A Web Of Lies: Democracy 3 Hands-On

By Adam Smith on August 15th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.

Damn you, Democracy 3, and damn you Cliffski. I wouldn’t say I’m quite at the point where I sympathise with the many blood-sucking insects that make up the UK’s political scene, but I worry that I’m starting to think like one of them. When I began playing, I was determined to do the right thing. A couple of hours later, I realised I didn’t know what the right thing was anymore. Two days in, I’d have chopped off my own hand for a few more votes.

I’m trying to steer the country away from economic disaster, having spent my first year in office encouraging higher standards of science education, attempting to prevent the British from becoming the brainless backwater of the 21st Century. The plan was working and the people (most of them; some of them) were happy, but the expense of funding the future threatened to punish the present. Budget cuts loomed and I swiftly found myself between the rock of populist appeal and the hard place of economic necessities. Idealism dies young in Democracy 3’s high-pressured simulation, where every choice makes somebody unhappy and the main screen, a political petri dish of interlinked nodes, soon comes to resemble a nefarious web.

Over the last few days, as I’ve tinkered with Positech’s latest government sim, the sense that those nodes – and the situation they represent – were acting as a trap became embedded in my brain. I, the Prime Minister, am a fly, caught on sticky strands that I can tug one way or the other, but can never escape. Admittedly, I can fail, fall short when the election rolls around, vacating my place on the chopping block and leaving some other poor bastard stricken and splayed, dangling like a piñata in full view, pummelled by polls and impossible choices.

Democracy 3 never lies to the player, which is extraordinary considering its themes. Or perhaps it pulls the wool over my eyes constantly but is incredibly good at concealing the fact of its fictions. That seems unlikely. The mathematical models that drive the consequences of every decision, major or minor, are transparent. Hover the cursor over any policy decision, population segment or funding slider, and lines appear showing which other aspects of the system will be impacted.

It’s the kind of insight that even the Challenger 2 of thinktanks would fail to provide. Taking tourism as an example, we can see that a high sales tax, terrifying levels of violent crime and border controls that would shame Arstotzka are all putting a dent in the potential earnings from visitors to my increasingly Orwellian Britain. This leads to serious problems. Ninety percent of automobile accidents are caused by impact with unsold novelty replicas of Tower Bridge and with Britain beating seven shades out of itself while tourists stay away, there’s a real danger that the next royal baby will be born without a single camera lubriciously angled to appreciate its arrival.

I’m tempted to close the borders completely, to let the island nation sever its links with the world and fend for itself. I’m extremely popular with the kind of patriotic loons who holler and applaud every time I loosened gun laws (there are currently no restrictions whatsoever on purchase or ownership) and tightened immigration laws. I won’t earn re-election for an extra term, having driven most of the country to despair, but could things have been much worse?

To explain precisely how things could have been worse, I’d like to talk about my efforts to do right by the people of the United Kingdom. My version of ‘doing right’ involves the creation of a tolerant society that helps those in need but also rewards brilliance. I also quite like the idea of Big Government, especially when I am the government. I’m mega-ego-maniacal and wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t think I could improve every single aspect of the country, from spy agencies to healthcare, by taking on the yoke of leadership and flourishing under the strain.

It’s not a yoke though, remember. It’s a web. The stresses and pressures of leadership are not relentless and crushing. There are no time limits, no real limitations at all apart from political capital, which is the currency required to take actions, generated by loyal cabinet members between turns. Instead, the difficulty comes from the realisation that pulling any one strand causes an unwanted effect elsewhere. I don’t think I’ve made a single action that hasn’t had at least one undesirable consequence. That the game explicitly details those consequences beforehand makes the decision-making all the more difficult. You’re pulling the trigger knowing full well that it’s pointing at somebody’s head.

And so it goes. I’m caught between the need for political survival, which requires me to offer pity-fuck policies to unhappy demographics, and the desire to create a decent society, which requires me to stop using phrases like ‘pity-fuck policies’.

In order to ensure I’m elected for another term, I spend the first term pandering to the masses. I lower taxes, and improve spending on education and health. In order to balance the books, a sharp increase in corporate, property and inheritance tax.

Obviously, anyone who owns property or inherits anything at all must have plenty to spare. Or not, as the case may be. Suddenly, I’m unpopular with old people, particularly the ones surviving on pensions in large houses they can’t afford to maintain. I’ll need to find the money that goes toward building my utopia elsewhere. Becoming an instant caricature, I cut police and security funding. When everybody takes to dancing in circles with flowers in their hair, we won’t need a police force.

Britain’s proud ship of state sails onward. For a while.

Toward the end of my second term, no matter how many sliders I adjust and how much I try to fix things, it’s all gone a bit Clockwork Orange. I’m very unlikely to win re-election again and the security tab shows that there are several increasingly dangerous organisations on the rise. Even though I was intentionally pushing my decisions to extremes, I can’t help but think this is the world I would have unintentionally created given enough time.

Reading Alec’s experiences, I suspect we’ll both find that balance is the key. Stable, middle ground, run of the mill governing. The game’s strength is in presenting so many options, all of them enticing and, importantly, all possible from the beginning. There are limits on power but despite its sober appearance, Democracy permits flights of fancy and I suspect a lot of the pleasure I take from the finished version will be found in pushing the simulation as far as possible in various directions.

It’d be interesting to begin with a manifesto, or even to spend the early part of the game in opposition, attempting to topple a current government by over-promising and gleefully celebrating when they plunge the country into chaos and debt. The most devious aspect of the game is the rapidity of the indoctrination process. I’d been playing for about half an hour when I found myself convinced that I wanted to win the next election in order to be a better leader in my net term. Compromising today in order to be an honest man tomorrow.

Until tomorrow comes.

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21 Comments »

  1. jonb6 says:

    When is this fine game going to be released?!?!

  2. cliffski says:

    Pre-orders will start before the end of this month, and those pre-ordering will get the beta version (PC only for now). Then shortly afterwards we will have a release on Steam and GoG, and the linux and mac versions should join in at some point during all that.
    I just declared it code-complete for the beta build today :D

    • Emeraude says:

      If it’s half as good as I hope it is, I am *so* going to throw copies of that game at people.

      Great news. Wishing the best for you and yours.

    • deadfolk says:

      Nice to know in advance that something is coming to GoG, so I don’t inadvertently buy it elsewhere.

    • Devan says:

      Thanks Cliffski! I liked Democracy 2 a lot and will definitely be picking this one up.

  3. The Random One says:

    Now I want a multiplayer Democracy. One player is the Situation, while others are the Opposition and must topple the first. Losing the election only turns you into an Opposition player. Of course, the Opposition also has members in the Senate/Parliament/Highest Legislative Eschelon and can give the Situation player some bonus political capital to approve bills that increase their popularity, but the Situation player gets some popularity as well. You can also choose to be a small one-issue party that gains bonus popularity for catering to their specific demographic but loses far more quickly if they act against their manifesto, or a big centrist party that gains and loses popularity more slowly but more reliably. Damn, why are we talking about this crappy single player game?

  4. Aaax says:

    Looking forward to it. I hope it will be on steam for reasonable price sometime.

  5. Carra says:

    This Hands On managed to make me want to play the game, good job :)

  6. sinister agent says:

    “Poverty is almost unheard of here. There is no unemployment, no violent crime, almost no pollution, and the police, schools and hospitals are all pristine. The three hundred billion pound national debt has become a comfortable surplus, and the economy is outpacing even the Chinese and Americans.”

    “Admirable indeed, your experimental benevolence. The people look set to vote you into office a sixth time, and you haven’t even had to stab anyone, apart from Baines.”

    “Oh, I didn’t have to stab Baines. He was just annoying me.”

    “I see, m’lud. Quite what do you ask of me today?”

    “I haven’t been attacked by any assassins or religious crazies for almost three years. What’s going on? The Church has condemned me three times in a month, but nobody seems all that bothered. Which is how it should be, obviously, but I don’t understand why. There must be some nutter about, surely? Christians are like ants – you never see them all.”

    “Perhaps they’ve all left, your skeptical brilliance.”

    “Left? No, they’d stay to cause trouble, that’s what they do. Love thy neighbour to them means ‘love thy neighbour loudly and forcibly every minute of the day until he has a moment of weakness or fatal illness, gives in and converts’. They can’t live and let live, they have to lay their foul eggs in everyone, and even cannons don’t slow them down.”

    “I ah… I believe you’re thinking of Chryssalids, Sire.”

    “Really? Well, whatever. Where are they all? They’re not amassing an army abroad or anything? Get me a report on the population. Sort it into the usual demographics.”

    “I took the liberty of doing so this very morning, your unspeakable excellence. The religious members of your population hate you with incandescent passion, but their number has fallen to 0.4% of the population.”

    “Half a per… aha. Ahaha. Ahahaha! No wonder they haven’t gathered to march on the doorstep. They’d be outnumbered by the bloody cleaners. Keep going, what of my other enemies?”

    “Religious people: extreme hatred. Proportion of population: 0.4%. Drinkers: Mild hatred. Population: 2.4% Smokers: Moderate hatred. 1.5%. Motorists: Extreme hatred. 1.4%.”

    “This is incredible. Boris!”

    “Aye, sir?”

    “I’ve almost created the perfect society. In Britain, no less. Get me a trophy.”

    “Aye, sir.”

    “Right. What else? Give me… wealth.”

    “The number of poor is falling, what with the massive increase in wages, world-class schools, generous but responsible state benefits and university grants. And of course, unemployment is nominal with all the state jobs, technology and small business grants. Even the existing poor are merely upon hard times, and not in danger of genuine poverty. You have their unwavering support, though they’re not pleased with the VAT, low as it is.”

    “Yes, well that’s a means to an end. I’m not happy with it myself, but if I raise income tax much more the waste through fraud will make it a case of diminishing returns, and hiking corporate tax now would decimate the GDP. Tell me about the others.”

    “The wealthy are still a small group, less than 10% of the population. They’re somewhat indifferent to your party. The middle earners hate you, but vote for you anyway because most of them are, of course, parents, and they’re ecstatic with the schools.”

    “Fucking middle of the road bastards. All they care about is income tax. You could buy them all fairy dust with the revenue and they’d still moan about it. Well, we’ll keep the childcare provision in place then. I’d trust a childminder to raise the next generation more than any idiot who thinks that having a kid is a good idea anyway.”

    “Quite.”

    “Hm. Well, in short, everyone’s happy. The trouble is, of course, the election is coming…”

    “Hardly any trouble, Sire. Your most conservative approval rating is 94%, and turnout has been record-breaking. It would take a disaster of biblical proportions to undo your work now.”

    “Yes well, let’s not discount those just yet, or have you forgotten your little mishap in Pompeii?”

    “That was no fault of mine, sire! I had no idea that seismic penetrator would still work after the transfer, it-”

    “Enough, enough. Anyway. I wasn’t worried about losing, but about the preparation. The problem is this: what the hell am I going to pledge to do? I can’t improve poverty, unemployment, the crime rate or even equality. Everything’s already done.”

    “A pledge to continue our present course may be -”

    “Don’t be ridiculous. ‘more of the same’ doesn’t work – this is a democracy! Everything you say has to appeal to the stupidest, most selfish and short-sighted view possible – that’s Johnny Voter. I need something that sounds good to them. Maybe I could lower income tax… that might bring the middle earners around. The trouble is I’ll have to cut a budget somewhere. Here, how about the farming subsidies? They can’t complain too much, I said at the time they were just a stopgap to see them through last year’s harvest. That’ll save a bit of money. And cancel the married tax allowance – we don’t need to toss the church a bone anymore. Wait. First, give me some figures on the farmers.”

    “The farmers are broadly voting in your favour if I recall, they were happy before the bad crops and you reacted in time to safeguard their livelihoods. Let me see here… they comprise… er. Sire.”

    “Yes, yes, come on!”

    “The farmers make up seventy-four percent of the population, your brilliance.”

    “Are you serious?”

    “Absolutely, your skeptical foresightedness.”

    “Three quarters of the population are farmers? How the hell did that happen? Damn! We can’t cut back on that, it could piss off the whole country. What about the pensioners? February was freezing, that must have whittled them down a bit.”

    “They adore you, Sire, as you provide generous pensions, healthcare and free travel. Their share of the p… it’s ah. It’s seventy percent. Your … Sire-ness.”

    “So in this most prosperous, free, happy and egalitarian of nations, most of the people have retired to work on a farm?”

    “Assuming they’re the same people, yes. But either way, a minimum of forty percent have done so, your overwhelming eminence.”

    “These people are fucking weird.”

    “Be glad you didn’t choose the US, sire.”

    • Vercinger says:

      This is eerily close to my experience with every nation in Democracy 2. Every bloody time I end up with the majority of the population consisting of retired farmers employed by the state. This is something I intended to mod, but with Democracy 3 coming out soon, I know I’ll never get around to it.

      And then there’s the manifestos being so troublesome I just turn them off in the options.

      Also, I don’t know if you write AARs often, but if not, you should. I’d enjoy reading them.

    • Cyphran says:

      Thank you, that was an enjoyable read.

    • The Random One says:

      Is this really what happens? Because it makes sense that if you make life hell for smokers, drinkers and drivers their numbers will dwindle, but the religious? That’s… not quite historically accurate, to say the least.

      • sinister agent says:

        I’d been playing for ages by that point, and there’d been numerous attempts on my life, and near-constant security warnings. I don’t know whether I just got lucky or kept the extremists just angry enough to ALMOST kill me. I’d imagine they gradually left the country, or even just died out. By the time I’d finished playing, the election results were such staggering landslides that the results didn’t fit on the screen anymore, so it’s probably fair to say I broke the game a bit.

  7. Vercinger says:

    This will be glorious. Glad to see the series continue.

  8. bstard says:

    Looks nice. This way I can study this liberal demonic form of government and correct my junta where needed.

    Btw this reminds me of the Tropico5 announcement: http://www.bluesnews.com/s/144240/tropico-5-announced
    It wont be such a marvelous simcity drama I’m afraid, but rather something to use at schools to drill new co-opping El Presidentes.

  9. Branthog says:

    Just looking at the Democracy game titles make me feel exhausted.

  10. wodin says:

    Would be great if there was an option to add in disasters or viral out breaks etc etc