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Kill a Newspaper in This Censorship Game

The truth is your last priority when editing 'The Westport Independent.'
May 15, 2015, 3:00pm
Chatter in The Westport Independent's break room. Image: Double Zero One Zero

It's not easy being the editor of The Westport Independent, a game about censorship and the subjective nature of the news that released an early demo this week.

The Loyalist Party is about to pass the Public Culture Bill that more or less restricts the media from saying anything negative about the government, and there's a story on my desk about a violent clash between protesters and the police.

"Protesters Outside Police Station" is the working headline, but the game always gives me an alternate headline, so I switch it to "Rebel Sympathizers Attack Police." I cross out the paragraph about the arrests and assign one of my employees, Phil, to transcribe it for print. Phil went to a private college and drinks the Loyalist Party kool-aid, so he's not going to make a fuss about printing propaganda. If I gave the story to Frank, who sides with the rebels, it would be a different story, but luckily he's out of the office to join a protest himself.

I put the story on the cover, and arrange the rest of the paper's layout, filling it out with a healthy mix of social, celebrity, and business news. Hopefully that sells some issues, because censorship or not, there's no point in running a newspaper if nobody's buying it.

What the public doesn't know will hurt it. Image: Double Zero One Zero

"The thing with Westport is that it's not so much about living in a heavily censored society as it is about being the one who is creating a heavily censored society," one of the game's two creators Pontus Lundén told me. "Even in a country that doesn't have problems with censorship you'd still get twisted news, news that are written in a certain way to reflect a certain thing."

The Westport Independent drives this point home by forcing you to make choices. Do you modify the story so it doesn't upset the government, or do you dump it completely and replace it with celebrity gossip that might increase circulation? Do you run the paper in service of the people and risk driving it into the ground, or do you do whatever's necessary to keep it running, even at the expense of half-truths and the country's future?

If this kind of political game as a series of bureaucratic choices sounds familiar, it's because The Westport Independent is heavily influenced by Lucas Pope's Papers, Please, a celebrated indie game that puts you in the shoes of an immigration officer in a fictional Eastern Bloc communist country. Fans of Pope's work might even remember that he made The Republic Times, a game about running a newspaper at one of those countries before the release of Papers, Please.

Strangely, Lundén said they haven't even heard about The Republic Times until they started working on The Westport Independent.

"You can see in Papers, Please how Lucas Pope has taken a lot of what he's learned from Republica Times, so I guess in a way we sort of reverse engineered what he did," Lundén said. "They have very similar themes but the gameplay itself and the actual point of the game are a bit different. The core point of Republica is not so much about editing and trying to twist news as it is about saying them and not saying them. Westport is more about taking an article and then turning it to your advantage."

Depending on how you cover his exploits, he could become the next police chief, or get arrested and killed

Censorship is not a huge issue in Sweden, where Lundén and his partner Kristian Brodal formed their studio Double Zero One Zero, but that doesn't mean Swedish media doesn't have similar problems. As Lundén said, the game's look and name are intentionally Western to highlight the fact that censorship isn't a problem unique to third-world countries and totalitarian regimes.

"Almost all countries have papers that have their own political stance and therefore write the articles the way that they want," Lundén said. "I refer you to Fox News for further examples. Instead of trying to be objective be open that you're subjective. Have multiple papers, have multiple subjective articles that tell different sides of the story."

At the moment, The Westport Independent's free alpha preview allows you to manage six weeks and six issues of the paper leading up to the passing of the Public Culture Bill. It already includes around 100 unique stories for you to edit, and Lundén said that based on feedback they've received so far, the final release is likely to be double the size if not more.

Future stories will also let you have more impact on the world, like influencing the career of an aspiring police sergeant. Depending on how you cover his exploits, he could become the next police chief, or get arrested and killed.

The outcome isn't so much about the Truth, as it is about the truth you think will serve you best.

"Thinking that you'd have objective news is a dumb idea," Lundén said.

You can get The Westport Independent preview for free here.