Idle Animations is a recurring series in which I play games without playing them, exploring quiet, still moments, how games fill space and time, and what happens when you let a game play itself.
The Cold War is one of those topics we breezed over in school. I recall learning about the USSR and the Berlin Wall and Cuba and that somehow the three were related, but if you asked me about causes or resolutions I’d have no answer for you. I’ve since taken it upon myself to learn a bit more about it, but the more I learn about it, the less I feel like I know.
Which is probably why, when brainstorming games that have some connection to the Cold War, I couldn’t come up with anything. Maybe I could recreate the conflict in Civilization V, I thought, or maybe I’d have to grit my teeth and try a stealth game, since so many of them are set during the Cold War.
Except, wait, no–Tropico. It’s few peoples’ favorite construction and management simulator, but I’ve always liked the feeling of trying to play a benevolent dictator, running my country into deeper and deeper debt as I refuse to compromise on affordable housing and ample healthcare. Perhaps the message of the series is that you can’t please everybody, but damn it, I’m going to try.
Well, not this time. I’m not yet ready to take on the role of a harsh authoritarian, but Tropico 4 did offer an interesting opportunity–what happens if I refuse to do anything?
In reality, Cuba (“Tropico” is a fictional island, but the way the US and USSR vie for control over it is a pretty clear parallel to history) had quite a lot happening during the Cold War. While they underwent a revolution that’s still impacting the country and its diplomatic relations today, the US and USSR manipulated the Cuban government and its people through money and outright aggression, each attempting to use its strategic location to their benefit.
In my version, Tropico never got to that point. As it turns out, a dictator with no interest in anything–not gaining money for herself, not investing in her people, not expansion or tourism or kowtowing to foreign demands–is a dictator that just won’t last. I started each game with $20,000 to blow, which I promptly spent on improvements for my little island community. The game lets you go into a $10,000 debt before it stops you and diplomatic relations start declining, which meant my city didn’t get much of anything before I had to stop improving.
The result wasn’t good. One tenement wasn’t enough to hold all the new residents, and shacks popped up all over the island. The residents started protesting in my first year of ruling, saying, “El Presidente doesn’t care about our happiness! We must stand together in protest.”
They were right; I didn’t care about their happiness. As food imports were restricted thanks to a random event, more protests popped up. Thanks to foreign aid, Tropico clawed its way out of debt, but that surplus did nothing for its citizens, whose happiness declined until protests were a constant event.
“Down with the oppressor, El Presidente! Long live Tropico!” said one of my many detractors, and promptly turned rebel. I’ve never had a game decline so fast, in part because I did nothing to disguise my lack of interest in taking care of my people.
“Live in shacks,” I seemed to say to them. “You don’t need healthcare. You don’t need electricity or anybody to run that empty church. Oh, what’s that? The volcano is erupting? Whatever, let the sole farm that’s feeding our island burn.”
The apathy, I think, is worse than outright malice. More and more often, the protestors said that El Presidente didn’t care. The ministers warned of subversive groups, increasing numbers of unemployed immigrants, and poor housing conditions. Britain stepped in to ensure that I had fair elections, and I declined to give a speech for my own re-election. El Presidente doesn’t care.
When I was ousted in the election, I wasn’t surprised. I’d been a garbage leader who did the absolute bare minimum, and even that’s a stretch. An idle playthrough of Tropico 4 is an exercise in watching democracy work–in a second attempt, refusing to allow an election resulted in rebels burning down the city and killing me.
What does all this have to do with the Cold War? Not much, because my Cuba–er, Tropico–never became valuable enough for big countries to fight over it. In fact, my lack of direct action feels less like a dictator and more like a foreign politician with my eye on exploiting whatever’s most useful to me. Let those peasants squabble over their single corn farm and let that giant cathedral stand empty; your island is of no use to us unless things get interesting.
Sure, I’m a player of a simulation game and the people aren’t real, but the tedium of an apathetic dictator somehow makes me feel dirtier than if I’d outright abused my subjects for my own gain. What kind of person becomes a dictator with no purpose and ambition? That’s a special kind of depravity.
It was my hope that idling my way through Tropico 4 would reveal some kind of interesting relationship between how the US and USSR AI battle over the island. Is it true to history? Would they court me nicely or send in the troops and blockades? Could I get my hands on any of that fabled nuclear power if I refused to do anything with the beautiful land I inhabit?
Nope, because democracy will throw me out on my ass first. Good. Long live the Tropicans.
This spring we’re looking back at the Cold War through games, movies, comics and books. Check out the rest of our series here.
Read the rest of the Idle Animations series.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.