Hidden Agenda: a game for people who really want to know what it’s like to be the doomed Presidente of a fictional Southern American country that’s just overthrown a brutal dictator in a violent civil war.
Hidden Agenda doesn’t really work as a game. Mechanically it resembles an elaborate text adventure, but despite going to a quite considerable level of detail in its political simulation you’re going to see a lot of events repeated from game to game as it plays out along roughly the same lines every single time. On the plus side it really hammers home that you are one man struggling against the inertia of an entire country (the fictional Chimerica) with a host of vested interests, vicious vendettas and a bloody, bloody history. However, it also means that even though you will feel like replaying the game to try and get a different outcome you’ll find yourself travelling down the same well-worn rails as before, and getting the train to jump the tracks is really, really difficult.
As a historical curio, though, I find Hidden Agenda a rather interesting experiment. The idea is that you interact with your government, your people and certain foreign powers (theUnited States, the Soviets and the IMF) through meetings with specific representatives of their interests. Throughout these meetings you are advised by one or more of the four ministers you have appointed to your cabinet, and the catch is this: you cannot come up with a course of action on a specific issue yourself. You either have to accede to the representative’s demands and implement the policy initiative they want, or else you ask your advising minister for an alternative. And depending on their personality, their politics and their “hidden agenda” – basically a secret list of the character’s priorities – the alternative they suggest could be rather self-serving and not entirely helpful to you.
Because you can’t do anything on your own you’re put entirely at the mercy of the various characters surrounding you, and about the only thing you can do to influence the decisions you are offered is appoint ministers who are likely to agree with you on major policy issues. Instead of an entire cabinet you only have to fill the four most important posts – Agriculture, Defence, Internal affairs and Foreign affairs – but the pool of candidates you have available is not large. There are three parties in the game roughly corresponding to leftist, rightist, and centrist moderates, and each of these puts forward only three potential ministers meaning you’re not going to be able to fill out your entire cabinet with people whose politics you broadly agree with. There’s also the added frisson provided by the fact that this is a country that just got done with a civil war fought by revolutionary radicals, so the left-right positions are far more polarised than we’re used to here in our Western democracies where every party inhabits the same centre-right ground. This ideological fanaticism can lead to unexpected consequences when policies that are ideologically pure but practically stupid are put into effect. You find yourself making compromise after compromise, pushing the plan forward but ultimately pleasing nobody and pissing off not a few people.
Each of the ministerial policy briefs is faced with its own problems. As this game is set during the Cold War (because it was made during the Cold War) the issue dominating foreign politics is, rather predictably, whether you want to accept aid from a looming United States that comes with all sorts of free market strings attached, or if you invite advisers from Cuba and the USSR into your country and risk American invasion1. Agriculture is also what you’d expect; since cash crops provide the bulk of the country’s income land reform and the modernisation of Chimerica’s cotton and coffee farms is an item that crops up on the agenda time and time again. Domestic politics is mostly concerned with the continuing fallout from the civil war. And defense…
…the military in this game is special. The military is where I keep running into problems. Chimerica’s military is an uneasy amalgamation of two different groups; on the one hand you have Gabriel Correa Fernandez and his leftist guerrillas who fought the bulk of the civil war and were integrated into the army after deposing the dictator Farsante, and on the other you have Colonel Ehrlich, who represents the younger generation of officers in the pre-revolution army who were dissatisfied with Farsante’s rule and refused to help when the guerrilla forces were making their final push on the capital, leaving Farsante with only his most fanatical personal guards. The two groups have been merged together as a nice gesture towards national unity, but there’s one small flaw in this plan: they fucking hate each other.
The army being made up of these two opposing power blocs leads to a situation where Ehrlich will actively maneuver to increase his power base within the army while Fernandez continually pushes to have Ehrlich and his supporters liquidated. And if that wasn’t bad enough the USis a very big fan of Ehrlich to the point where they will happily ship him all sorts of weapons for free without asking you first. If one bloc in the military achieves ascendency it will have the other killed and the scales are weighted very heavily in Ehrlich’s favour, but the problem here is that Ehrlich is a complete dick who represents a thoroughly corrupt institutional bias in the military. If you let him take over the whole army you can kiss goodbye to any plans of, e.g., having military officers complicit in the atrocities of the old regime stand trial for their crimes, since Ehrlich and his cronies will just let them out of prison as soon as your back is turned. This is why I keep trying to remove Ehrlich from power, and this is why my games of Hidden Agenda always end with a screen like this.
This is what happens if you try to rock the boat too much. As mentioned before, each character in the game has a “hidden agenda” of policies they are trying to get implemented. It doesn’t matter if they’re in the cabinet or not, they are still influential people with a lot of support amongst the population, and if you don’t implement their policies – or even worse, implement the opposite of their policies – you will eventually end up facing a coup. This is one of the reasons why Hidden Agenda does the doomed South American politican thing so well; you cannot make sweeping reforms of a country’s societal structure without annoying the people currently sitting on top of it eating all the pies, and those people will do everything they can to remove you from power up to and including instigating armed revolt. No matter what you do in Hidden Agenda you’ll likely end up pissing somebody off to the point where the worst arrives, on cue.
As a result just finishing Hidden Agenda alive can be counted as “winning” the game. You might get voted out after just one term in office, you might make almost no substantive impact with your policies of reform, and whatever you did manage to get done will immediately be undone, but that doesn’t matter. Making it out of the presidential palace alive and with all your body parts intact is an achievement in and of itself, not to mention one that eluded more real-life reformist presidents in South America than I can count. If Hidden Agenda seems overly nihilistic or nigh-impossible then that’s not really any indictment of an intentional approach in the game’s design, but rather a reflection of the game’s adherence to political realism over all other concerns. It might not make for a particularly fun game, or even much of a game at all, but that Hidden Agenda exists in the first place is something I find endlessly fascinating. It’s the sort of niche project indies should be tackling today rather than vomiting out an endless stream of “intentionally” retro platformers onto Steam Greenlight2. As it is we’ll just have to make do with the original, a game whose interface has not aged particularly well but whose politics are just as relevant today as they were twenty-five years ago. If you want to take a look at it Hidden Agenda can be found on the ever reliable Abandonia; install it with Dosbox to make all your revolutionary dreams come true.
- I actually enjoy how much of a dick the US ambassador and the IMF are in this game because it very much reflects how quick the US was to stamp on any perceived communist influence in its own backyard, and how accepting aid from them is a Faustian bargain at best.
- Whatever you do don’t actually try to triage the offerings on Steam Greenlight because you’ll quickly lose the will to live.