June 7, 2009
The high-level objective of a video game might be described as making pretend life more engaging than real life. The Sims games have to interpret that more literally than most, since you’re not a superhuman space marine but a guy in the suburbs trying to afford a new dishwasher.
The designers’ challenge is to selectively abstract the everyday minutiae of life so that the player can focus on the fun parts. Generally speaking, they do a great job. Instead of shopping at the supermarket, for example, you take food out of your perpetually-stocked refrigerator and pay for it on the spot; instead of calling a plumber, you can just click and drag your toilet from one room to another.
Even so, the annoyances of everyday life inevitably creep in. You still have to pay the bills and clean the bathroom. You still have to use the bathroom, which is amazing to me considering how many games don’t even bother modeling them. And frankly, when faced with the prospect of working late, coming home too tired to unwind, and barely having time to shower and eat before heading off to bed in a video game, one begins to wonder exactly where the escapism is.
It’s there, but as fans can attest it’s not always in the game itself. I once sat behind a young girl on a train who played The Sims for three hours straight. Amazingly, I didn’t see her spend any time interacting with the characters in “live mode” — ostensibly the focus of the game. Rather, she spent the entire time constructing floor plans, deliberating over wallpaper colors, furnishing and decorating all the rooms — and then deleting all her work and starting anew.
I don’t play in quite the same way, but I think that girl had the right idea. I’ve always found The Sims more engaging as a series of sandboxes (home decorator, philanderer, omniscient serial killer) than as a life simulation.
The Sims 3 is still great at the sandbox style, of course, but in many ways the balance has swung back towards more traditional gameplay. This is due in large part to the judicious co-opting of established systems from other genres. For example:
- Choosing a Sim’s traits feels a lot like creating a class in an RPG. Certain traits are mutually beneficial (Family-Oriented and Charismatic, Friendly and Good) while others could make for more difficult characters (Family-Oriented and Evil, Hot-Headed and Childish). For those looking for practical applications, there are also several traits with skill-related bonuses (Virtuoso, Natural Cook, Green Thumb).
- The “moodlets” system, which uses temporary bonuses and penalties to affect your Sim’s mood, works like the buffs and debuffs in an MMO. If your Sim is tired but wants to go out on Friday night, she can have some coffee for a short-term positive moodlet to get though the evening. Or if she regularly comes home stressed from her high-powered job, she can relax with her fireplace and hi-fi stereo system — area-of-effect moodlets that act as a kind of suburban armor.
- When controlling an entire family, the game plays a bit like an RTS. It’s possible to play most of a day with the camera zoomed out to the city level, giving orders to one Sim at work (“Slack Off,” “Suck Up To Boss”) while clicking off items in a grocery shopping list for another Sim, and sending their kid to school. This part is a mixed bag; AJ Glasser at Kotaku wasn’t a fan, and I agree that it’s not the most fun part of the game. I found myself wishing for a faster fast-forward, which is never a good sign.
I have no doubt that there are enough new home decor options in The Sims 3 to keep that girl on the train (and me) entertained. Now I think there is also enough gameplay.