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.