Whenever I play Tropico, I think of taking The History of Latin America during college—my first brush with the resentment that still burns through Latin America over the role the United States has taken in that region over the past 200 years.
The names should be familiar to anyone who has studied latter day American history: Pinochet, United Fruit, Che Guevara, and all the rest. For most people though, they're not even footnotes in history. Periods like the Cold War are thought of in terms of some grand struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, not of the multitude of countries that became their pawns.
Over the years, Tropico has made quite a bit of hay from that relationship by flipping the script, putting players—most of them westerners living in rich countries—into the shoes of a banana republic dictator with the title "El Presidente." Its tone is light, but its subject matter has generally been on point. You may have "absolute power," but your position is usually tenuous at best, with plenty of factions waiting in the wings to take you down. And if you somehow manage to please the communists, capitalists, intellectuals, and religious fanatics, you still have the U.S. and Russia holding the reins, ready to yank them at any moment.
Its roots go back to the little-known Hidden Agenda—a 1988 Latin America sim that touched on many of the same themes that would eventually find their way into Tropico. In essence, it's a game of being Daenerys Targaryen as she's confronted by peasants who have had their flocks charred by her dragons; a game of committee meetings, each more depressing than the last. You may want to do good; but at the end of the day, you're probably going to get overthrown anyway. Either that, or reduced to a source of cheap labor for United Fruit. Phil Steinmeyer, who led Tropico's design, was reportedly a fan of Hidden Agenda, and ultimately used many aspects of its design in his own sim. Though considerably lighter than the stringently realistic Hidden Agenda, the first Tropico in particular was built on being trapped between various factions, economic considerations and world superpowers, which could destroy even the best of intentions. As Ed Smith points out in the excellent Tropico retrospective published last year at Eurogamer, real power is something of an illusion, with success often being measured in terms of deficit reductions and sheer longevity.
Over the years, those elements have remained a relative constant in Tropico, jokes about llama executions aside. It's more apparent than ever in Tropico 5, which is due to be released later this week on PC. Taking a page from Civilization, Tropico 5 is split across multiple eras beginning in the Victorian Era and continuing through World War II, the Cold War, and the Modern Era. Tropico begins as a British colony, with "El Presidente" serving as its governor. Eventually, you're given the opportunity to get out from under the yoke of imperialist rule and declare independence (or get recalled, in which case, game over), which is when the real game begins.
In the context of the series as a whole, the Victorian Era is actually quite smart. It's essentially an opportunity for new players to get their feet wet, get to know the mechanics, and get the economy up and running. Regular infusions of cash from the empire make it easier to get up to speed, and the edicts handed down the royal liaison ("More llama wool! We need to conquer the South Pole!") add some structure to the early game. There is no bloody revolution, however; at least, not from what I've seen. Instead, gaining independence seems to be as simple as paying the royal government $20,000 and bidding them, "Adios."
Given what we know of colonialism and the bloody revolutions that followed, it seems a little too easy. Even after World War II, when the old European empires were well on their way to oblivion, it took a good twenty years for Vietnam to finally gain independence. Nevertheless, with so many grand strategy games focusing on the colonizers rather than the colonized, it's interesting to see Tropico flip the perspective once again. Even in the early going, there's definite tension as you're forced to choose between appeasing the royalty abroad and the local inhabitants. It can be a tough balance to maintain, especially when the rebels appear in the foothills and start threatening trouble if you continue bowing to the will of the monarchy.
It's a dynamic that continues through each of Tropico's eras. When World War II breaks out, you will soon be pressured to choose between the Axis and the Allies. During the Cold War, you will be trapped between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, much like other Tropico games. No matter what, there's always a bigger fish—a hard reality for any dictator trying to make their way in an unfriendly world.
We've certainly seen enough evidence of that in our own world of late. The Ukraine learned the hard way the consequences of getting on Russia's bad side, much as Iraq and Afghanistan did with the United States. So often, events are portrayed solely from the point of view of these great powers, which is the case in video games as much as in the media at large. For that reason, it's sort of refreshing to see things from a new point of view; to get an idea of what it feels like to have world powers breathing down your neck while also dealing with interests at home.
Of course, as producer Timo Thomas points out, there is a degree of wish fulfillment to Tropico as well, particularly in the campaign. Where the sandbox mode remains somewhat down-to-earth, the story of Tropico has gotten progressively nuttier since the third installment.
"For sure, Tropico no longer is a small and irrelevant banana republic, but instead a global player in our fictitious universe," Thomas enthuses. "The Tropico campaign stories have evolved into complex narratives involving secret organizations, time-travel, clones and alien races - we know it's totally bonkers, but believe that people appreciate the creative freedom and unique characters which have come to shape and represent the series."
But even in that, Haemimont Games only seems to be splitting the difference between those who want a more realistic take on geopolitics and something more... uh... whimsical. As Thomas himself notes: "Aside from all of the extravaganza, the sandbox mode still allows you to create a pseudo-realistic simulation of your own island nation if you like the more serious approach, of course."
For me, at least, that element is what continuously draws me back to Tropico. As an American, I've spent the majority of my life living in one of the world's premier economic and military powers. I've traveled quite a bit over the years; but in the end, I'm a foreigner in countries like Cambodia, where the U.S. is a faraway but nevertheless omnipresent part of life. I've always said that one of gaming's best qualities is its ability to put you in other people's shoes, even if those shoes happen to belong to a cigar-chomping island dictator. Absurd as it can be, Tropico 5 still does that for me.