Democracy is a indie PC game that found a publisher in the UK for a boxed version of its previously internet only game, Democracy. I reviewed the boxed version which was a very capable game, if somewhat limited in its lifespan. Developers Positech offered more games to review, but at the time we didn't have the staff to run with any of them.
Writing any sort of review about Democracy compared to other recently released games seems somehow less worth it. Firstly, the game has been out for a long time in America and across the world in shareware form, and is only now recently available in the UK in a retail box format. Secondly, democracy is one of those games that feels such a defined niche that you probably already know if you like it or not by reading the back of the box. The game doesn’t mislead or try to be something that it’s not, and it’s unlikely it will ever stand out amongst PC games in the retail market unless it’s something you’re already looking for.
Democracy puts you in the shoes of the newly elected leader of a country of your choice. The retail box version includes the USA and the UK, as well as other European countries. In typical open ended simulation fashion, the only true goal the game will set you is to stay in power. Keeping popular with as many people as possible is the goal in democracy, as it often is in real life politics. The game allows you set policies which will affect different groups of people either positively or negatively, respond to ‘events’, and manage your countries economy.
What Democracy is really about though, is balance. Popularity revolves around pleasing the games large set of population groups, ranging from the obvious politically motivated “liberal” and “conservative” groups, through to environmentalists and patriots, and then into more defined groups, like commuters, and parents. The game will tell you what percentage of the population makes up each group, and all of the different political areas that will affect their mood. For example, the “drivers” group will be happy about more road investment and lower petrol tax, but unhappy about have their taxes subsidise public transport; pretty much the exact opposite of the commuters. At the end of your ‘term’, the country votes to keep you in power for another three years, or to remove you forcing the game to end.
Democracy deals with its epic scale with a very simple interface. Graphics are mostly non-existent, with the only real aesthetic qualities reserved for the different icons on each of the policies. There are no cuts to film footage or in game movies when an event occurs, just an explanation written in plain text. Sound also seems to work at a minimal level, Voice acting is completely avoided, and sound effects are reduced to a simple collective noise of approval or disapproval depending on the outcome of events. The music is stimulating but it feels a little disjointed and will happily burst into epic fanfare while you’re thinking about whether or not you should legalise prostitution. The most important quality in deciding if democracy is a game for you becomes imagination. Whereas most modern games serve as temporary replacement for the imagination, Democracy requires the player to make its simple graphics, explanations and poll numbers into a real country.
The actual gameplay is well defined and stimulating, at least in the short term. Although I’m sure real politicians would find instant flaw in the game, as a casual prime minister, I found everything to be set at just the right level of realism. Everything does what you’d imagine it to do, even if it has been reduced to the simplest of terms. There’s a lot of satisfaction when you can finally stop shouting at the news about the ridiculous way the government is spending your taxes and actually jump in and have a go. In my first time I legalised stem cell research, removed creationism from schools and legalised gambling. Within twenty minutes, members of my party were being assassinated by religious extremists, and I had to give up. My second go worked well until I spent too much money on welfare and started getting into serious debt. Both total failures, but both great fun. One of the most superb things about democracy is the interface, which is so intuitive that you never have to worry about how to do something or what policy you need, and all your time actually playing the game, worrying about how a policy will affect everyone or how you are going to get enough national income to implement it.
It’s when you play a few lengthy games that you realise democracy lacks something that is normally something simulations do very well; replayability. In a way, it’s a victim of its on realism. You have this huge sandbox but the limits are very obvious. In SimCity half the fun came from getting bored and just setting disasters lose on your creation, but in Democracy, you’re limited by exactly how much you can change, you can’t become a fascist dictator or an absolute hippy, and because it relies so heavily on the imagination as it is, even doing that wouldn’t really be all that worth it. Even from a realistic standpoint there are some large sections of politics missing. Considering the size of the subject, omissions can’t really be considered a crime, but there are also some large parts of governing a country that are totally avoided, like having a cabinet, or dealing with competitors, or running campaigns. You are judged solely on your own actions, and people will vote for or against you, not for various parties. Events are also a little on the sparse side, and offer only black and white solutions to problems. Luckily there is an active modding community working on more content often.
As I hinted at the start of this review, you’re probably already very interested or totally against the idea of giving democracy a try. Even though it’s a shining example of its genre, its subject and its limited graphical ability are going to turn off the vast majority of gamers. Of course, if you are interested in politics, you would really be missing out by not giving the game a go. The game doesn’t work at extremes, you won’t find a game that can mess around with anymore then you’ll find an incredibly deep political simulator, but you will find the very best middle ground between them, even if it won’t last forever.