Why we Sim: your story
September 18, 2009
This is the last of three posts devoted to The Sims 3. I'm trying to convince you that we ought to pay more attention to this game's facility as a storytelling machine. In my first post I explained why this latest version of the game converted me from a Sims-hater; and in my second post I related a story that emerged from my own encounter with The Sims 3. Here I'll try to account for why so many people love this game.
I recently put out a call to Sims players, asking them to explain why they play the game. I was delighted by the response, and I'm grateful for what I learned. Most who replied have experience dating back to the original game released in 2000, and all have played or are currently playing The Sims 3. Here's what a few of them told me:
The Sims 3 is my favorite RPG of 2009. Some people may have trouble considering it an RPG as it's in the "Simulation" category, but this is a life simulation now only to the point at which it needs to be so to be credible. I honestly wish that the NPCs in Oblivion, Mass Effect or Fallout behaved as interestingly or had as much personality as the characters in my Sims 3 game. Believable characters make even the emergent stories that I tell myself in this game that much more entertaining. Half-Life 2 achieved a new level of believable characters with the animation and modeling, but the AI was still not quite up to believably reacting to any kind of behavior you can throw at it. In The Sims 3, I feel like every cause I enact on the game world is met with a sensible effect, especially from the characters.
The ownership and feeling of personal connection with this game is so great that people identify with it on a real personal level. Sprinkle in eccentric humor, expressive characters, a complex emoticon language and a robust genetics/aging/reproduction system and you have an RPG you can play for (character) generations.
The aspect of the Sims that I find enjoyable is that it encourages an emotional bond with the characters. Because I create the characters, develop them and am ultimately responsible for them, this definitely adds to the appeal of 'checking in on them'. Most other games don't offer this.
I had quite the unexpected emotional moment when I realised that one of my Sims had been stuck in an area it was unable to get out of and had died due to that. I felt terrible about it! Even though I knew I could simply rebuild a new character up to the same level, my emotional response to that event has stuck in my mind.
The Sims 3 advances the Sims series in a meaningful way because a lot of what you do outside of your home in the neighborhood is now as important as what you do inside your home. The previous Sims titles seemed far more disjointed as much of what happened outside the home didn't count. Time tended to 'stand still' when leaving the home, but now it doesn't.
Yu Zun Kang
I've always contended that The Sims series has been, and always will be, one of the best examples of games as pure interactive experiences...The game's significance doesn't lie in its "story space," but in its narrative space. There is a distinct difference between "story" and "narrative"; and within that difference we see that there have always been finite variations of a "story" to tell, and infinite manners in which a "story" can be told. We find narrative in that infinity.
The Sims allows you to navigate a story (i.e. life), and then allows you to create your own narrative through the manner in which you decide to play. Where the medium of video games differentiates itself from other artistic mediums is that you literally fill those gaps yourself by physically manipulating the space...By engaging with whatever work of art, in whatever medium, we push against the tyranny of story (a tyranny which is imposed upon us). I think a lot of games are catching up to the purity of interaction that has been available in The Sims. It hasn't always been successful (e.g. Noby Noby Boy), but when we think about games as a pure medium of interaction, freed from the confines and influences of other established mediums (film, tv, novels, etc.), The Sims is the purest example of what makes this medium so unique.
I'm playing The Sims 3 casually...and I really like the "game" aspects of it -- the sort of achievement system that is implemented via "life goals" is a really nice touch, especially given how little pressure you're under to actually achieve them. What impressed me the most, though, was the ability to say "I'm going to have Personality X and I'm going to try to do Y as the game goes on", and then carry out that plan. Sure, things like money get in the way of being a rich Lothario with an entourage hanging around the mansion at all times, but if the right choices are made, you can do it. The engine that EA has working in here is a marvel, and it makes me giggle with delight more often than any "dollhouse" has a right to.
As for why I play the Sims? I do it off and on...like how many people I know play Solitaire. A break, something to take up time, but not take too much energy. The loveliness I find behind this particular pastime are the stories I can tell, and that are not fully within my hands. While I can just write my own stories, when there is a bounded playfield and one with a measure of entropy, I am forced to not just tell my story, but tell my story within confines.
While many games offer things similar to this, Sims offers the most open interpretation of it, not providing me with even the most skeletal of plots through which to progress. Much like with the hierarchy found in Maslow's pyramid of needs to self-actualization, the paths to the top of a career level in the game are much more multi-faceted. Instead of adhering to a rigid set of rules, the gameplay has been loosened so as to both give the player more control and allow many different paths for a Sim to achieve his or her desires and goals. The gameplay is simpler, less demanding [than previous Sims games], thereby allowing more creativity on behalf of the player, and more options for basic gameplay for a Sim.
Why do I play The Sims? For me, I get attached to the characters. I love creating a Sim and then watching them interact with the world. I love helping navigate them through life, and helping them "be happy." I'm the type of person that really gets attached to characters in TV shows and movies, more than flashy effects or crazy drama. Give me good characters, and I'm hooked. The same principle comes to play with me and this game. I'm currently doing a Legacy Challenge (where you start with one Sim on the biggest empty lot with only $1400, and you have to play through 10 generations while following specific rules) and I'm so attached to my family. I have to schedule my playing time so that I don't spend all of my time in the game, furthering their lives. That's something that's very different from any other game.
I don't feel like I "play" The Sims in the way that the designers presumably intended. Though it's ostensibly a life simulation, I've always found it more engaging as a series of sandboxes (home decorator, philanderer, omniscient serial killer). I'm much more likely to cheat in The Sims than in any other game because I'd rather toy with the various mechanics than pursue the more directed, more traditional rags-to-riches gameplay. I think of it as more of a toy than a game, I suppose.
That said, I think The Sims 3's new features start to swing the pendulum the other way. Choosing traits feels like creating an RPG class, "moodlets" are analogous to buffs and debuffs in an MMO, controlling multiple Sims at once plays like an RTS, etc. The upshot of all this, I think, is that The SIms 3 appeals to the sandbox-lovers and the gamers alike (as well as those of us who are somewhere in between).
The Sims allows for expansive narrative experiences. I decide the biographies of my characters, create robust stories and play them out over generations. It's like a digital soap opera and I'm the director. I'm the writer.
You feel like you're controlling that universe, but there's always room for spontaneity. You may decide a character will remain single, but if you give her free will and she meets someone she matches up well with, she may decide to get married. The family component of the Sims universe is especially appealing. I'll never forget the first time I saw a family have a baby and raise it as a toddler. One day I saw her standing in her crib crying. I zoomed in and looked at her and felt this powerful need to notify her parents and tell them to help her.
Hacks, mods, and custom content is also a very big part of the Sims experience. The Sims community is creating amazing stuff. New career tracks, objects, etc. Fans exert an ownership of the game that emanates from both inside and outside the game.
Space prevents me from including all the helpful responses I received, but these are characteristic of the things people told me about their experiences with The Sims. Many thanks to all who kindly responded to my call.
If you'd like to read more about The Sims, here are a few articles I recommend.
Challenging Notions of Gendered Game Play: Teenagers playing The Sims. By: Beavis, Catherine; Charles, Claire. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, Sep2005, Vol. 26 Issue 3, p355-367
Digital Allegories (on The Sims). By: Wark, McKenzie. Grey Room, Fall2006, Issue 25, p126-138, 12p
Do the Sims Dream of Electric Sheep? By: Brophy-Warren, Jamin. Wall Street Journal - Eastern Edition, 5/29/2009, Vol. 153 Issue 124, pW7-W7
Rethinking agency and immersion: video games as a means of consciousness-raising. By: Frasca, Gonzalo. Digital Creativity, Sep2001, Vol. 12 Issue 3, p167
SIM NATION. By: Grossman, Lev; Song, Sora. Time Europe, 1/20/2003, Vol. 161 Issue 3, p50
Sims Family Values. (cover story) By: Croal, N'Gai; Joseph, Nadine; Suciu, Peter; Juarez, Vanessa Marie; Stone, Brad. Newsweek, 11/25/2002, Vol. 140 Issue 22, p46
The prize for literature goes to...The Sims. Times Higher Education Supplement, 12/2/2005, Issue 1720, p16-16
The Sims: Real Life as Genre. By: Nutt, Diane; Railton, Diane. Information, Communication & Society, Dec2003, Vol. 6 Issue 4, p577-592