Posted by: Ben | November 19, 2009

Silver Age: The Sims

(Videogame. PC. Maxis/Electronic Arts. 2000. No.1 in AML’s Chronologically Ordered Games Of The Decade)

Surround yourself with unnecessary possessions to numb the meaninglessness of life

Genius developer and Maxis founder Will Wright reinvented the concept of the video game with Sim City.  In the Eighties, the concept of the video game was reinvented every six weeks or so, and at the time it seemed inevitable that soon enough he’d find himself pulling it off again.  It certainly gave Maxis the clout to make flawed but brilliant titles like the James Lovelock-inspired Sim Earth, its gene-splicing sequel Sim Life and real time ant-em-up Sim Ant.  But by the late Nineties Maxis had blown all their money on a procession of Sim titles with ever-decreasing appeal, a procession cut short by the boring but financially astute suits at Electronic Arts.  As the kind of person who is forever complaining about the lack of original game ideas while very rarely buying games that have original ideas, this makes me feel bad.

Still, it felt like a reinvigorated Maxis that put out The Sims in 2000, backed by EA’s marketing power.  This time the God game was coming home, as the player was given the responsibility of managing the lifestyles of individuals with customised faces and minds of their own.

For Maxis it was business as usual, but for EA it was a risk on a brand new idea, and it was a risk that succeeded beyond an accountant’s wildest dreams.  People just couldn’t get enough of a game that let you control real, ordinary people instead of supersoldiers or footballers.  The game sold a million billion copies and penetrated new markets such as women, the elderly and people with children.  It heralded the dawn of the current era of casual gaming, a misnomer because there’s nothing casual about losing a weekend to the call of the little computer people.  And once the likes of Nintendo noticed, the commercial landscape would be changed forever.

Funnily enough, part of the game’s international appeal was probably down to the domestic Americana of the setting.  The starting neighbourhood was composed of houses that looked strangely similar no matter how much you customised them, set in generous gardens surrounded by white picket fences.  There was an empty mansion at the top of the street that you couldn’t afford.  It was the model of a respectable middle-class all-American neighbourhood, just like in Edward Scissorhands.

The game itself was the explicit articulation of the American Dream.  The characters may have had rudimentary AI, but their success or failure in the game of Life was entirely up to the player.  It was up to you whether you cajoled them to success, making them high achievers who spent their free time working out on their home multigyms and building contacts with influential neighbours they secretly didn’t like, or let them sink into beer-swilling dissolution (not that there was any alcohol to be had, but you could pretend).  Alternatively, the more sadistic player could choose to lock their Sims in a room with no doors and watch them go mad from sleep deprivation and claustrophobia before starving to death in a pool of their own urine.  Neglect their children and see them taken into care or sent to military school, leaving you with nothing but memories and guilt.

As a playset, it was as perfect as the original Sim City, which is pretty much perfect.  There were so many decisions to make, and so much feedback, that it never really got boring.  And if it did, you just had to install one of the many, many optional expansion packs.  As a simulation its only gaping hole was the seeming inability of otherwise responsible adults to get to the bathroom in time.

Some of the game design choices gave an interesting window into the social mores of America around the turn of the century.  There was no alcohol, as mentioned before.  Children never grew up.  Same-sex relationships and adoption were OK, but marriage was out.  Weirdest of all, watching TV together was a great way to make new friends.

Not only was it the closest thing to an original idea, it was one that has proved resilient to imitation.  Rival developers and publishers have failed to get a bandwagon going, and its only real imitators have been Europorn titles like Singles 2: Triple Trouble and well-intentioned indie games like Kudos.  Meanwhile EA cleaned up again with The Sims 2, while The Sims 3 should keep the expansion pack money rolling in for the next decade or so.

Technology, of course, can only get you so far.  Of course it’s nice to have a seamless neighbourhood, and weekends, and jobs.  But some players (whom I know personally) have been turned off The Sims 2 and 3 by the prospect of having to control a 3D camera, and even if it is possible to simulate it by pointing the camera diagonally down on the scene, this still doesn’t replicate the pixel-art beauty of the isometric perspective.  And does The Sims 3 work on a netbook?  Maybe, but not on this netbook.

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