The ethics of journalism have always been up for debate. No matter the era, there have always been those that theorize about media corruption, and proclaim that the press only serve as a public relations arm for both corporations and the government. It’s an interesting topic, and one that hasn’t really been the crux of a video game until now.
Swedish developer Double Zero One Zero’s latest game, The Westport Independent, has you role-playing as a newspaper editor. While this may seem like a mundane task at first glance, it’s made interesting by forcing folks to deal with an oppressive government that is about to introduce a bill that will dismantle independent media outlets. So it’s up to the player to decide how the last 12 weeks of the titular newspaper will occur. Do they try to make a difference by reporting the truth, or go all-in on supporting the government?
As the editor of The Westport Independent, players will have to choose which stories are worth running. Much like in real life, the editor will have to pick stories that are not only interesting, but ones that will sell, if they want to inform the public. This means that a scandalous story on an actor’s third marriage might make the front page, rather than a hard-hitting piece on government corruption.
Players will also have the opportunity to change headlines from bland titles to more salacious ones, and omit parts of stories. Depending on what the story is on, this will either gain support or ire from the government. Write stories that paint the rebellious factions in the city as savages, and you might secure yourself a nice job once independent news is wiped away. Conversely, the government will become suspicious of both you, and your staff, if you start printing stories that paint law enforcement in a negative light.
It’s an interesting struggle, and small cutscenes in-between weekly newspapers will flesh out who your writers are. Your staff is split between the two political factions in the city, which means that sometimes writers will refuse to write a piece that doesn’t line up with their viewpoints, or become worried about the negative consequences of what they’ll write. If not monitored carefully, players will start to lose members of their already small staff. This balancing act will make it necessary to sometimes force writers to put their names on stories that they don’t necessarily believe in. It’s not a fun choice, but it beats one of your employees going missing under mysterious circumstances.
Unlike most business simulations, you won’t have to worry about money in The Westport Independent, just the layout of your newspaper. You will also have to be mindful of how the city of Westport is divided into four distinct sections all with their own interests. For example, if players want their paper to sell in the rich North sector, they’ll want to include stories that pertain to celebrities and industry. Depending on who your newspaper reaches, you’ll be able to affect the city in different ways.
After 12 weeks have passed in-game, your job as an editor will end. A lengthy cutscene will then occur, showing off how you managed to impact the city of Westport. You’ll also get to see how all of your actions paid off. Since the game only takes about an hour to finish, you’ll most likely find yourself playing it several times in order to see what happens when you support the government or attempt to foster a rebellion. While this does add a lot of replayability, it sort of kills any moral ambiguity the second time around. Tough choices no longer have much meaning since you’re ultimately trying to see more of the story at this point, and not role-play as how you’d run the paper.
Since it’s all over so quickly, it also means that there isn’t nearly as much to the mechanics as there could’ve been. While this does keep the game simple, and ultimately more accessible, it makes for an experience that lacks depth. After the second week you’ve really seen all the game has to offer mechanically, and it would’ve been nice to have seen some additional interactions with the town itself. The world seems alive through the news stories you are reading, but ultimately you’re just holed up in a cubicle and not experiencing any of it.
One of the most redeeming factors of The Westport Independent is that Double Zero One Zero has put out a very stylish release, which features a nicely crafted monochrome color palette that fits in with the game’s 1949 setting. This isn’t only aesthetically pleasing, but it also helps out the narrative. After all, while there are still countries with authoritarian governments today, it seems far more believable (or at least is easier to swallow) that such widespread corruption could have happened in the past. That said, the game still makes a strong point considering that the issues it deals with are still as relevant today as they were in the 40s.
The Westport Independent has one of the most interesting premises we’ve seen in a video game in quite some time. While that certainly works in its favor, it also makes it all the more disappointing that so much more could’ve been done with the idea. That said, Double Zero One Zero has created a unique experience that really is unlike any other simulation title out there and should be played by everyone.
This review is based on the PC version, which we were provided with.
Despite not fully realizing its great premise, The Westport Independent is a fun way to spend a few hours. It'll make you think about how influential media can be, but doesn't entirely explore its subject matter.