You there! Did you design your own face? No? Well that's a shame. Perhaps you might want to look at fixing that, at least in the land of videogames. And that's precisely what you can do in the game that lies beyond today's portal, in our seasonally festive advent-o-calendar, in the land at the end of the fingertips of the one true leader of the Autobots...
The Sims 3!
Alec: It didn’t quite do what I wanted it to – there were disappointingly few ways to interact with that much-hyped open world – but The Sims 3 is a master of benign feature creep. The core trio of Sims games have built upon the original concept, extrapolating the dollhouse from one that’s purely about physical needs to one that’s about how its pod people respond to the chaos and charm of an unpredictable world. They’re much more alive this time around, reacting in accord with the vast raft of oh-os-human weaknesses the game sees fit to bless/curse them with. In turn, that panders to the real reason we play the Sims – to embarrass, sexualise or embarrassingly sexualise ourselves and our friends. The amplified and more complex reactions to the abuse we put them through makes our twisted social engineering that much more gratifying.
I do wish so much of it wasn’t restricted to coloured bars and meters (and to endless attempts to micro-sell you new decor bumpf, for that matter) – for all its improvements and enlargements, the Sims 3 still isn’t that great at hiding its working underneath the cartoon veneer of life and mayhem it’s often so damned good at. The Sims’ ultimate destiny is to become something much bigger, an AI world of infinite interactions and rolling comedy, tragedy and everything in between. The Sims 3 may not have made quite as many strides towards that as I’d have liked, but to go back to The Sims 1 or 2 after its slew of smart under-the-hood tweaks feels like trying to have a conversation with a chimp.
It’s created mechanisms to constantly surprise and delight its players, even if their interactions are still hung around clicking on icons – there just isn’t a game that comes close to the number of funny, sad, sexy or humiliating potential events that this offers. It’s forever surprising, and disappointing, that so many self-declared hardcore PC gamers viciously spurn the Sims: there isn’t a more complex and diverse game toybox in all the world. It’s because of a desire for games of this scope and scale that we all became PC gamers in the first place. Be a grown-up: play The Sims 3.
Jim: The Sims 3 was the second game of 2009 that I shared with the Lady Rossignol. Our different approaches to the game probably offered some insights into our personalities. While my impulse was to create nightmarish cross-dressing redneck party-animals who terrorised the neighbourhood and created unhappy, dysfunctional families of freaks, my girlfriend furnished a beautiful house, and made sure that the good-looking couple who lived there were as happy and successful in their lives as they could have expected to be. She also pushed the livespan slider to the max, so she had the maximum amount of time to make their lives interesting.
The miracle of The Sims is probably that it exists at all, but the fact that it works so well, and allows you to run savage redneck families, or unsettling experiments in homelessness - as Roburky had done with Alice & Kev - is a testament to hard work and brilliant design. The fact that there are so few people simulators, and almost no soap opera, is a measure of the tunnel-vision that afflicts most game designers. Clearly, a game about life, about people, about aspirations and furniture and careers, is exactly what the gaming world wants, because it's a smash hit every time. It baffles me that The Sims still has no clear rivals, and isn't the headlining game in a teeming Life genre. That it's almost the only game is, actually, kind of disturbing.
Kieron: But not as disturbing as a room full of me making out.
Roburky, of course, paid back the karmic debt for that piece of psychic-sin with the aforementioned Alice & Kev. It's an odd one, Alice & Kev, of course, and only highlights what's so special about the Sims. You couldn't have done anything like it with any other game. To state the obvious, the Sims is relevant in a way few games manage - or even try - to be. As such, the experiences its offers are divorced from it.
For example, I play the Sims somewhere between Jim and his good ladyfriend. I play it as a game, devotedly trying to push towards their life goals (i.e. I like the numbers). There's been some odd moments along the way. I created one of the characters from my comic Phonogram - the bisexual ascerbic shagmesiter Emily Aster - and logically enough set her goal to fuck her way around simsville. It's my first full game, so I go through it feeling my way out as she feels her... oh, you get it. I actually subsist without having to have a job, and end up maxing out a whole load of skills as well as sowing my red-hot wild oats. So when my old age creeps up on me, it throws me. I've got a few days in game to start a relationship. I try to get back with an old flame - because she lives in a big old rich person's house, and that's a suitable place to end up. Except, because of all the things I've done - and Emily has done some vile ,vile things - she won't actually start a new relationship. I hit old age, and am left alone, in a tiny house with no stuff, barely any friends and a mass of people who hate me. All because of a really fucking stupid obsession.
It struck me that I'd be pushed to create as sad a literary ending for Emily as the Sims had let me create through just by playing her through. Point taken, I end up cheating to drop her into the household before moving on to play other people... but the final image of her, an aged, thin woman, determinedly working out on an exercise machine struck me as oddly poignant and depressing. Emily's totally going to die and there's nothing she can do about it.
(Hell, to try and stretch out her Adult sim life, I had her quickly run a marathon to get the achievement which extends their total life... but it appears to only add to the back end. Talk about fighting the inevitable).
I like the Sims a lot. I wish I had the time to give myself over to it more, because it gives right back. I disagree with Alec on what the Sims 3 achieved - I think when a genre-leader makes obvious and sizeable improvements over anything else, there's little else you can realistically expect. Previously, it was a game where you sat in a house. Now, it's a game where you can run down the street. These things are of absolute, paramount importance.
I wouldn't swap the Sims for 10 top flight shooters. After 10 years, it remains unique. EA deserve every penny of the kersquillions they've made from it.