complex system, more characterization, and less black and white politics could have made it something special, but as is it’s a simple, shallow game that strives admirably to point to something bigger, even if it can’t quite reach.
– Riley MacLeod
Riley MacLeod is a writer and editor from Brooklyn, NY. His work has been seen at Offworld, Kill Screen, Paste, and others. His thoughts can be found on Twitter at @rcmacleod.
Jace Hidalgo is the brother of the webmaster and general games enthusiast. His work can be found here on this site.
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