Each week Marsh Davies unleashes a patriotic aquiline shriek and swoops upon the home of the brave that is Early Access, bringing freedom by way of cash-purchased endorsements and glib media-ready soundbites to all he meets. This week, these skills will hopefully propel him all the way to the White House in The Political Machine 2016 [Steam page], a timely update of the presidential campaign strategy game in which candidates scoot between states, bellowing platitudes to the credulous and smarming their way through interviews while doing everything to sabotage their opponents.
The candidates and hot-button issues may have changed, but these, the game suggests, are almost trivial details alongside the monstrous apparatus of the media. Which is possibly one justification for why The Political Machine 2016 is so much like The Political Machine 2012, compounding the series’ cynical message that elections aren’t won by principled stands or coherent, evidence-based policy-making, but instead by the more timeless tactics of pandering to prejudice, by buying endorsements, by slickly meaningless performance and by the attritional war waged on the national psyche via a 24-hour news presence. If you can just get your name ringing like tinnitus inside the public’s collective head then you’re halfway to the White House.
Though The Political Machine might be more caricature than simulation, in a year when the Republican primaries are an unprecedented cavalcade of hooting dipshittery, you might have to concede that the game’s scorn for the substance of policy is not without justification. But how does the game balance such extremes? To find out, I would have to play as the dipshittiest hooter possible. But who could claim, even among this debased troupe of howling scumwanks, to be truly the emptiest bellowing meathole of the lot?
The game’s bobblehead representation of him is a surprising likeness, if rather flattering, giving him a pert little pout instead of an unspooled Cumberland sausage for a mouth, not quite capturing the horrifying pillowy hamscape of his face. He, of all the possible candidates, offers the most extreme credentials. He has close to zero credibility, but he does have an absolute fuckton of money. A win for Trump would be to double-down on the game’s inherent cynicism, the nightmarish embrace of true nihilism. So, I’m going for it.
As my opponent, I pick Hillary Clinton – relatively principled, high-profile and a skilled political operator. If Trump can beat her it will be truly, exquisitely dismaying. As the campaign begins – a short one at 21 weeks – some of the states are already predisposed to our candidacies. Hillary’s cloying goodie-two-shoes liberality already appeals strongly to those pastrami-swollen New York yuppies, turning it and the surrounding coastal states a tentative blue. She also claims the bleeding-hearts and skunk-muddled minds of Washington, New Mexico and a handful of other cheesemaking states clustered in the north around Wisconsin. And of course she has California, where for some reason it’s still legal to wear a bow-tie while skateboarding. Disgusting.
But a real rain is coming, make no mistake, and it’s sweeping in from the West. Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Nebraska and South Dakota are all Trump-friendly, presumably because of my sympathetic stance on pistol-whipping children who forget to say grace. Trump doesn’t actually have this as an explicit campaign principle, but certain aspects of his platform are assumed from the outset – that he is in favour of repealing Obamacare, pro military-spending and generally more able to get the endorsement of frothy right-leaning organisations than he is, say, The National Organization for the Support of Colored People. But while it’s certainly tempting to go full wingnut, to win the White House I’ll need to broaden my appeal without betraying my existing base. To whit, I decide to make the less controversial positions of strengthening the military and deficit reduction the two main pillars of my candidacy. Luckily I never have to say how I’ll achieve either; the game doesn’t interrogate any stance in detail and rarely forces you to mention issues beyond those you’ve chosen as your platform – though I’m not sure if this is a major failing of the game or of American politics as a whole.
I begin, as Hillary does, in New York, but quickly decide that this is a state I am happy to concede to the Blue Team, and only partly because a taxi driver was rude to me there once. You can switch between different colour-coded visualisations of the states – their current voting inclination, the relative voting power, their wealth and so on. One view also provides you with a planning mode, allowing you to mark which states you ideally wish to win – and it comes pre-filled with a suggested gameplan which hews close to their past voting habits. It suggests that the North East is probably Hillary’s no matter what I do, and I am better off focussing on states I can swing. Fine. I’ve never liked bagels anyway.
Travelling betweens states costs very few of your action points on a given turn, and a state visit will boost awareness of your campaign in itself, making your grandstanding there more effective. Speeches are a huge drain on action points, while advertising campaigns are a huge monetary expense – and both of these efforts can go against you unless you’ve judged the material well. Click a button and you can see a comprehensive breakdown of the issues most important to a particular state, and how the support or opposition for them splits among voters for either party. While you can bang the same drum everywhere you go, it may be more effective to tailor your words to local concerns – although I found this very hard to do when crafting speeches. Partly this is because the UI currently provides entirely contradictory information about the importance and support for issues, but mostly because, whatever I say or do, Trump’s speeches are entirely ineffectual. Even when I come out swinging on issues that reportedly have unanimous support across the political spectrum, the game declares a -0% change in my approval ratings.
Perhaps this is because Trump has no credibility – but the tool-tip says this stat only affects negative campaigning (when, instead of supporting an issue, you moan on about how terrible your opponent’s stance is). At no point in my campaign does a speech deliver me more than a 1% swing either way, and most of the time it achieves no change at all. Man, I think, I can’t buy a win! Then I realise that, being Trump, I probably can. I think advertising is more effective – and it should be for the millions I spend on it – but it’s a slow burn, and there is no clear data I could find to indicate its worth.
I can also build headquarters to gain an income from a state, or establish outreach centres and consulting offices. Each of these return a resource over time that you can then spend. Consulting offices give you the political capital to hire agents who provide state or countrywide buffs, like improving the potency of your speeches or intimidating your opponent’s supporters. Meanwhile, outreach centres amass PR clout, eventually enabling you to secure endorsements from authoritative institutions. These are divided evenly into Republican and Democrat (no prizes for guessing which way the National Gun Owner’s Association falls), and though you can snag either, those of the opposing colour are twice the resource cost. The game is, as in many areas, unclear as to how this actually alters your support – getting the nod from one organisation or another seems to swing the numbers my way, but would, say, getting an endorsement from the unions irk Trump’s carefully nurtured base of Randian free market twonks?
It’s not something I find out – indeed, while taking an interview for 60 Seconds I suggest that the unions should be battered and deep fried. And, despite being a damp squib on stage, Trump’s gurning flab generally does well in front of cameras. Interviews such as these take the form of quickfire multiple-choice questions where you need to judge the audience’s likely demographic and respond with the appropriate soundbite. My comment about the unions doesn’t go down that well, but I storm a later interview with the game’s parodic stand-in for Bill O’Reilly by deploying a few borderline-racist quotes about, appropriately, the borderline.
Things look a little hairy for a while: the Republican heartlands don’t warm to me quickly and Clinton is off to a much more efficient start, zipping between coasts with great purpose. But things start to swing back my way. Even California begins to quail beneath my charm offensive – by which I mean relentless propagandising. TV and leafletting campaigns bluster about social security, jobs and the deficit – things that have broad cross-party approval – while I’m comfortable enough now in my Republican support that I can risk making a concession on marijuana legislation. Nowhere, do I mention my intended pogrom of bowtie-wearing skaters. California and Pennsylvania both turn a virulent purple colour, indicating that they are in close contention, while most of the other states begin to fall more definitely to blue or red.
Some way into the campaign, we each choose our running mates, who act as a moveable, localised buff. I dump Jeb Bush in Pennsylvania and hope for the best, while zipping round the southern and central states, shoring up support, corroding their collective sanity with ceaseless advertisement. I am close to bankrupt, but my massive spend pays off: more and more states declare a ten percent clearance for Team Trump in the polls. For no real reason other than vindictiveness, I hire a mobster to neutralise one of Clinton’s fundraisers in California. I like to think that the next day she receives a parcel containing a fish in a bow-tie.
Election night hits, and red sweeps the board, with the exception of the cold, urbane irrelevance of the north east and some backwater called Washington. I even take California, consigning nearly all of America’s game journalists to a hard death in a labour camp. Boom! President Trump.
America, you’re fired.
The Political Machine is a jolly old time, but currently doesn’t feel transparent enough to be a wholly satisfying system to manipulate, and is probably too cute in its representation of politics to be as edifying as, say, Democracy 3. The UI needs a massage, too. But as an agonised wail at the blaring televisual hollowness of US political posturing, it serves its purpose, and in this latest refresh we find an apt and timely parody. We can only hope it is not a prophecy, too.
The Political Machine 2016 is available from Steam for £7. I played version 0.601 on 20/11/2015.