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Confessions of an Armchair Dictator

Tropico 3

Kalypso Media, 2009

It was an embarrassment to be told by one of my roommates that Tropico 3 was coming out on the 20th of October. An embarrassment because, as an aspiring video game scholar, I’d hope I’d have my ear to the ground for such things, but also especially mortifying since the original Tropico was one of my favorite games, hours of my life having been spent deep in its urban planning, all set to the sound of the particular kind of horn-heavy Latin music.

So I was embarrassed, yes, but also delighted: I learned about the 10/20 release on 10/14 – which was convenient, since my patience has always been in short supply. My pre-order was swift, the clearing of memory in my Windows partition even swifter. When the game spun to life in my disc drive, I was welcomed by the familiar blare of horns and jubilantly sung Spanish. It felt a little like coming home.

My experience with Tropico is particular to the genre this game represents, a genre notably different from games such as Halo or Grand Theft Auto, or even The Sims. Its true antecedents are Sim City, and Caesar; urban development and economic planning are central to gameplay here. Tropico is distinct because of its setting and style; in the game you take on the role of the president/dictator of a small Caribbean island during the Cold War era, a kind of ‘Sim Cuba’ in which you have the option to play ‘as’ Fidel Castro, who (not surprisingly) comes with his own unique set of advantages and flaws. The tone of the game is parodic, something the political circus of Latin America seems to lend itself to, and it sometimes comes dangerously close to a condescension that’s forgivable only because the US doesn’t escape critical lampooning (‘Installed by the CIA’ is one of the options for your ruler’s rise to power).

Put in dry technical terms, Tropico is a construction and management simulation (CMS), a type of game that, despite my atrocious personal organizational skills I find incredibly compelling. And while Sim City and Caesar were deeply involving in their own right (particularly the latter in which you play as a Roman prefect – perfect for the high school Latin student and the self-aggrandizing adolescent – if those really count as two separate categories), Tropico offered something more – a megalomaniac manner with a very different feel to it from the more casual autocracy of other CMS games.

This particular something is intensified in Tropico 3 – a feeling I can best describe as “power at risk,” where you’re directly caught up in the cut-and-thrust logic and deception of personal ambition and realpolitik; merely gun-toting games like Doom and Grand Theft Auto are roundly criticized for their bloodlust, but the tensions and terrors of a CMS game like Tropico are ultimately far more frightening. Which is not to dismiss the incredible value and interest of those games (the latter of which I’ve already defended here). It is, instead, to ask a new question: what exactly about Tropico gives me (and other residually megalomaniacal adult subjects) so much pleasure?

In a word: politics. While approval ratings and living standards do have some effect on the operations of Caesar and Sim City, it’s never necessary to hold elections in either game; power was secure in a way that is very reassuring to the player. Not so in Tropico, where the rigors of democracy are often a hair-raising and urgent distraction from the civil administration of your island. Tropico even includes political factions (Capitalist, Militarist, Communist, Intellectual, etc.) whose ideologies and demands dictate the success or failure of your elections. Lose an election, lose the game.

Of course, as in the finest traditions of political systems with a grossly over-powered executive (there is no legislature on Tropico), there are all sorts of dirty tricks lurking up the presidential sleeve. These range from the flagrancy of denying elections altogether to the relative subtlety of bribing an important faction leader, whose increased good opinion might just shift things in your favor. Tax cuts, while costly, will buy the temporary goodwill of your people, just long enough to squeeze in another term in. Should a particular critic become too outspoken during election time, a fatal ‘accident’ can be arranged by your secret police, a perversely exciting feature added in the most recent version of the game. And when the votes are in, you can discreetly ‘reinterpret’ up to 20% of the ballots. Lucky such things can’t happen in real life.

These methods have their risks, since particularly disillusioned citizens might take up arms and retreat into the woods, becoming red-bereted rebels. Such malcontents will wait until the time is right, gathering numbers until they feel confident enough to launch an assault on your palace. If that happens, you’d better hope your military can handle them. You’d also better hope your soldiers are well treated and loyal, since a coup can depose you even more swiftly than a rebellion.

A skillful player can stay on top of things well enough to make these techniques unnecessary. At the average difficulty setting, winning elections isn’t too hard. But the experience of power-at-risk I mentioned, absent from many other games of this kind, is here a big part of the pleasure you get from oppressing your simulated citizens. I’ve spent hours in thought while taking public transit, trying to devise some new Orwellian use of propaganda and education to ensure my continued reign. After all, a diabolical part of 1984’s pleasure comes from the clever way the Inner Party is able to maintain control. What I feel about those methods is something not unlike awe; taking that kind of power into your own virtual hands is as seductive as it is scary.

At my most Orwellian heights of deception, I discovered that flat-out denying elections is something only clumsy dictators do; it’s far more effective to dutifully hold elections, then fake every one, whether or not I needed to do so in order to win. The logic behind this method comes from the game’s inclusion of ‘democracy expectations’. The citizens of Tropico expect a certain level of oppression, and their experience of liberty is tempered by this. The discrepancy can be a tricky thing, however, since an increase in liberty eventually becomes an expectation of liberty; freer people demand yet more freedom. In order to mitigate any ‘big ideas’ about genuinely free elections, I routinely faked every contest. The (my!) people were thrilled to have elections at all, and my cheating kept their petty little expectations from getting out of hand.

What I feel now, upon relating this particularly strategy, is a mix of pride and shame. Mostly pride.

It would be easier to dismiss this as mere megalomania if Tropico’s simulations didn’t so often mimic reality so closely. Politics is a dirty game – we all know that, and we all joke (grimly, at times) about it. We know there’s an enormous system in place, we know it’s only slightly accountable to us and we are often its victims, and usually, after a few beers, we can find a way to live with such knowledge. How far are we, then, from my poor citizens, who probably gather in the local bar and chuckle over their third or fourth beer about which candidate they voted for, El Presidente or El Presidente?

Tropico allows you to be on the other side of this joke, where it’s not so much bitter as exultant and borderline sadistic in a way that’s more disturbing than simple blood-and-guts violence. Unlike Doom or Halo, Tropico invites you to orchestrate systemic violence, a violence that is formal and self perpetuating, made of crushing people’s hopes and keeping them crushed.

Nietzsche once observed that anyone truly secure in their sense of power would feel no compulsion to abuse it, and Tropico puts me through the paces of that sentiment, letting me experience the truth of it in ways simple statement and explanation could never provide.

You aren’t required to abuse your power in this game; it’s entirely possible to play and win without resorting even to relatively harmless propaganda and deal-cutting (e.g. promising to build a Cathedral in order to win the support of the religious faction). Tropico does not demand you surrender to the logic of realpolitik, especially in its most ruthless conclusions. It’s more honest and more ethical to provide the choice, to make the player decide just how much victory matters to them. I am by no means condemning Tropico as a game or as an idea; quite the opposite. Confronting my own latent fascistic tendencies is valuable, and in this game it’s safely done; I can enter the realm of the dictator and return with forbidden knowledge. You learn about yourself through playing this game – and not always things you want to learn.

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Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous reviews for Open Letters were on Grand Theft Auto IV, BioShock, video game movies, Christie Golden’s World of Warcraft novel Arthas, Massive Multiplayer Online Gaming, The Sims franchise, video game music, and Halo 3: Orbital Drop Shock Trooper.

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