I believe it's time we paid more attention to The Sims. Despite its obvious success as the best-selling PC game in history, lots of us so-called core gamers have blissfully (arrogantly, perhaps?) ignored the franchise during the decade of its existence, and it's easy to understand why.
From the beginning the game appeared to target players seeking an alternative to arcade-style games, shooters, RPGs, and sports titles. Even fans of Will Wright's previous work, SimCity, saw in The Sims a departure from strategy-based play in favor of what Wright described as a "digital dollhouse" with no set objectives.
An incessant stream of releases - 3 major games and 15 expansions in 9 years - likely contributed to a perception of The Sims as less a video game than a virtual Barbie clubhouse with endless fashion accessories. The game's appeal to casual players (65% of Sims players are women, according to EA) may also have kept 'serious' gamers away, with special-focus expansions like The Sims: Pets and Hot Date further solidifying the game's reputation as frivolous fun for casuals.
FYI, The Sims expansions alone have outsold Call of Duty 4 and both Gears of War games.
We need to pay more attention to The Sims because the latest version of the game quietly succeeds at doing the very things many of us say we want games to do. It is, in a way unique to other games, a storytelling machine that enables a motivated player willing to engage with it a range of self-expression and interactivity unmatched by other games.
Its wish fulfillment focused gameplay (its designers call it a "happiness factory") enriches the player's experience by functioning as a procedural quest system, flexing to respond to the player's choices in ways that feel meaningful. Yes, micromanaging can still be a pain; and yes, the game artificially limits one's range of choices. But this third major iteration manages to move these limits to the periphery of the player's experience far more successfully than its predecessors.
It's entirely possible to create / tell / enact a rich story in The Sims 3, as I discovered in my first hours with it. Rather than attempt a structural analysis or feature-list description of the game, I'll offer an account of my story - a story that occurred inside the game and resulted purely from my choices, actions and interactions with the game. I'll retell my story as a first-person diary because that voice best conveys how I experienced it.
I moved to Sunset Galley with my baby daughter Zoe. I'm a single-parent without much money, so we bought a small unfurnished house near the center of town to avoid the need for a car. I'm a writer with dreams of becoming a professional author, and I hope to find work in town. My immediate goals are to care for my daughter and earn enough money to buy furniture for our house and put food on the table. I'm a hopeless romantic, and I feel certain that the partner of my dreams is living somewhere in this beautiful little town. But I'm in no hurry.
Each day I spend time teaching Zoe to walk and talk, and it's fun watching her respond. But I'm discovering it's hard for me to find time for myself. Zoe needs constant supervision, and I'm the only one who can feed her, play with her, change her diapers, and make sure she gets enough sleep. The only time I have to myself are the evenings after she's gone to sleep, and by then I'm so exhausted I can barely function.
Soon, my days and nights have reversed, and I find myself cleaning the kitchen at 3am and sleeping in my bed at 3pm. Zoe doesn't seem to mind, but days are passing, and I'm not leaving the house. I haven't met any of my neighbors, and I haven't had time to look for a job. We've got $1200 saved, but we're eating through it fast. I'm getting stir crazy, and I need some recreation.
Somehow Zoe and I are on opposite schedules. She wakes up crying, needing to be changed and fed, but I've only slept an hour or two. I'm growing increasingly zombie-like, functioning on little sleep and making lots of little mistakes. Today I collapsed from exhaustion. I decide to confine Zoe to her crib, even though she's not sleepy, so I can get some sleep. It doesn't work, and I feel like a terrible father.
My refrigerator broke and my toilet stopped working. The repair bill was more than I expected, but I was happy to see the repairman. He's the first human, besides Zoe, that I've interacted with since moving here. I need to get out, and I need to make money.
Museums make me happy, so I hire a babysitter and visit the local art museum. I instantly feel more peaceful, and it's fun to walk around and explore. Then, I see her. A beautiful woman named Agnes staring at a painting. I decide to strike up a conversation, and she responds in a friendly manner. We talk about art and a variety of other subjects, and she seems to like me. So I begin to flirt a little, and she responds in kind. We have much in common. I discover she's single and a hopeless romantic who loves art, books, and music just like me. I press a little too hard, and she waves me off; but she accepts my apology. This could lead to something good. When I return home I'm tired and hungry, but my happiness meter is sky-high. I can't stop thinking about Agnes.
The next day I call Agnes and invite her to my house. She accepts and comes right over. I'm delighted to see that she enjoys playing with Zoe, who I've admittedly ignored for the last day or two. As long as I can keep Zoe clean and fed, she seems to do well on her own. I probably need to spend more time teaching her to talk, but I've been terribly busy.
After a few more visits and lots more flirting, Agnes is now my girlfriend. She comes over any time I ask, but no matter what I do, she won't sleep with me. I soon become obsessed with getting her in bed, but every time I ask she backs away. She'll happily spend the night (even though Zoe keeps her awake), but she refuses to have sex with me.
After thinking it over, I decide Agnes won't sleep with me because we're not engaged, so I pop the question. I justify this choice by saying she'll make an excellent mother to Zoe, but that's not really a factor. I just want her to sleep with me. Agnes excitedly accepts, and sure enough, that night we have "Woo Hoo" for the first time. Things are looking up, but I still don't have a job and I'm nearly out of money.
The next day, I get a note reminding me to buy a present for Zoe's birthday. I file it away and give Agnes a call to meet me at the library. After perusing the stacks for awhile, Agnes leaves to go home, I presume. But when I go to see her there, I'm told she's at the park. When I arrive, I discover her speaking and laughing with another man. At this moment when my jealous obsession began. I was certain Agnes was seeing someone else behind my back.
So I began following her. Not on foot, but with my camera. The Sims 3 enables me to control the game's camera and zoom in anywhere I choose. I began tracking Agnes' movements around town from my living room. I spent hours watching her move from place to place, shopping, reading, visiting the museum - everywhere she went. I did this for 3 days.
And I missed Zoe's birthday. Forgot all about it. Suddenly, without me realizing it, she had grown into a little girl. I received the following message:
Due to her difficult upbringing, you will not be allowed to choose a trait for Zoe. Zoe has developed the Insane trait.
Zoe, who had received precious little attention from me, was now a little girl who wandered aimlessly talking to herself. It hit me hard, and I blamed my self-absorption. But at least she was now able to feed and bathe herself, and when the school bus arrived to take her to school, I now had hours to be productive. I got a job and began meeting other people in town. I also began visiting Agnes' house, which was the biggest in town. Agnes, it turns out was rich! I decided to befriend her family and I began hanging out at her place, eating their food, reading their books, and making Woo Hoo with Agnes in her bed. It was great. Who needs a job anyway?
One day I returned home to see Zoe off to school and decided to make her breakfast before she left. I was tired and apparently careless, and I set the stove on fire. Zoe stood and stared blankly as the firefighters arrived to put out the blaze. She talked to the trash can.
When the time came for her school bus, it never arrived. Instead, two men from the child welfare office came and informed me that I had neglected to adequately care for Zoe, and they took her away. They took her away. I removed my hands from the keyboard, stood up, and cried. It was all my fault.
A few days later, Zoe called me on the phone. I was given the option to accept or reject the call. I rejected it. Game over. I deleted the save file and started a new game. I started over.
I recently asked some Sims players to explain why they play the game. I'll return in my next post to share what they've taught me.