Summer of Confabs - vol. 4
Summer of Confabs - vol. 5

Wrecking the dollhouse


I've played every iteration of The Sims franchise and never been hooked. Something has always stood between me and the game: repetition, cludgy interface, trivial tasks, artificial interactions - I want to like The Sims, but the game won't let me. I feel like an outsider drawn to a party I'm not invited to. I want in, but after I'm there I can't wait to leave.

Well, guess what? While all my friends have been playing the new Batman game, I've been devoting every spare moment I can find to The Sims 3. After ignoring it for months, I dove into the game...and suddenly I got it. A door opened, a light went on, my invitation arrived, and now I'm partying with 50 million people whose devotion to this game I've never understood.

How did it happen? Two big reasons: 1) The Sims 3 refines its formula enough to make me feel welcome. 2) I refined my thinking to more fully grasp the true nature of the game. Rather than bending the game to my will, I allowed it to play me as I played it. And this made all the difference.

The Sims 3 is a storytelling machine. I prefer this definition to "life simulator" because I think it more accurately reflects the nature of my engagement and the rewards the game can bestow. Despite its AI enhancements and graphical upgrades The Sims 3 cannot accurately simulate life as we live it. But it is remarkably capable of creating an environment and a lively flow of circumstances that provoke the player to build a life that can be lived inside the game. Sim life can still be a chore, but the chore communicates meaning now.

Within this framework it's possible - joyfully and painfully so - to play in the purest sense: to imagine, to theorize, to commit, to escape, to act out and even reflect on those actions. If engagement is indeed a choice, then choosing to fully engage in The Sims 3 means you are crafting a story inside a machine that can make that story feel contextually resonant. The Sims 3 is not a glorified dollhouse because dolls don't really need you. Dolls can't learn from you. Dolls don't die and leave you to pick up the pieces.

I'm admittedly stunned by my sudden embrace of The Sims. I didn't see it coming, and I'm not sure if it will last. But for now I'm deeply intrigued by the game as a story space, and I must say I'm still reeling from the story that unfolded for me in my first encounter with The Sims 3. I'll recount that story in my next post. I've also been corresponding with other players, most of whom have many more miles on their Sims tires than me. They've taught me some useful lessons that I'm eager to share with you.

If you're a longtime Sims-avoider like me, I encourage you to spend time with the latest version. Fussy time management has been replaced by a system EA likes to call a "happiness factory." That phrase makes me cringe, but it does reflect an essential aspect of The Sims 3 design. If your primary goal is realizing your dreams (as opposed to, say, emptying your bladder) and building your own road to reach them, you're more likely to discover and weave a story that's personally connected to you. The Sims 3 facilitates this kind of game/player interaction in ways its predecessors have failed to do. For that reason alone, you may find this Sims finally wrecks the dollhouse forever.