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by G. Christopher Williams

4 Nov 2009

In Tropico 3, you take on the role of a Latin American dictator on a fictitious island in the Caribbean.  Sounds like fun, right?

Well, as anyone who likes to play god in simulation games by taking on the role of managing cities, zoos, movie studios, or amusement parks can tell you, doing so is generally a fairly complex undertaking that generally tests your own abilities in administrating but rarely tests your authority.  Despite being a simulation of dictatorship, Tropico 3 is largely about questioning authority and also about questioning the ideals of those politically motivated enough to arrest power.

Like other god games, this one will have you building an economy while developing and managing resources (both natural resources as well as people).  Unlike other god games, the political aspects of leadership become an additional management issues.  While “El Presidente” is free to make decisions about what to build and how to allocate the treasury of Tropico, he or she will also need to pay attention to the interests of a host of interest groups that influence the tiny people that find themselves under the sway of your “benevolent” guidance.  These interest groups range wildly from Capitalists to Communists to Militarists to Nationalists to the Religious.

As a result, while the various scenarios that the player can choose to play out in campaign mode have specific overarching goals (like shipping a certain amount of tropical goods over the course of several decades or building an economy based on oil profits or staying in power for three decades or socking away a large amount of cash in your Swiss Bank account before your tenure as dictator is over), any of these specific goals can only be met by kowtowing to the whims and needs of these various interest groups.  While building up an agriculturally based economy might seem like a simple enough goal, try doing so at the same time that religious Tropicans want you to build them a cathedral or the military wants better pay for those that defend Tropico against foreign and domestic threats (especially domestic threats but more on that in a moment) or the Communists are demanding better health care for all Tropicans.

Thus, Tropico suggests that you might play at being a seeming “master of men” while exposing the political reality of such “mastery”: that even a dictator has to bow to the demands of the little people if he or she wants to remain in power.  An almost Jeffersonian claim concerning the assumption that power is only granted through the will of the people underlies this democratization of dictatorial power.  This is democracy born of antagonism with the people, though, not by being directly empowered by them.  Indeed, any of the interest groups (of which there are seven in total in addition to the foreign interests of the US and USSR, since the scenarios are all set during decades of the Cold War) that might choose to begin attacking the infrastructure of the nation if they become sufficiently uncomfortable with your power.  Particular groups, like the Militarists, become especially thorny problems as they may simply mount a palace coup and remove you from power altogether if their needs are not addressed or if they feel that the safety of Tropico is threatened.  Elections may also be difficult to control (though, fraud provides some limited options) if a large enough group of variant interest groups find themselves generally dissatisfied with the fruit of their dictator’s labor.

Tropico then is played as a balancing act made up of constant political pandering.  The addition of edicts that can be issued unilaterally aids this process of pandering.  Edicts change the rules of the game and also cost a regular amount of money to maintain over a period of time.  Some edicts are just generally helpful to the Tropican community.  For example, the literacy edict improves relationships with the Intellectuals but also improves education and skills among Tropican workers.  However, the more interesting edicts are those that tend to pit interest groups against one another.  Declaring same sex marriages legal on Tropico will help to assuage any rifts that you have managed to create with the Intellectuals, but the edict will also open up new rifts with the Religious.

This emphasis on practical pandering, too, emphasizes another aspect of the game’s themes concerning the nature of politics themselves.  Since you have your own goals as dictator, which are not necessarily bad for the people of Tropico (building a grand economy for them couldn’t hurt could it?), practicality and pragmatism tend to trump any kind of adherence to political philosophy or ethics.

This Machiavellian vision of the machinery of the political can be quite pleasing from a gaming perspective as well as leading to often cynical observations about how certain philosophies’ ideas can be used pragmatically rather than idealistically to meet the goals of the individual in power.  A troubling but also surprisingly thrilling moment for me came in a scenario in which I was building a very strong economic infrastructure and realized that my workforce was not sufficient to maintain my economic engine.  My relationship with the Nationalists was quite poor at the time as I had hired a good many foreign workers to try to keep up with my need for a larger workforce.  However, my open immigration policy was pushing them towards rebellion.  I had never had the need to issue a contraceptive ban during the game before as I had merely seen it as a way to please the religious while pissing off the intellectuals.  Doing so seemed a pointless tradeoff of potentially rebellious citizenry.  However, I suddenly saw the very pragmatic purpose of “finding religion” and additionally realized that doing so could also benefit me by creating a native workforce, thus, stabilizing my fractured relationship with the Nationalists.  Philosophy and ethics bore very little relevance on my quick decision to issue the ban.  I needed more Tropican babies and the religion of Tropico allowed me to create them.

It is these moments of pragmatic insight and decision making that carries with it complex consequences (hurting you in some ways and helping you in others) that make the simulatory politics of Tropico 3 most interesting as they are expressed through gameplay.  Being a dictator is indeed fun, but it is also a rather wicked way of coming to understand the practical ramifications of seemingly absolute power.

by Tyler Gould

4 Nov 2009

Oh No Ono’s “Swim” can now be found on iTunes in audio and video form. Their sophomore album, Eggs, is finally getting distributed all over the globe, being released in the U.S. by Friendly Fire and worldwide by the Leaf Label on January 26th.

by Sean McCarthy

4 Nov 2009

In 1989, I was lucky enough to discover Soundgarden two years before the grunge revolution. I read a rave about Louder Than Love in what was at that time my musical bible: Circus magazine. After a steady stream of Anthrax, Metallica, and Megadeth, I was floored at how heavy a band could be by playing so slow.

Two years later, I was somewhat disappointed by Badmotorfinger, partly because the sound wasn’t as raw as Louder Than Love, and partly because a lot of the kids at my high school were discovering a secret that I was in on two years before. By 1994, I was so steeped in playing “spot the sellout” that I couldn’t listen to their blockbuster Superunknown due to the incessant rotation of “Black Hole Sun”.

Years pass. People mature. And occasionally, you find yourself ready to pop in a CD that you may not have given much of a chance when it first came out. Sure, “Spoonman” still justifies the skip, but what floored me was the quality of the “deep tracks”, specifically the seven-minute closer “Like Suicide”.

If any song in Soundgarden’s arsenal showed how indispensible each member was, it was on this slow-burner of a closer. In the span of seven minutes, bassist Ben Sheppard starts the song with a bubbling bass line, leading into Kim Thayil’s warning siren-like guitar riff. Thayil and Sheppard keep the tension building while Chris Cornell goes from gentle croon, to rawk wail, to unleashed scream. Finally, as the entire thing explodes, drummer Matt Cameron closes the song with such ferocity, you’re half expecting to hear his snare crack. The entire effect is the musical equivalent of a dormant volcano slowly building before its Mt. St. Helens-like eruption.

On Superunkown, Soundgarden proudly wore their Led Zeppelin influence, and “Like Suicide” was the band’s “In My Time of Dying”. Comparing love to suicide is hardly original, and a year later Billy Corgan shouted Cornell’s lament almost verbatim on “Bodies”. But Cornell’s sentiments on “Like Suicide” were more sinister and thus more believable. When Cornell yells “I feel for you”, you’re not sure if that’s actually a good thing.

The lyrics also contained its share of cryptic foreshadowing. The most obvious one being the death of Kurt Cobain, who expressed his love of Louder Than Love in interviews. However, there are other most subtle instances. Nearly a half-decade before school shootings overtook the media spotlight, Cornell’s pained delivery of a line like “with an ounce of pain, I wield a ton of rage” can put a chill down a listener’s spine. And all this from a song that Cornell apparently wrote about a bird that fatally flew into a window in his house.

“Like Suicide” would have been a great capper for Soundgarden: It combined the pure aggressiveness of their earlier work with the refined skill the band demonstrated in the more Beatlesque songs on Superunknown. The song could also be on the shortlist for best song the band ever recorded. But the band opted for one more album, 1996’s Down the Upside, with mixed results. Still, many circles regard Superunkown as grunge’s last masterpiece. And like most masterpieces, the closing track pretty much determines whether it’s fit for that distinction or just merely a “great album”. Judged on “Like Suicide”, it was easy to figure out what category Superunknown would fall.

by Mehan Jayasuriya

4 Nov 2009

Every time I attempt to see the Boss, disaster strikes.  In May, Bruce Springsteen and company rolled through town and, needless to say, I was looking forward to the show.  But on the eve of the concert, upon returning home from a trip, I discovered that my apartment had been flooded, no thanks to a busted water pipe.  Out of desperation, I asked my colleague Wilson McBee if he would attend and review the show in my place while I mopped.  (He kindly obliged and did one better by writing a more thoughtful review than I ever could have.)  Luck was on my side, however, because just six months later Springsteen and the E Street Band were back at the Verizon Center, somehow managing to sell out the 20,000 seat Verizon Center yet again.

by Sarah Zupko

4 Nov 2009

British jazz/hip-hop fusioners the Herbaliser opened for De La Soul at a recent show in Paris and Grandcrew.com was on the scene to capture the proceedings at Paris’ Jazz à la Villette. The funky soulful beats are out in full force here. Check out more on the new stellar release Session 2, which got an 8 from PopMatters back in August.

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