Tag Archives: The Sims

Choice

Sid Meir, the guy behind Civilization, famously described a game as being “a series of interesting choices.” The idea here is that a good game has you making decisions that have some weight to them, that is, decisions that though not necessarily wrong, could have repercussions. In Civilization, it can manifest from whether you plan on pursuing diplomacy or warfare, or whether you’re playing as the Aztecs or the English. Decisions.

By this metric, Candyland is a really crappy game with no real decision making, though this is arguably excusable as it functions as a method of introducing young children to the way board games work. Monopoly doesn’t really fare much better, as it really all comes down to the roll of the dice with the illusion of more — deciding whether or not to buy a property you land isn’t much of a decision because the answer is “duh.” If you play with trades, and players who are willing to trade, the game can get much more interesting, but that’s a big old if. Of course, Monopoly was originally intended, as The Landlord’s Game, to be an indictment against rampant capitalism and its lack of choice in the matter does underscore it; though I feel like the subtext was lost when Parker Brothers ‘borrowed’ the game from Lizzie Magie.

Anyway. Interesting choices.

Sid Meir’s a video game designer, so it makes sense to turn his lens to look at video games. The Sims is a game rife with choices: What job will your Sim have? What kind of stove will they buy? Should they or should they not date Santa Claus? There are a lotta choices you can make, which, given that the game’s a life simulator, makes sense. Interestingly, there aren’t really drawbacks between choosing to be a Super Spy of Master Criminal, it’s all part of whatever sort of narrative you’re constructing for your Sims. The choices remain interesting because it’s totally up to you.

The Last of Us has one of my favorite choices. It’s a small one, built into the gameplay’s crafting system. In the post-apocalyptic world, resources are scarce and much has to be made by hand. Alcohol and Cloth can be used to make Health Kits; they can also be used to make Molotov Cocktails. One of them heals you, the other can be used to fight Hunters and Infected. You have to choose which one to craft at any given moment, and given that you can only carry so much at a time, you’ll end up having to make something not knowing when you’ll get more. It compounds the game’s question of survival, forcing you to choose between attacking and saving yourself on a small scale.

Consequences are something that can make choices interesting — otherwise, it’s not more of a deal than picking the red or blue token. XCOM 2 gives your decision making weight. Are you gonna research armor or weapons first? Are you going to collect intel or supplies? Are you going to wait before launching that attack? The constant ticking time bomb of the aliens’ progress on the Avatar Project makes the time crunch real; you can’t spend all your time shoring up your forces or you lose. Periodic battles also make it hard to just wait around, as you will have to send your soldiers out on missions, and chances are, they will get injured.

That’s all big picture. When you get down to the minutiae of actual combat, the decisions compound. One strategic mistake in the tactical game could leave you with your best soldier in the infirmary for weeks — or killed outright, forcing any plans you had for a later raid out the window. If only you’d played that mission a little more

There’s a theory that storytelling was born out of the human/tribal need to simulate experiences for people who hadn’t yet experienced them. Maybe games are in some ways an extension of that, a sort of failure space for you to make choices and let them play out without real-world ramifications. Or maybe it’s just part of what makes them fun. Either way, they’re a great way to spend quarantine.

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More Thoughts on The Sims

If you’re wondering what I’ve been doing during quarantine, the answer is still playing The Sims. Along with games like Death Stranding (terrific, prescient, heartbreaking) and Jedi Outcast (gotta love old school LucasArts), watching Kim’s Convenience (so good!) and  trying to build a Singaporean kopitiam with LEGO bricks.

And cooking, because, of course, but not baking because ovens are unknowable creations that worry me and lack the finer control offered by a stovetop.

Anyway.

The Sims.

After learning last week to slow down and enjoy the process of the game, I thought I’d try and wonder why this game is so darn engrossing. It’s a game about nothing, insofar as everyday life is about nothing. There’s no real goal. Which, isn’t that unusual these days. A lot of big games have the postgame: After you finish the game you can still wander around the world and do any side-quests you’ve left. In Death Stranding this has me running around completing deliveries and trying to max everything out (and also build a network of ziplines for maximum effectiveness). I’ve beat the game and all, but there’s still more open-ended fun to get done. In Pokémon, I’ve spent untold hours catching ’em all and cultivating the perfect team to take on my brother. It’s plenty of fun to one around Venus in Destiny shooting Fallen with a friend. In all these cases, the game is effectively done, but you’re still free to mess around.

The Sims is like that from the get-go, with any and all goals being of your own devising. You can do whatever you want, tell whatever story you want with them. It’s a game I’ve been playing for over seventeen years, and somehow it still hasn’t gotten old. Why?

I suppose on one level there is the fantasy element of the game. When you’re a kid, getting to engage in a simulacrum of adult life, having a job and earning money and falling in love and going on vacations and the like. Plus you get to design houses and furnish it with whatever you want or can afford (and if you can’t afford it, a cheat code can take care of that). As an adult, there’s still a level of wish-fulfillment. Having a career where you can get promoted and owning your own house sounds like sheer fantasy to this Millennial living though his second ‘once-in-a-generation’ economic crash. There’s a very mundane gratification to picking out a job for a Sim and then completing simple self-improvement tasks to get promoted. Then get money and use that money to build a sprawling underground complex beneath an unassuming house.

Maybe some parts are more fantastical than others.

But I think that therein lies much of what makes it work so well. The Sims offers a mechanism for you to set your own goal and then, later, achieve it. The game is an avenue for a sense of accomplishment, of having done something. It’s like doing a Strike in Destiny or polishing off a side quest in Assassin’s Creed, except this go ’round it’s whatever I want it to be. Perhaps it’s the illusion of control that’s so attractive, of living a life where whatever you want to happen can happen. And then when it does, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.

It helps that these sorts of things tend to be awfully fun. Like befriending the Grim Reaper. Or building underground bunkers.

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Life Sped Up

So a bunch of The Sims 4’s expansion packs are on sale right now, and with not much else to do, I figured I might as well jump back into one of my favorite computer games.

I’ve been playing The Sims for over eighteen years now, making it easily one of the longest-running and consistent franchises in my stable (The Legend of Zelda came and went, and I got into Final Fantasy late). So what is it about this game that’s able to hold my attention through my preteen years to my late-twenties?

The Sims is an unusual game in that there is no real goal. There is no win state, nor is there a lose state. You can’t beat the simulation of everyday life, nor can you really lose it. Sure, you can have a super-successful, happy Sim with a great job, lots of money, and string of lovers; but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve won. Nor does a completely miserable Sim who starves do death describe a loss. The thing about the game is you can do whatever you want in it: live out a fantasy of life on a beach, or embody a malevolent deity who exists only to punish those miserable creatures.

The game’s a sandbox, one that invites you to do whatever you want.

It’s also something I think I may have started playing wrong.

Which sounds like a paradox — how can a game with no rules be one you play wrong?

I’ve set my own goal (I’m going for the Black Widow achievement: have a Sim outlive five spouses) after which I’m going to continue the multigenerational dynasty and stuff. So it’s not the most sketched out plan, but it’s one nonetheless. In the process of chasing it, however, I feel like I’m missing the ride for the destination.

The Sims has a speed setting that lets you hasten time along so you’re not waiting ages for your Sim to get back from work, or wake up, or finish cooking. It’s useful, since some things take a while and the ability to abbreviate them leaves more time for the more interesting stuff, which is whatever you want it to be. Thing is, I, of late, have found myself playing the game almost always at the highest speed, rushing things along to get my Sims to the point where I wanted them to get.

Then I left it at normal speed while I grabbed something from across the room, and quickly realized I’d been missing out on the silly minutiae of The Sims that makes the game so charming. Things like Sims babbling in Simlish, or watching them try and fail at basic tasks, or even one of the Sim’s odd habit of taking naps in the hot tub when there’s a comfy bed right there. There’s entertainment to be had from achieving the goals you’ve set in your mind for these Sims, but then there’s also the fun of just watching them go about their lives, kinda like an ant farm but with more cooking accidents.

I’ve a lot of time on my hands these days, what with the whole quarantine thing still being in effect. Maybe it’s about time I slowed down The Sims and enjoyed the process of playing it a bit more. There’s a nugget in there about living life, I’m sure, but hey.

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Simming It Up

I really like The Sims. Always have, ever since I started playing the original game seventeen-odd years ago.

But because I am the way I am, I gotta ask myself why do I like this game?

The premise of The Sims is wonderfully simple: it’s a simulation of life. You create and customize a Sim and then play God with their life, telling them to go to work, eat, fall in love, and so on. Part of the game’s challenge is a sort of resource management: how can you keep your Sim’s needs met so they can be happy. You don’t want them passing out or starving to death, do you?

But it’s quite easy to get into that rhythm, and the game’s sequels have streamlined the process in their iterations (I recall press around The Sims 3 touting that Sims would need less bathroom breaks). It’s really not that difficult to keep your Sims happy and for them to advance in their careers and all that. So the question there is: Now what?

That’s the real beauty of The Sims. You can do anything. In the first game, my focus was on bringing my couple to the top of their career, which was actually pretty tough at the time, given that it entailed keeping needs met and having a large number of friends (to the point that I’d create additional families only for them to befriend my main Sims and facilitate promotions). And building houses, that’s a lot of fun too. Expansion packs made for new (mis)adventures, like adding in pets and hotels, offered new ways for the Sims to do their things.

The Sims 2 added in aging and made child sims less useless, so creating a multigenerational family was a lot of fun. The Sims 3 let you explore the neighborhood in a big way, and now The Sims 4 has streamlined everything a lot, while really refining its mechanics. There’s so much to do.

The thing I really like about The Sims is the ability to construct narratives. But they don’t have to be ones that are explicitly written, rather they can exist all in my head. Right now I’m going for having a Sim outlive five spouses, which is delightfully morbid, but I figure in the process Raina Higginthorpe is gonna have a wonderful relationship with Armin Woghoni, a (not-quite-mad) scientist. Naturally, this has meant building an underground swimming pool and, below that, a secret lab. Oh, and expanding the modes suburban house up a couple floors and building a rocket on the roof. Because why not? And also I like building secret lairs and stuff. And this is The Sims, so I can do this!

Anyway, Raina and Armin have a daughter, Alana, who’s quite close with her father. When he dies in a mysterious case of Pushing The Big Red Button after going to space, she decides that, when she becomes an adult, she’s going to become an intergalactic space ranger, presumably to solve the mystery. None of this is in the text — seriously, it’s all in my head. Raina, meanwhile, is gonna remarry and continue her black widow streak, all while the family as a whole amasses more money and their house starts to look more and more like a castle.

I enjoy the silliness of it all, the process of making a story with very low commitment and all. It’s similar to why I enjoy playing tabletop RPGs, this ability to create a narrative about kinda random events. I suppose I can see this being unappealing if this sort of unstructured play isn’t really your jam when you play video games, but hey, I dig it, and it’s a fine way to spend this vacation.

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In Search of Story

I have spent entirely too much of my life playing The Sims. Seriously, since I was first sent a copy of the game by my cousin in 2002 I’ve logged endless hours in the original game and its sequels. I’ve bought expansion packs and borrowed them from friends.

What I’m saying is I’ve played a lotta Sims.

Now, The Sims is one of those games that there are many ways to play. Personally, I got through my burning/starving/drowning phase relatively quickly (though I do enjoy revisiting it) and moved on to trying to make my Sims as rich as possible. When Sims 2 introduced family trees I’d craft magnificent family ties and recently in Sims 3 I’ve been trying to create some mildly bizarre characters with the intention of forming a dynasty and/or soap opera-esque melodramas.

All this to say, within The Sims I am constantly creating stories. It may be Jack and Tracy falling in love, Paul Tay fathering two dozen children by half as many women, or Hope the firefighter-adventurer fighting fires and adventuring. Within The Sims, a game with ostensibly no real goal. I find myself actively seeking out narrative.

Why?

When you tell someone about the time you ran into Mike Wilson from High School at the grocery store you don’t just say “I ran into Mike Wilson at the grocery store and it was odd.” No, you make it into a story: “So the other day I was at the grocery store [set up], and you won’t believe who I saw [build up]. Mike Wilson from High School [inciting incident]!”

See, story is how we process things. We, as people, naturally want there to be an arc to events. We want the end to be resolved — it’s what the whole notion of getting closure is all about. To this effect, we see narrative everywhere.

Like in sports. According to friends of mine who actually know about these things, a lot of investment in something involves the narrative of the adventure. Look at the recent Women’s World Cup; the US was once again facing Japan in the finals. Where last time Japan won, this time the US were able to pull of a victory. It’s exciting because, for the Americans, there was a comeback narrative. Had the US won the last three World Cups too, another victory wouldn’t have had as much impact as this one did. Even look at the Men’s World Cup, where interest in the US team piqued when, hey, they had a chance of making it to the Round of 16. Suddenly, there was a story to the sport.

Narrative shapes everything. Much of American propaganda in the Cold War had the country presenting itself as the underdogs against the Evil Empire of the Soviets. Because an underdog narrative is far more sympathetic than one of domination. Creating a story around the war inspired patriotism and helped make sense of it all. Just as it’s more interesting for a Sim who’s been having a real lousy go of it to turn their life around, the United States painting itself as the dogged good guys trying to do right legitimized their cause.

Because we want life to make sense. So much of The Sims is about making something happen. Drowning a family is (sociopathic) fun in and of itself, but it’s more fun if you make their best friend watch. There’s a lot more fulfillment to be found in making a Sim pursue a career rather than to hop from job to job (unless there’s a reason for that too). In chaos, be it life, war, or The Sims, there’s a want for order: story gives it that order. Because yes, there is a purpose to slowly starving virtual people.

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Merited Futility

I like playing video games, I really do. I write about them a lot too. Gaming is great: it’s a great form of catharsis, sometimes carries unique stories, and it’s just plain fun.

Which then makes it odd when I say I have trouble justifying gaming. See, it sometimes feels like a waste of time. After all, outside of the magic circle in which gaming takes place, it has no effect on, well, anything. That’s what a game is, isn’t it?

This applies more so to digital games. Physical games, such as sports, have the benefit/excuse of being exercise. At least the guy playing soccer all day is getting a workout. Digital games don’t have that. You’ve seen the gamer stereotype: overweight, friendless, hasn’t seen daylight in a while. Unless you’re a championship DoTA/StarCraft player there’s not much real world application to gaming.

Or is there? Digital gaming is all about problem solving, whether the problem being solved is how to take out that squad of Elites or what’s the best way to use those portals to make that friendly cube land on a red button. It could be argued that these skills could be given real world applications. Everything I know about rocket science I learnt from Kerbal Space Program, for example. Studies have also been done that show that people who play a lot of FPS’s are better at taking in lots of information at once and thus are better drivers, soldiers, and surgeons. Cool.

But this is all minutiae. Rocket science is hardly a useful everyday skill unless you’re a rocket scientist (compared to the running skills built by playing soccer). So where then is the merit of games? Graeme Kirkpatrick thinks that games are aesthetically pleasing. He figured that the movements of the player’s hands translated onto the screen are a sort of dance. The way, for example, an adept player can make Pac-Man spin in place reflects skill and ability. It’s like what a ballerina does, only less feet and balance and more hands and reflex.

I like this argument. It makes gaming sound like it’s, y’know, worthwhile. By this logic video games are like dancing. I can begin to justify spending all day playing a game like FTL because the way I decide how to utilize my ship’s power while ordering my crew about is a dance in and of itself. There’s value there, if only on an aesthetic level. I’m not wasting my time.

But what about a game like The Sims or Kerbal Space Program? There’s not much dancing going on there. Sims just has you clicking about and Kerbal is a lot of mathing than it is epic mid-flight space maneuvers. They lack the need for agility and reflexes that characterize Kirkpatrirck’s dancing. They aren’t dancing, so where’s there value? Kerbal gets the “it’s science!” justification (sometimes, anyway), but what about The Sims? Where’s the value in playing The Sims?

While discussing Kirkpatrick’s idea with a friend, he dismissed my rationale for liking it by pointing out that he didn’t need an excuse to play games. Games — video games — are their own activity and have their own merits. Sure, you’re usually indoors and most of the time you’re alone, but where’s the harm? They’re fun. Like derping around on the internet or watching TV, they’re just another way of fun. Not only that, but beating a game is a valid accomplishment. Spending a couple weekends collecting all the trophies in Uncharted 2 is something. It’s not fair to just write it off; to do it required not only skill but a great deal of patience. And if nothing else, the perseverance to do that is commendable.

So I’ve decided to play games for their own sake. I’m not ‘wasting my time,’ this is what I do. Sure, maybe I’m learning skills in tenacity, problem solving, or rocket science, but importantly it’s fun. I play games because they’re fun. And that’s enough.

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