I’m in a bind.
It’s about two years into my term as president. My promises to improve the economy have left me little choice but to cut back on costs whever possible – the country’s in a staggering amount of debt, and the hungry people I so desperately wanted to feed had to be dispersed by the army, because we simply can’t subsidise their food any longer. I can’t work on producing more food without slashing export crops, and without those, I can’t afford to invest in the infrastructure this country needs to turn itself around.
Right now, we’re just about producing enough to keep the debt from spiralling. I’ve achieved this by accepting the starvation, accepting the almost absent education, accepting even some of the corruption in my own government, and sucking up to the USA just enough to keep them from sparking off a war. But I’m reading the newspapers, and the issue none of my ministers brought before me is written all over them.
If I continued along this path, I’d be accepting the death squads.
I’d be accepting the intimidation, the assaults and the constant murders and disappearances of anyone who the army doesn’t like. I know who is responsible. Everyone knows who is responsible. But nobody can prove it. So these murderers, these fascist torturers are in and out of farcical trials, released and arrested constantly, with nobody ever going down. And every day, more people disappear. If I do nothing, innocent people are murdered. Not starved through sheer circumstance, but deliberately and brutally murdered.
But if I throw those responsible in prison, I make a mockery of our already poor justice system, and worse – I raise a flag to the socialists, and spark off a civil war. A costly, endless civil war, with the US no doubt backing my enemies, who will destroy my infrastructure, terrorise my farmers, and murder my teachers and doctors. To counter this, I would have to back the socialists, who will plunder and murder and indoctrinate, and make a mockery of everything I promised to this nation.
This, my friends, is Hidden Agenda.
Jim Gasperini’s 1988 political simulation of a fictional Latin American banana republic may be the finest political game ever made. Its simple interface, rudimentary appearance and total absence of sound mask a marvellously complex game of second-guessing, negotiating, compromising and outright selling out. As President of Chimerica, you are charged with taking a backwards agricultural nation still bleeding from a violent revolution after decades of dictatorial oppression, with its massive debt, disastrous economy, widespread famine and fractured, highly unstable army, and turning the whole thing into whatever you think it needs to be. There’s a pretty clear ‘communist nutbag’ camp, and a pretty clear ‘capitalist pigdog’ camp, but if you think it’s as simple as picking a side and counting the score, I strongly urge you to play this game. It will make you feel foolish.
The real genius of Hidden Agenda can be traced to two factors.
The first is that from the very start, you are forced to compromise. You must choose your four ministers from a dossier of nine candidates representing three parties, each of which has their own ideals and their own agenda. Despite your authority, you are only one man, and as such you are forced to rely on these ministers to bring important matters to your attention.
And herein lies the second issue. They will all bring up only the issues they care about, as well as their own solutions to those issues, and you can only put a measure in place if somebody proposes it first. So, while you may surround yourself with colourful revolutionary characters, and bask in the praise of the farmers and workers, you’ll have nobody to tell you that your reforms have obliterated the economy until it’s too late, and the IMF are kicking down your door (or, more likely, the CIA are blowing up your ports, but that’s another story).
You could of course fill your party with a mixture of people, but then your policies will contradict one another, and the odds of one or more of your ministers leaving in a huff (or worse) will rise dramatically. You’ll also never have time to dedicate to all of them – as well as your four ministers, you must deal with 21 representatives of various industries, organisations and foreign governments on their own issues. You can only address a handful of issues with each season, and anyone you’ve overlooked or angered for too long can make their presence known in a variety of ways, from peaceful protests to subtle insubordination, right through to a direct attempt on your life. Each of these confrontations, too, eats into your time, and even if you’re careful, you can set of a chain reaction of urgent confrontations and clashes that force you to shelve your plans for entire seasons.
It is, quite simply, a fascinating little toy, and I have no shame in admitting that playing this for the first half a dozen times led me to a much deeper consideration of third world politics than a hundred geography lessons or sanctimonious documentaries.
Hidden Agenda can be played on Windows XP and 7 using DOSbox. I have not tested it on any other OS, because I hate you.