Yes, dystopian censorship may be rotten, and sure, the erosion of civil liberties through constant societal reinforcement of broad, safe-sounding but ultimately problematic legislations based in well-meaning but ill-considered attempts to protect others from the ultimately negligible problem of offence might be a right pain in the arse, and alright, there may be some elements of restriction on our freedom of speech creeping unnoticed into Britain today, such as a certain 1986 Public Order Act or a frequently suggested proposal of banning religious criticism at the UN that both hang over our collective heads like the Twin Swords Of Damocles, always threatening to cut the ever vital cord between personal thought and public expression that enables true advancement and intellectual debate for the purposes of –
Hold on, I think my political views might be bleeding through into my work ever so slightly. Let me start again.
Whatever your opinion on the limits of censorship, I’m sure we’ve all had that slightly uncomfortable feeling of self-loathing when we’ve had to lie about something that’s important to us, or when we’ve not been brave enough to speak up when somebody needed to say something. Well, developers Double Zero One Zero have decided to digitise that emotion with The Westport Independent, a new game for mobiles that I promptly downloaded into my iPad to try out, though it is also floating around on Steam, apparently.
Those of you who know your recent indie games and have seen the screenshots may have made a connection with another notable title back from 2013. After all, The Westport Independent IS a muted colour, pixel-artwork, desk-viewing, paperwork-moving game about making tough choices with broad consequences, in which you work to either appease or undermine a fictional totalitarian government whilst trying to maintain both your own lifestyle and the lifestyles of the four people who rely on you. So yeah, a comparison to THAT game was kind of inevitable.
Basically, The Westport Independent might as well be called Newspapers, Please. You sit at a table picking up the stories your journalists have brought in, hacking bits out or rewording the headlines, all to keep the suspicious eye of the Westport Loyalist Government off your back and trying to make ends meet.
And I have to say, it’s an intriguing little idea, one I actually like more than Papers, Please’s passport inspection as ideas go. When a story comes in about the police force hassling the homeless, you could expose this horror in all its damning glory, letting the people know what their rulers have been doing to the more unfortunate among us. Or alternatively, you could decide you don’t want a truncheon in the face and write about how recent statistics now show that the number of people living on the streets are down since last year! Sure, it’s because they’re all buried in unmarked graves, but who needs to know a little detail like that?
Or, if you just want to fly under the radar, you could just print tabloid rubbish about how some celebrity has put on weight recently, and let the grown-ups deal with the actual news, you big wuss.
What I like about The Game With The Really Boring Name is that it’s good at reminding you of what you need to be scared of, good at constantly reminding you of the consequences you should be avoiding. Because when I started off, I was full of rebellious spirit. Yes, boo to Johnny government! Those bigwigs and bureaucrats have trodden on the freedom of the individual for too long! So every story I put out was completely condemning of the ruling forces, with no propaganda and just the bare facts that the public deserved.
And then one of my writers vanished. Just disappeared one day, into the blue. The only explanation I got was a typed letter from my faceless overlords saying that they’d taken my leading reporter into custody – and that they’d be watching to see what we put out for the next few weeks.
Needless to say, I never saw him again. And from that point on, all the stories I wrote became a great deal less fiery in tone. After all, there’s always two sides to every argument, isn’t there?
There’s some other aspects that are worth mentioning. Your staff all have political leanings, some of them like the government and some don’t, and they can get quite upset if you force them to write a big exposition on how the President enjoys eating puppies, or the rebel movement is all for putting nuns in sweatshops. They may even quit (the staff, not the nuns), depending on how you pressure them, and between releasing editions they chatter in the break room, discussing how you, the big boss, have fucked up the news that week.
You can also advertise for different city districts (which the game is REALLY bad at explaining), all of which want to see different things from the news, like celebrity gossip or crime reports. One little feature I liked is that the slogan of the paper changes depending who you focus on, which shows a real sense of care about presentation and maintaining the illusion. Well done to whoever had the thankless job of making all those up – it’s the little things that matter.
However – and there is a big however – the game ends in about the biggest let-down it can, with a conclusion that arrives too fast and is over too quickly. A stream of text scrolls up past the screen, describing how the various districts have been effected by your actions and whether they’ve ended up sitting home watching the propaganda shows, or running through the streets hitting policeman with hammers and shouting about the rise of the worker. And considering this ending happened about an hour after starting the game, it’s hard not to feel a little put out. Maybe the intention is to prompt us to play over and over, but this isn’t a rogue-like. There’s no benefit granted to those trying it on subsequent playthroughs, there’s nothing more to it than that.
I suppose it’s a testament to the quality of the game that I wanted more from it, but for what it’s worth, “North Korean Media Simulator 2016” ends too soon, and not with a bang, but with a whimper. There’s none of the branching narrative and intrigue that Papers, Please had going for it, and I would’ve liked to have seen more happen as the story develops. What about the paper getting picked up as spin doctors for the Loyalist Oppressors, or stumbling on a big conspiracy that goes to the highest rank of the rebellion? This all seems kind of obvious as a means of progressing the game, and yet none of it comes to pass. It just sort of… Stops. A bit like this paragraph is about to do.
Oh, and it’s pretty damn buggy as games go. The app would often crash as I tried to start it up, it cut out during the ending scene, and I didn’t get any sound from my version of the game, despite going into the settings and moving volume sliders around like a bored DJ.
Don’t let any of this make you think that The Westport Independent isn’t worth at least a look, because on the whole I’d say it just about comes out on the positive side of things. It’s imaginative and poignant as concepts go, but it’s either not brave enough or imaginative enough (ironically) to make the most of a rather unique idea, and definitely could’ve used a few more refinements on both a design and a programming level to bring it up to snuff. What I’d love to see is some sort of sequel or big upgrade, one that pulls up the bootstraps of this small game that’s utterly brimming with potential to be something really good, but until that happens, I can’t say it’s anything more than basically OK. And that’s not just because there’s two men standing behind me with billy-clubs and Alsatians.
A game that could’ve been superb is let down by a lack of initiative, a shocking runtime and some rather glaring technical issues that need fixing fast. Some more material and a hearty patch could easily push this up to an eight, developers.