Life less ordinary: gamers are eager to lead double lives again with The Sims 4
With 'The Sims 4' due soon Doretta Lau looks at the game that turns the everyday into addictive entertainment
On Tuesday, Electronic Arts will release the highly anticipated game The Sims 4 for PC. When the series first appeared on the market in 2000, no one could have predicted that a video game set in the suburbs, featuring characters that go through the trials and tribulations of daily life, could become such a hit.
In real life, we have jobs and school and housework - so why would we want to repeat the grind during our leisure time? Yet many players are drawn to the Sim world: to date, the franchise has sold more than 175 million units across multiple gaming platforms.
I have been playing The Sims in its many incarnations on various consoles since 2001. (I do not play any other form of video game, lacking the hand-eye coordination required to shoot, slash or drive my way through fantasy landscapes.) Around that time, one of my roommates obtained a copy of the original game and began neglecting her hygiene and diet in order to help her Sim thrive. After three days, she asked me to hide the game and to never, ever return it. That's how I began playing.
I discovered that real life was hard, but game life was so very easy: I could become mayor within days, find love by just going next door to a neighbour's house, and become a gourmet chef by reading books. I could line up tasks for my Sims to complete while doing real-world housework. The whole process seemed so rewarding: I felt I was achieving so much. My addiction to the game peaked in 2005 - I had to sell my copy of Sims 2 so I could focus on finishing graduate school.
The New Yorker quotes SimCity and Sims creator Will Wright as saying: "It occurred to me that most books and movies tend to be about realistic situations. Why shouldn't games be?"
Wright was right. Fans enjoy the gameplay even though there is no defined final goal, no big boss to conquer or magical item to obtain. In the Sim world we can fool ourselves into thinking that we have complete control over our destiny, save for the occasional kitchen fire or burglary. Here, renovating a house and buying lavish furnishings can be completed with a few clicks of the mouse. There are no uneven floors to level before laying down fancy marble floors, no contractors to bully, no weekend meltdowns at Ikea.
Sims 4 producer Grant Rodiek joined Maxis, the developer that created the series, in 2005. His first title in the franchise was Open for Business. This latest game was developed by The Sims Studio. "We have a more concentrated art vision in this game than we've had in the past," says Rodiek, when asked how this product differs from previous offerings.
"We have this beautiful, lush concentrated world … this is the most beautiful Sims game that we've ever made - that's the easy first impression."
One of the key changes has been to "Build Mode": it is now possible to resize and move rooms in a house with ease; previously, building a structure bore similar frustrations to real-life renovations.
"Create A Sim", where players make their characters and imbue them with a number of qualities, is also much more intuitive, allowing players to mould a Sim's face and body directly on the graphic, rather than relying on a slider to make adjustments.
"Gameplay wise, we've dug very deeply to cap off 'what does it mean to be a Sim? What does it mean to be a person?' We really wanted to focus on the personalities of our Sims," says Rodiek.
"As you will notice from Sims one to four we've moved up Maslow's hierarchy of needs [a psychological theory of human motivation proposed by Abraham Maslow in 1943] and gone from daily maintenance and trying to make them enough money to live."
In Sims 4, there are 10 aspiration categories: athletic, creativity, deviance, family, food, fortune, knowledge, love, nature and popularity. The game reflects current social trends. One new aspirational path is to become a Master Mixologist: "This Sim wants to know everything there is to know about mixology."
"Now we're really focused on the heart and soul of our Sims, so what are their emotions?" Rodiek says. "What makes them think? Are they sad? Are they angry? Are they embarrassed? Are they happy? Do they feel inspired? It's not just a binary I'm good or I'm not good. It now has a lot of nuance and flavour. This is a really great tool for storytelling, but it also makes the game a much richer strategic game."
Emotion appears to be a key theme for this latest title. Can a video game teach us something about empathy? London-based Ilan Eshkeri, who has composed for films such as Kick-Ass, 47 Ronin and Austenland, reveals the amount of work he put into creating the music for Sims 4: "Within the gameplay, we have all these stings. It was very daunting at the start. It is a list of 200, 250 stings of these different emotions."
There is music "… if you have a baby, if you have a good day at work, if you have a bad day at work. There is music for things like 'flirt success' or 'flirt fail'. I had to sit there and be like, okay, how does it feel when you try to flirt with someone but you've just embarrassed yourself? What does that feel like in a 10-second bit of music?"
Eshkeri worked closely with audio director Robi Kauker, who has been with the Sims franchise since the beginning. Kauker was part of the original team that developed Simlish, the language spoken by Sims. For the first game, this was completed in about seven days.
For Sims 4, six actors spent more than 100 days in the recording studio to capture all the dialogue needed for the game.
"Early on, we taught the actors how to speak Simlish … they learn to act in that way. One of the newer things in Simlish is that each actor has a little more character of their own because a lot of our animation is more or less driven by audio, which gives us a little bit more range in the voice acting."
The sound effects are captured in a way similar to Foley work in movies. "We did a lot of recording out at the Skywalker Ranch Foley stage. We did almost what a feature film would do out there," Kauker says. "We recorded pretty much everything in the world. My kitchen has thoroughly been recorded up and down with microphones all over the place and my wife got a few new appliances because we broke a few along the way."
Kauker has been playing the game to test every facet to perfect the sound. "I tend to play weirdly contrary things just to see what emerges," he says. "So a bookworm bodybuilder or something along those lines. [I do that] because that's where [any] surprise of the game always happens to me. You see things that you never put together in your head and they do exist in the world perfectly normally."
This rich new gamescape and careful attention to each Sim's inner life has helped build anticipation for the latest game. "I'm excited to explore the personality traits and tendencies," says food blogger, gamer and Sims fan Li Meng de Bakker. "Even adjusting the way a Sim walks. Those will be great features. Hopefully they've made maintaining social relationships easier. I always found that a pain in the butt when you need more friends to get promoted at work."
She is not happy with rumours that toddlers and swimming pools have been omitted but speculates these elements will appear in expansion packs.
Emma-Lee Moss, who performs as Emmy the Great, is one of the musicians who recorded the music for Sims 4. She is a long-time fan of the franchise ("I do know quite a lot about The Sims," she says) and during the interview she asks me: "What have you learned from playing The Sims?"
There are so many things I can list from my many hours logged on to various computers and consoles, but I tell her that I have learned I can sharpen my cooking skills by consulting cookbooks. What did Moss learn? "You know how they get sad when they need Social?" she asks. "I never realised that if I spend too much time alone reading or watching TV or whatever, that feeling is because I need Social - until I played The Sims.
"So now when I feel weird because I've been alone, I phone someone or I text someone."
SIMS SO FAR
Will Wright, who developed the popular urban planning God game SimCity (1989), created the first Sims game, which launched in February 2000. Players guide their characters through school, work, friendships, marriages and hobbies; the graphics are isometric. Buying furnishings and building or renovating houses has an impact on each character’s mood. The Sims was so popular – it sold more than 16 million copies and was translated into 17 languages – that Electronic Arts published seven expansion packs for the game, including vacation, dating, pet ownership and magic scenarios. Among the pre-programmed families in the inaugural game are the Goths: husband Mortimer, wife Bella and daughter Cassandra.
The Sims 2
The second game in the franchise was published in September 2004 and sold one million copies in the first 10 days of sales. To date, consumers have purchased 20 million units of this version. The narrative is set 25 years in the future. Unlike the previous game, this one features 3-D view. There is a wider range of life stages: baby, toddler, child, teen, adult and elder. Also each Sim has individual Aspirations, Wants and Fears. In the pre-made neighbourhood of Pleasantview, Mortimer Goth is elderly, Bella is missing, and in addition to Cassandra, the couple have a son, Alexander.
The Sims 3
In this version, released in June 2009 for both PC and Mac, the story is set roughly 50 years in the past. In its first week of availability, The Sims 3 sold 1.4 million copies. New to the gameplay are specific character traits, of which there are 63; an adult Sim possesses five traits. In addition to careers, Sims can elect to take on part-time jobs such as gravedigger or spa receptionist. Mortimer Goth, a scientist in the original game, is a child in Sims 3. His parents are Gunther and Cornelia. All of the Goths have the grumpy trait.