Let’s talk about tropical dictatorships

I finally downloaded the game Tropico. It’s unique in the very non-pejorative sense. It’s not, like, sublime . . . but it’s good enough to make me wonder why it didn’t get more attention on release. It seems also that it’s just what I want from a game right now.

It’s a sim-lite with an endearingly wry sense of humour. It did take me a little while to get what I was supposed to be doing, however, and to also figure out which notices and warnings were worth paying attention to. Of the one campaign level I managed to finish this evening, the main backbone of the island economy seemed to be farming, but there was no clear indication of how productive my farms were being. The exporting of crops is a bit of a black-box system also, as I couldn’t tell how much was being eaten vs. being exported, at least until it actually left the island on a massive container ship, the only other notice being “$X worth of goods have been exported”.

The only other source of income for our struggling dictatorial nation is foreign aid – both the US and USSR provide aid on a yearly basis but it’s in the order of $1K-$5K, not enough to run a government on for a year (and certainly not enough if you’re corrupt and embezzling money on the side). This parody of banana republic style latin-american nations and the geo-political situation they  often found themselves in during the period 1950’s – 1980’s is the main source of the game’s humour – and it works quite marvellously.

The clever satire and light tone permeates the rest of the game like a wink and a smile. My dictator was El Pollo Diablo, ‘the devil chicken’, and quite probably an homage to Monkey Island 3 (It’s where I learnt the phrase from, along with all the Spanish I know. If I ever go to a Spanish speaking country I’ll at least be able to order myself two eggs).  Diablo is a white-suited man who jogs about his country (small enough to get around in by foot) to visit building sites and make stirring proclamations from the second story balcony of his presidential palace. Click him and he’ll say pithy things and act like the petulant ruler he is (“What is it, I am busy ruling”). He also gambles with the country’s money, and loses.

“Miracles do happen in Tropico” is a note on the tooltip the s cars resident’s use to get around quickly in, being a comment on the fact that when people get out of them the vehicle drives back to the garage sans-driver. Tropico doesn’t seem to bother with unimportant details like how cars get to and from the garage without their drivers as it’s too busy being revolutionary! Onward brave comrade!

I held free and fair elections after noting that opinion polls indicated my benevolent dictator would win by a comfortable margin. At the same time, a trading company offered to send political spin doctors to help my campaign, and all they asked for in return was a lowering of food export prices to their great benefit – what kindness, what generosity! On another occasion a coffee company sent our island nation an aid development grant of $2000, at which point I was offered the opportunity of ‘administering’ the aid personally (adding it to my Swiss bank account). I declined the opportunity diverting it instead to the nation’s coffers. I am clearly not a very good corrupt dictator.

Tropico is a beautiful game, and aside from its endearingly quirky, often gangly, animations, its landscape is quite visually striking. Quite similar to Just Cause 1 & 2’s island jungles, it also shares a similar subject matter and light-hearted tone.

The music in Tropico further accounts for my enjoyment of the game, and it also reminded me of the thing I liked most about the Dexter TV show. That series had some of the most amazing Cuban/Latin dance pieces for its soundtrack, and the same goes for Tropico. It’s a fact that I feel gets rather overlooked that music selection in media properties like Dexter is very important, perhaps more so than I feel is appreciated by most critics and creators. For example, here’s a list (off the top of my head) of TV series that have excellent musical scoring and which rank as some of my favourites:

–          Dexter

–          Battlestar Galactica

–          Firefly

–          Daria

–          Around the World in 80 Gardens

All these series use music to particularly good effect, be it original scoring or popular music. Naturally it’s quite hard to point to series that I don’t like that use music poorly since I don’t really pay attention to ones I don’t like. There’s therefore there’s a danger that I’m self-selecting (confirmation bias) but I’ve long suspected that good music makes a thing, be it movie, TV series or game, much better than it should have any right to. Tropico just adds further anecdotal evidence to that argument.

Anyway, we’ve gotten off topic a bit, so let’s wrap up: Tropico was absolutely worth the $5 or $10 I paid for it on Steam when it was on sale. But I’m not providing a buyer’s guide anyway, and this observation is coming from a guy who outlaid $8 on a PS3 port of a PS1 Bass Fishing game the other night, having still only played it for all of ten minutes. That’s another game I do hope to go back to soon – perhaps spend a day or afternoon fishing, perhaps with a beer in my hand, sunnies and hat on my head. I feel like that game has the potential for some great experiences if approached with the proper mindset. Which is a bit like Tropico, actually, I wouldn’t recommend min/maxing in this game as you’ll probably break it. Instead, try and play the dictator, or sublimate into the Caribbean island mindset and lifestyle.