Sunday, May 16, 2010

Tropico 3 and managing morality

I have to admit that today's post is going to be a bit impromptu.  Yesterday I purchased Tropico 3, due to an enticing sale and some prior interest in the title.  I've since found myself nearly addicted to it, and despite my lack of real skill at the game, it's eaten up several of my hours already.  Truth be told, I'm not much of a management game expert, and this post will likely make that clear for any veterans of the genre, but I'll try my best to offer my insight.

Management games, including SimCity, Roller Coaster Tycoon, and the aforementioned Tropico, task the player with controlling the operations of a business, country, sports team, etc.; both macro-level decisions, like diplomatic policy, and micro-level ones, such as who to hire and fire, are found in these games to varying degrees.  The fun comes from the fact that the player has to balance the often-conflicting needs of a number of parties, which all the while is confined by a budget.  To say that the games are complex is an understatement; while they can be enjoyed by relative rookies like me, oftentimes there is so much depth behind the scenes that the obsessive can regulate nearly every single event.  It's pretty common for the virtual societies to slowly slip into decay if one doesn't understand its quirks, but by carefully managing resources, the player can either try to appease all parties, or pamper some at the expense of others.  Or just kill 'em all, but that usually doesn't win you the game.

Management games like this resonate with us because of the way that they force us to juggle multiple balls at once; wants are weighted with needs, and we only have so much time and money to accomplish our goals.  As individuals, we are well aware of these difficulties, and through games that both simulate and exaggerate those challenges, we can achieve a degree of satisfaction.  That's not to say that this genre of game operates primarily as catharsis, but we feel accomplished when things end up going our way, and management games provide us with an environment where, while we don't have absolute control, we do have enough that we can significantly influence the outcome of events greater than ourselves.

There is also a powerful educational element to the genre.  It's common to have a jaded outlook on government, business, etc., but they are extremely complex systems of interaction, where decisions have to constantly be made despite there being no clear right or wrong answer.  Although the systems are obviously simplified for the sake of the player's sanity and for general playability, a good management game will always keep the player on his or her toes, never quite comfortable in how things are going, because there's always a chance of being voted out of office, going into debt, etc.

Ah, another beautiful day in Slumsville.

In the case of Tropico 3, an interesting moral dimension is added.  As the game puts you in the role of the dictator of a tropical Caribbean paradise, it's up to you to decide whether you want to rule with an iron fist, working the people like slaves while quelling rebellions, become a jewel of industry by exploiting natural resources, or become a giant tourist trap.  Throughout the game, depending on your actions, political factions will gain and lose favour with you, and this can often result in peaceful protest, but can occasionally escalate to strikes, or even assassination attempts and coups.  As a leader, it's important to maintain control, but often the easiest way is the most brutal.  Choosing whether to execute a political opponent or to change your national policy is often far more difficult a decision to make than what many role-playing titles offer, since the consequences of your actions can persist for decades.

In fact, the game's entire tone is a little bit troubling.  Although its intentions are no doubt good, putting issues of poverty, disease, political oppression, civil war, etc. in such a lighthearted package is off-putting.  The game clearly intends to be taken in a non-serious manner, as it features a string-pulling Fidel Castro look-alike on its cover, but seeing your people starve in the streets while fat, White tourists gawk at your "Ethnic Enclaves" is strangely perverted.  That one of the main objectives of the game is to funnel money to your private Swiss bank account seems to suggest that the game's expectation is that you treat your people in the poorest fashion possible.  Imagining myself in the role of such a dictator is difficult, but it also allows me to empathise with those who have to make far more difficult decisions than I do.

I realise these questions aren't wholly important to the core mechanics of the game.  At the end of the day, Tropico 3 is just another management game, albeit one with a fairly unique twist to it.  It's got issues with balance (certain industries are better than others, AI can be a bit dumb, etc.), but it stands out for me precisely because of its strangely conflicted message.  Management games are certainly some of the more cerebral, but Tropico 3 managed to make me think about things I didn't quite expect to... even if I'm not quite sure whether to thank it, or scowl at it for trivialising human suffering.

1 comment:

  1. management games are fun, but i havent played with one in ages.