Life After an El Presidente

Tropico through a Post-Colonial, Post-Martial Law Lens

Ponch Castor is an aspiring games writer from the Philippines. He aspires to discuss games on a deeper level for a living, and maybe someday, if fate be willing, attain a Masters in Game Design somewhere.

Content Notification: references to torture, sexual violence

“Satire does not work in the Philippines because this country is the theater for the absurd.” – Carljoe Javier, author

I thought about that one cold November night, looking down at a crowd of students wearing black, standing right next to the major road outside our school. The nightly Manila traffic beeped their horns as they passed by, seeing the signs that said “busina para sa hustisya” or “honk for justice”. In the distance, I could see police cars stuck in traffic on approach to the rallying site. This happened back in 2016, when our current president, Rodrigo Duterte, suddenly announced that former president Ferdinand Marcos was to be buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, or “the Heroes’ Cemetery” in Filipino. Marcos has been a soldier during his life, but for years the people had denied him burial in Libingan ng mga Bayani and the national honors that went with it, because of the atrocities he committed. However, the current administration seemed content to ignore Marcos’ record and focus on his soldier status, allowing the former dictator to be honored. Masses of students poured out to protest this sudden announcement as what we saw it as: a desecration of justice and a spit in the face of our country’s history.

Prior to that I got sucked back into one of my favorite games, Tropico. It’s a game that puts you in the shoes of a banana republic dictator, starting from being a colony of Imperial Britain, to staging your own revolution and establishing yourself as a country. You navigate through tumultuous politics with your colonizer, onto balancing relationships between the Axis and Allies during the World Wars, and then currying favor with the Capitalists and Communists during the Cold War. All this through the lens of a full color palette bright enough to jump out at you, while tropical music plays in the background. Radio show hosts and presidential advisers are all cartoonishly out of this world, cracking jokes that might put a smile on your face every once in a while.

I found myself enjoying the game much more because it felt realistic to me, something closer to home. I’ve got two Spanish first names, Cesar Alfonso, which is as Filipino as it gets. For the first three centuries of our recorded history, we were a Spanish colony after conquistadors found what they would later name the Philippines and made their home here siphoning our resources and replacing our animist culture with their “superior” Catholicism. When the Filipinos waged a war for independence, we merely overthrew one colonizer for another: the Americans landed shortly before the war ended, and in the guise of “benevolent assimilation” they decided to graciously integrate their culture, such as their language and way of governance, in order to eventually give us the independence we almost took for ourselves before they arrived.

The Marcoses made a cameo in-game because they were one of those shining examples of dictatorship the game wanted to emulate in its fourth installment back in 2011. The vile Ferdinand Marcos and his infamous First Lady Imelda had the honor of being quoted alongside other prominent political villains. Ferdinand Marcos himself is quoted as saying “Of what good is Democracy if it is not for the poor?” as his government multiplied the debt of the country seventy times over. Imelda’s represented by the seemingly harmless and ridiculous quote: “Win or lose, we go shopping after the election.”

In a way, it’s an appropriate tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement that the game is something not to be taken seriously. It’s absurd and amusing until you find out that this woman profited from years of corruption and had ludicrous (read: imeldific) shopping sprees while people were massacred. She was rumored to have over three thousand pairs of shoes, while in jest she responds, “I only have one hundred sixty.” Meanwhile, there was a famine in the province of Negros, where children of farmers starved to death. She rushed to have the Manila Film Center built, because she was such a patron of the arts that she did not care that her demands for unrealistic deadlines caused the deaths of so many workers. The stories made it much more interesting to watch horror movies in the building.

I guess that’s what I find so disturbing about this: it sounds like they’re treating this dictatorship thing as a game like we Tropico players do, but the things their family did didn’t disappear after they stopped playing.

Navigating internal politics distinguishes Tropico from other city management games. In SimCity, Anno or Cities: Skylines, you have never fear losing power. Your city could be in shambles, broke, flooding with trash and under siege by robots, but at the end, you’ll still be its leader. In Tropico, control isn’t guaranteed. Citizens can elect you out of office if your approval rating crashes. If you’ve made enough enemies, the possibility of a bloody coup d’etat or invasion could swiftly end your term as El Presidente. Tropico constantly keeps you on your toes by reminding you you’re just a step away from losing your position. So when things go wrong, what should you do?

It adds a level of subtle pressure that looms over every choice you make. There’s a rush to improve your city with better infrastructure, services, and policies lest you fall out of favor. You’ll feel the need to build up your military both so bigger countries eye your little nation as a worthy vassal and so grumbling rebels don’t sense weakness. I tried to play it “right.” I never did anything corrupt, always gave my people every freedom and liberty available, and made sure to cater to their every need. The tried and tested city-building purist method of simply building more and hoping problems solved themselves didn’t work. Aside from possible usurpers within and beyond the borders of Tropico, there’s another big bad boss intent on making life difficult as well: Mother Nature. At random times, the game kills your harvest with heat waves (in the Philippines, we call our dry season El Nino, and we recently had one of the worst ones that caused a scare to the farmers who lacked harvest). Other times, a flood can wreck the island, costing a fortune in repairs and losing tons more due to the gridlocked economy. (Eight years ago, Typhoon Yolanda devastated the Philippines, particularly the island of Tacloban, leveling the city and affecting 9.7 million Filipinos throughout the country). Other times, a cyclone appears out of nowhere and destroys farms, apartments and everything else. (The Philippines suffers through around twenty tropical storms per year, with the years past 2010 having five times the number of “destructive” storms).

There are countless ways to get removed from office, but there are even more ways to prevent it. Rig the elections in your favor, because of course the people love you! Use the military to strong-arm rebellions and protests into submission. Political opponents your citizens love more? Imprison or kill them! They’re just small and inconsequential sprites you can’t even really see. Killing your rival just puts an icon on his head, then after a while, poof, he’s gone, and nobody’s the wiser.

Desaparecidos was the term coined to describe subversives, first popularized in Chile where General Pinochet caused the “disappearance” of three thousand of his political naysayers. In the Philippines, we use the term to describe activists who have disappeared in the middle of the night under Martial Law. There were around 2,000 of them and many have never been found, neither dead nor alive until now. Their families still search for closure.

The US-backed Marcos declared Martial Law in response to a “communist threat”, and more often than not the students or farmers abducted were labelled as such. Torture, rape and beatings were commonplace, and those who didn’t survive their imprisonment were found dumped in dark alleys, or presented to their families with no explanation for all of the wounds. Thousands of survivors await reparations, spreading their stories of how they survived the dark days. Modern-day Marcos apologists sometimes defend the man by saying it wasn’t him who tortured them personally. He only knew they were against him, and he gave the order to make them disappear, and poof, they’re gone, and nobody’s the wiser.

Everything can be justified. Build more and eventually people will love you again, negating any need for dirty tactics, or so I thought. I told myself that I was only “cheating” because I was dealt a bad hand, and once I was back on my feet for the elections, I would start being a good guy again. So I tilted elections, imprisoned opponents, doubled police presence, and yet, my approval ratings went lower and lower. I was soon running out of options, and come next election, I knew it would be up for me. While looking through the edicts, I noticed that there was a Martial Law option, and there was one key perk: no elections. “Perfect,” I thought, “I just need to keep them off my back until I’ve got this country up and running.” So I clicked it.

I never realized how much my game rhymed with our history until that night overlooking the protest. I was active in it too— a couple of my friends and I went to another protest along the EDSA Monument, dedicated to the People Power protest that forced Marcos out of power. The publication I was a part of suspended operations for a week during the ML anniversary, opting to secretly hand out our works like contraband to commemorate how the administration closed down student publications for being too liberal. My generation knows what happened was a painful and traumatic experience, as the hurt has been passed down. However, while playing the game, the actions that I took as El Presidente perfectly mimicked the source of the trauma of Filipino people.

Despite all these atrocities, Tropico still maintained its cheery vibe, colorful characters and jokes. Even as Martial Law happened, the radio jockeys would go on about how great life is, even if a bit embellished. The presidential advisers would tell the player everything is fine, praising El Presidente as tanks roll down the streets. It’s ridiculously absurd, and it’s supposed to be ironic and funny—but I know it’s happened for real. It’s like the feeling when you make a sarcastic joke, and someone takes it seriously, and it stops being funny.

Does this make Tropico a bad game? No, of course not. It’s actually even more amazing because it sucked me into the mindset of a crazed dictator without me realizing it through the mechanics. I mean, that was the whole selling point of it, right? Tropico does what it wants to and does it well. Does the tonal deafness make it any less realistic? You’d think I would be leading to a yes but I’m actually going to say no. The fact that Tropico is still all sunshines and smiles despite the ability to be a total asshole is probably way more realistic than I’d like to think about. It makes you feel like nothing’s wrong, and everything is going fine.

I think of Marcos’ day going like this: he wakes up and walks out into the balcony of Malacañang, the presidential palace. He looks across the lake into the city, with some old timey music playing in the cassette in the background. He walks into his office, and his advisers tell him everything is great. He looks at reports, papers, statistics, the Philippines from a detached, bird’s eye view. He would give the orders to kill and abduct, but all from the comfort of his Palace as his cronies sing of his praises while those who oppose him suffer in dark rooms far hidden from the public.

No, I think the tone is totally realistic if you’re playing the dictator. You’d believe that everything is fine and all the problems are far away from you. That scares me.

As I failed another one of my playthroughs, I had the news in the background. Ferdinand Marcos may be dead but his wife Imelda, who has only recently been sentenced to seven counts of graft and a lifetime in jail, still walks free. Of course they say “give her consideration” since she’s enjoyed herself til the ripe old age of 89, too old for jail. The Marcos children, Imee and Bongbong, recently ran for office again; after their family was exiled following Martial Law, they somehow managed to make a political comeback. Bongbong had an unsuccessful go at the vice presidency a few years back, which he always maintained was cheated away from him, while Imee just recently won a seat at the Philippine senate, despite controversy over her faked college degrees and her complicity during Martial Law. There are masses calling for them to be spared, saying “forgive and forget.” On the television, Imelda is smiling; the footage is of her partying the day before she doesn’t show up in court.

In my game, the rebel mob made it into the Presidential palace. My advisor notified me it’s over, and a screen showed me back to the main menu. I sighed then shut off my PC. Frustrated, I decided to get out of my room, and walk it off and come back when I’m calmer, and maybe try again. Before I switched off the TV to leave, the last image I saw was the remnants of the Marcos family posing to the camera for their up and coming political campaigns.