Return to Tropico

The last time Arcadian Rhythms covered a Tropico game, it was Spann writing about how the first game in the series made him realise how David Cameron felt: like an inflatable caricature of a man. Okay, okay, he actually wrote about how the game made him act like a monster, having citizens murdered and crushing protest about living conditions.

Tropico 3 has, apparently, seen the series pursue a different direction since its inception.

Tropico 3 - balcony

THE PEOPLE LOOK LIKE ANTS FROM UP HERE

On the face of it everything is much the same: you are the ruler of a small island nation that starts out with very little, and it’s up to you to build it up however you see fit. Your people will often be unhappy with, well, pretty much everything: low pay, poor quality housing, lack of jobs, too many immigrants, not enough churches, no entertainment available, poor healthcare, not enough focus on the environment, not enough statues erected to honour El Presidente, you name it.

What’s strikingly different is just how easy it is to manage these concerns in Tropico 3. Okay, factions will get pissed off that you don’t immediately pander to their every whim – the religious faction in particular complain about the lack of a church almost from the off. Still, you can ignore a lot of complaints for a very long time while you work on improving things without anything serious happening to your regime. It is, in short, unnecessary to use the full dictatorial toolbox developers Haemimont lay before you.

Cultural critic Jonathan McCalmon has written about how strategy games make you behave like a bastard. It’s a thought-provoking read.

What is curious to me here is that the game places all of these options before the player, and says “you could assassinate the leader of a troublesome faction. You could set up a secret police. You could establish martial law. You could be the boot pressing down on a human face, forever.” And the player, in this case me, looks over that and responds “actually, I think I will work to raise living standards, sponsor social security, increase and balance wages, and construct schools and hospitals.”

Tropico 3 lets you not be a monster. You can be. But you can also make the best decisions available, pay people as much as you can afford, invest everything in healthcare and entertainment and religion and respond to what people want. You can make Tropico better for Tropicans. And I really, really like that. For the first dozen scenarios I played I didn’t even put any money into my Swiss bank account; I’ve only since done it once or twice out of idle curiousity. I get points for that? Who cares, with that money I could build another clinic so this neighbourhood has better healthcare. That matters more to me. I like this island and its people. Even if they can be arseholes with unrealistic expectations.

Hmm. Maybe I do know a little about how Cameron feels.

You can’t see it, but I’m shuddering as I type this.

Tropico 3 - Rastafarian immigrants

SOMETHING ABOUT THIS JUST DOESN’T FEEL RIGHT

After I’d been playing Tropico 3 for quite a while (cumulatively I think I’m on about fifty hours) I noticed something quite startling. It was the elephant in the room or, perhaps, the elephant stomping around a small island nation of fifty to five hundred people.

Let me illustrate it to you with the above screenshot. It shows a sudden influx of immigrants to one of my islands; this is a boatload of refugee Rastafarians arriving during an Absolute Power add-on scenario.

…those guys all look kinda… white European in ancestry, huh?

For some utterly bizarre reason, despite this game being set in and around the Caribbean, despite it allowing a variety of skin tones on the player avatar, despite the game featuring on loading screens quotes from figures such as “Papa Doc” Duvalier and Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and despite featuring tourists who you are explicitly told are travelling from all over the world, you will be unable to find a single black Tropican in this game.

I don’t want to dwell on this point overly much, as I’m sure there’s nothing sinister to it. In fact I’m fairly sure it is a whitewashing born of thoughtlessness, or of a laziness in ensuring the skins of the 3D models correspond to their country of origin and family members. That is not to say that it is something that should not be criticised in a game like Tropico 3, but it is tragically common among videogames that non-white characters get short-shrift. At least here the default tendency is Latin American.

Tropico 3 - panorama

OUT OF PLACE AND TIME

What I also find faintly troubling about Tropico 3 is its ahistoricism. This is much more of a minefield than the criticism I’ve raised above. I will endeavour to tread carefully.

The game is based on you playing the leader of a little banana republic and raising it from a tiny, destitute settlement to something self-sustaining. The game manages to be not particularly controversial, which to be honest is an achievement in itself, and tries to take an even-handed and irreverent tone towards the corruption and ideological bullshit of both communism and capitalism, as exhibited by the USA and USSR (the two superpowers constantly loom over you in Tropico 3, and you may find your island blockaded by gunboats if you really piss one of them off). The same is true of the various historical despots and leftist heroes of Latin American and the Caribbean. This neutrality is laudable for a videogame, even if the politically and historically literate may find it troubling to find a man like Augusto Pinochet placed, without context, alongside someone like Aristide.

What shows the limits of the game is that no matter how communist/socialist a model you pursue, the game itself is still built on a capitalist model that’s all about either exports or tourism. Okay, this is both quasi-realistic (even a socialist or Communist state will generate revenue through exports) and sensible (programming multiple economic models into a game? Yow!) but it’s a shame that, given the setting, the game doesn’t allow you to really tinker with making a different society. Deep and fascinating ideological differences are reduced to a few factions and foreign powers you must appease, alongside minor factors such as capitalists approve of high wage disparity, and communists like good quality housing for all.

In other words, a successful society is one that matches liberal democratic capitalism with a dynastic approach to its rulers (i.e. you, the player). That model is better than a lot of alternatives but it’s hardly engaging with socialist possibilies. That every game of Tropico 3 tends towards this outcome highlights just how deeply the worldview from which the game as a product was born has influenced its mechanical possibilities.

As a contrary example, why not have a game scenario that prevents you from exporting anything, as with Cuba’s perpetual blockade by the USA? This would force you to only use the island’s own natural resources plus any overseas financial backing to massively scale up your food production, education and healthcare infrastructure. Foreign specialists and immigration would be curtailed, too. This example would require a lot of rejigging of the game’s mechanics but it would also be a damn sight more interesting than “get 70% approval in thirty years”.

The Absolute Power add-on does go some way toward varying the scenarios on offer, but it trends strongly towards wackiness rather than unusual socio-politics. You can’t, for example, do anything interesting like building a knowledge economy or supporting the artistic and literary efforts of your Tropicans or pursuing a Bolivarian revolution or… god, I don’t know, whatever. Anything that smells of actual socialism, or social engineering. At the other end of the scale, you can’t pursue a “Chicago Boys”-style shock capitalism approach either – although with the tools the game gives you you could pretend that’s what you were doing.

At this point I come straight back round to the USA and the USSR. It would be easy to argue that Tropico 3 is actually being very canny in making the models proposed by the USA and USSR so very similar, particularly where client states are concerned. The USSR has always been criticised by unaligned socialists as being a “state capitalist” system after Stalin took the reigns, and for most small nations during the Cold War the choices on offer usually boiled down to whose sets of ideological diktats they had to obey else face a coup or invasion.

But I think that is a weak argument that only stands because of its convenience. I prefer to look at those missed opportunities, and think of the game that might have been.

Tropico 3 - El Presidente

THIS IS ALL ABOUT MY LOVE FOR YOU

Let’s put aside those criticisms. They are really meta-criticisms; concerns and desires external to the game itself. As I’ve already admitted I’ve played Tropico 3 an awful lot. I’ve beaten every scenario in the core game and a bunch from Absolute Power, too.

Despite my earlier comments I should say that the scenarios are nice and varied within the game’s constraints, which is great. Although a lot of the time you’re building up similar stuff (following either tourism or industry as a route to grow your economy) there are plenty of different options within those paths and you rarely have enough money to get everything. By the time you do you’re approaching the endgame and are quite likely to be focusing your efforts on either specific objectives, filling your Swiss bank account or making things better for your Tropicans.

The game is also a delight to play. The visuals boast an excellent level of detail – you can track individual Tropicans from their home to their place of work to their prayer sessions or entertainment once they clock off – and your settlement feels very organic. You don’t directly control any Tropican beyond, optionally, your player avatar, and each Tropican has an enjoyable simulation of an interior life that overlaps with that of every other. It’s fun just to stop and watch your people go about their days. Dare I say it, it feels… paternal.

I’m shuddering again. It’s the context, sorry.

The music is awesome too. Fifty hours and I’m still not tired of it. It’s simultaneously chilled out and hip-shaking; relaxing and exciting. You get a sense of it being sunny and warm just as on your island even when it’s the usual pissing awful British weather outside. If I could play this game on a Caribbean beach whilst sipping cocktails, I would.

So that is Tropico 3. It’s a game that I love, and it’s a game that probably wouldn’t have been as good had it delivered on its concept beyond the level of novelty, but it’s a game I’m always going to think of with a hint of regret. Still, I do love visiting and staying for a while.

Tropico 3 - bird's eye view