Tropico – A Case Study in Successful Contextualization

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The Tropico series is all about its setting. Without its historical and geographic context, the games would barely rise to the level of an average city builder, but with its setting, the series elevates itself to that of a clever, if not particularly deep, simulation of an odd and often neglected part of history. Unlike Sim City, Cities Skylines, Anno, or any of the other famed city builders out there, Tropico doesn’t lazily put the player in the position of some sort of omnipotent super being who reigns supreme above all economic, political, and logistical aspects of his given city. Instead, Tropico gives the player the rare privilege of embodying a tin-pot dictator of an impoverished banana republic in the Caribbean. And it’s pretty damn cool.

What I especially love about the set-up is that the game is bold enough to assume a pretension of personality in the player-character, El Presidente. El Presidente is not some blank slate tan guy who somehow happens to run a small island nation, rather El Presidente is a corrupt dictator who will do anything to maintain power, but still retains a gleefully shallow front of democratic populism to placate the masses. This is never explicitly stated to the player, but it’s heavily implied by both the game’s mechanics and El Presidente’s helpful advisers, particularly Penultimo, who never misses an opportunity to assure El Presidente that his decisions to lie to, steal from, and murder his own citizens are heroic actions taken by a reluctant champion of the people.

Over the series’ 13 year history (2001-2014), a shifting team of developers have wholeheartedly committed to integrating the Tropico city building mechanics into a unique setting which is reinforced in every aspect of the game. The player stars every venture with a nearly untouched tropical island only marred by a crappy tenement (or some equally awful housing for poor people), a plantation, some basic infrastructure support, and of course, an absurdly decadent palace to house El Presidente. From there, the player can start construction on dozens of different buildings, expand his infrastructure, and issue edicts to govern the population. The player has two primary objectives which simultaneously support and undermine each other at different times: El President must build a functioning economy and maintain power.

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The push and pull between the two objectives provides the bulk of challenge and decision making in the game. Typically any actions taken by the player to enhance the economy, either by developing an export industry or attracting tourists, will provide El Presidente with future funds but won’t grant any immediate benefits to the population’s well-being. Meanwhile, taking steps to make the population happy, like building churches, entertainment sources, law enforcement, or media outlets, will require absorbing an upfront cost and maintenance costs into the future, thereby damaging the economy.

This is by no means a realistic portrayal of developmental economics, but it’s a decent basis for a city builder, and fits perfectly into the context of a tin pot dictator’s responsibilities. It would be easy enough for the developers to just let Tropico run like any other city builder, where the player is pretty much free to do whatever he wants, and his success and failure only effect cosmetic feedback systems, like a bar for resident happiness or a level of immigration. Instead, Tropico attempts the tricky business of inserting lose states into a city builder, and not just in particular scenarios where the player can fail a special mission, but also at the core of the entire city building system.

Just as with real life petty dictators, El Presidente has many threats to his regime. He can be voted out of power, overthrown by organized rebels, ousted by a military coup, slaughtered by a popular uprising, or even invaded by a foreign power. While different games in the series have various combinations of these potential lose states, there are always lots of potential threats the player can navigate. Typically the way to combat these threats is to build certain buildings or issue certain edicts, but of course those actions require money which can become awfully scarce when fending off multiple potential lose states.

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The single most interesting decisions to me in the Tropico series is the degree to which the player maintains his facade of being a democracy-loving champion of freedom, or essentially concedes that his power is based on a thin line of heavily armed death squads. The player must choose a point on this spectrum for lots of different individual decisions within each playthrough. For instance, allowing elections means the player has to spend a lot of money to placate multiple factions (religious, environmental, capitalist, communist, etc.) so they don’t vote El Presidente out of power, but banning elections will inflame the organized rebels and potentially lead to a mass uprising. Increasing military strength will keep coups at bay and help fight rebels, but also alienates the rest of the population and may even cause more people to join the rebels. Following directives from foreign powers can reap monetary rewards and military protection, but can also make local nationalists hate you and potentially provoke another power into a full scale invasion.

Both sides of the spectrum are viable options depending on the particular playthrough, but players often find themselves being pushed in one or the other, especially when dealing with special assignments handed down by the campaign missions. Even if a player idealistically wants to be a legitimate force for good in Tropico, he may find keeping the communists happy by building more low income housing to be more trouble (and money) than its worth, and just resort to building more guard posts to fight off a communist rebel threat, especially when funds are tight because the player is working on a more substantial project which will bring greater benefits to the country down the line.

It’s a really great dilemma for a game to present and really makes the player feel, well, what I sort of, kind of, imagine it must feel like to be a morally compromised dictator.

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The Tropico games aren’t perfect of course, and neither are their attempts at contextualization. One of my least favorite components of the game is the Swiss bank account mechanic, which is an ingenious concept but completely fails in execution. The Swiss bank system provides a couple of different ways to siphon money out of the country’s economy and into a secret Swiss bank account controlled by El Presidente. I love the idea of setting up a mechanic where the individual player-character is at odds with his entire country, where as usually he sides with some portion of the population against another portion, but the problem is that the Swiss bank account money has no effect on the city building system, other than to add points to the game’s useless scoring system. Admittedly, Tropico 5 does rectify this issue somewhat by allowing the player to use Swiss bank account funds in some campaign missions, but for the most part, embezzling funds from your own treasury just feels like adding an artificial level of difficulty to the game.

Another instance, which is more specific to Tropico 3 and 4, is that the player doesn’t really get the ability to choose to be communist or capitalist, despite that conflict being at the center of much of the political strife in the country. Basically, the player can curry favor with the communist and capitalist factions by servicing their policy goals. Communists want the player to take care of the poor by providing housing and high paying jobs for basic laborers, while the capitalists of course want mansions, high paying jobs for educated people, and just to be extra-evil, they want high income inequality. The problem is that regardless of which side the player chooses to support, he’s essentially a communist anyway. That is, as dictator of the country, El Presidente has complete control over what buildings are built and where, how much workers are paid, what government policies get put into place, etc. So there is no legitimate philosophical choice at all, just a cosmetic one.

On the other hand, I suppose it’s possible that the developers were trying to make some commentary on how the ideological commitments of the communists and capitalists during the Cold War were arbitrary since both sides really just wanted wealth and power. Or maybe they were pointing out that tin pot dictators tend to make arbitrary ideological commitments as a means of currying support solely so they can maintain power for themselves… or not. I really don’t know. If either of these theories are true, then the game didn’t do enough job of revealing them anyway.

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Despite these few errors, the Tropico series is still an excellent demonstration of how contextualization can elevate otherwise rote mechanics to a higher level. One can imagine a greatly stripped down version of Tropico as a boring city builder with some weird lose states, but instead it’s a fun series with a great sense of humor which provides unusual insight into a largely unexamined niche of world history.

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