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Due to some unfortunate data loss several days ago, this is the inferior, reconstructed version of this post. I hope it serves well enough.

Sid Meier is often quoted as having said that a game is a series of interesting choices. It can be fairly argued that a game can be other things as well, such as a series of fine motor skill challenges of escalating difficulty, and debating this point gets into semantics. But if we accept the idea that a strategy game, at least, is about choices, then a very pure implementation of this can be found in the game Hidden Agenda.

Hidden Agenda is a game about taking on the role of the newly-appointed Presidente in post-revolutionary Chimerica, a fictional Central American country. Chimerica has long been under the corrupt governance of the right-wing Farsante dictatorship, but the people have risen up and overthrown the old government. Now in de facto control of the mechanisms of government, as well as the extensive estates of the Farsante family, a junta formed by the three key opposition parties has been formed. These parties represent Chimericans from all walks of life, from the wealthy cotton farmers and army brass to the poor campesinos and revolutionaries. Even the military has been boldly merged into an extremely fragile reconciliation army, with two army chiefs of staff, representing the traditional army and the revolutionaries. You have been selected as the compromise pick to lead the intrim government.

Your job is to restore order and maintain unity during the fragile post-revolutionary years, balancing the contrary political and social interests while acting to secure a better future for the people and the country. Do do this, you first must appoint a cabinet of ministers to advise you and make policy. Your cabinet has four posts — Agriculture, Military, Internal Affairs, and External Affairs. The candidates for these positions are drawn from the three political parties, National Liberation (communists), Christian Reform (compromisers), and Popular Stability (libertarians). Your choices of these ministers determines, to a great extent, the direction you will go in each of these departments. Each of the parties has the support of a substantial faction within Chimerican society, and neglecting any of them simply because you disagree with their beliefs risks your overthrow.

Once your ministers have been hired, you then play the game in week-long turns, each turn meeting with either one of your ministers, to discuss an issue they think is important, or one of twenty-one sample members of Chimerican society, ranging from foreign diplomats and army leaders to labor organizers and coffee workers, who will all petition you with an issue important to them and the people they represent. Regardless of who you meet with, they will bring up an issue, explain what they believe is the best course of action on the issue in a usually reasonably persuasive argument, and give you an opportunity to accept their advice. If you are meeting with a minister, you can call the entire cabinet to meeting and take the input of other ministers on the issue, possibly going with an alternative proposed by another minister instead. If you are meeting with a petitioner, you may ask the opinion of the single most relevant minister, but may not hold a full cabinet meeting on the issue unless you elect to instruct the minister to place the item on his or her agenda to address at a later time. This broadens your options, but you waste a turn by not taking action that week. Finally, you can request cabinet members resign or appoint new cabinet members as a free action, and review news excerpts and an almanac of quarterly statistics about the country, also as a free action.

If, one way or another, you can make it through four years in office without being voted out of office in an election, thrown out by the national assembly in a no-confidence vote, or, more likely, forced to resign in a coup d’etat, the game ends, and you might consider yourself to have “won” the game. Certainly, to simply maintain stability for that long is the most pressing goal for a new player. But there are other priorities as well, such as preparing for elections, and managing the future of the country. Even if you make it to the end of year four, are you really happy with your accomplishments? As you read an encyclopedia entry giving a historical perspective on your first four years in office, will you like what they had to say about you?

A full game of Hidden Agenda probably takes ten minutes to half an hour to play, depending on how thoroughly and carefully you read all the arguments presented to you by petitioners and your advisors. I have probably played Hidden Agenda about fifty times, and have explored the possibility space in it fairly comprehensively. Despite my attempts to treat the game like a puzzle to be solved, there is no “Golden Path”, or solution to the game that is clearly dominant. I can survive, easily; I can even swing the government far right or far left without losing my grip on power. But still, there is no one right way to solve the country’s problems. This is partially because there is no objective standard to pass judgment on the player’s performance with, and partially because the game is designed to make a comprehensive victory in all areas impossible, even by most subjective standards — you must weigh your own values against each other, and make choices.

From my meagre experience developing games, I can’t help but be impressed by Hidden Agenda. There are very few logical hiccups, despite the extremely open-ended storytelling — the game appears to have been tested pretty thoroughly. The quality of the writing and the limited black and white art and animation is high. The game has a noticeable bias toward the left, but other than the seemingly constant inability of right-wing ministers to acquit themselves rhetorically, and the general tone of the end-game descriptions of your accomplishments, it does not greatly affect the game, and in all cases the outcomes of your actions seemed generally believable under the given scenario. Ultimately, what’s most startling, however, is that Hidden Agenda, released in 1988, managed to do what game designers today still struggle with, though many still strive for it — it gives real moral choices to the player, choices that matter, and choices for which reasonable people may disagree on the best option. It’s also one of the best persuasive/serious games I’ve ever played, despite it predating the entire movement. For me, Hidden Agenda evokes an image of an alternate reality in which an entire evolving genre is modeled along the same lines of dynamic storytelling and strategic and moral depth.

Hidden Agenda is currently distributed by the game’s author, Jim Gasperini, as described at the web site of the Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction.

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