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Maxis games are the best games. They ask us not to destroy, but to create, and they do it with a ton of humor and personality.
SimCity for the Super Nintendo was my first Sim game. It enchanted me as a young teen, and held me in a death grip. It took me a very long time to learn its nuances and strategies, and I often felt frustrated when my populations would up and vanish, but I couldn’t stop playing it anyway. The joy of plopping down zones and roads and parks and police departments, and then watching it all sprout to life like a vegetable garden was just too addictive for me to ignore.
So when I read in PC Gamer that Maxis was making a game that zoomed the scope in on The Sims themselves, allowing the player to see and control the routes of their very lives, I didn’t just want it; I needed it.
I had to upgrade my computer a bit before it would play smoothly, but it was worth the money. The game drew me in unlike any before it. I bought all the expansion packs, I bought all the sequels. I’m a little uncertain about the upcoming Sims 4 at the moment, but I know I’m going to buy it anyway.
With a game that’s as broad as The Sims, the appeal is different for any one of its players. In the chest of needs that The Sims meets, I see wish-fulfillment, sculpting, model-building, voyeurism, vengeance, but most of all, I see human compassion.
When I play The Sims, I feel a closeness to my creations. I don’t much enjoy the architectural side of the game, but I love the stories that grow out of the people I’ve made. I use the word “grow,” because I just don’t feel right about forcing the game to go in a direction that I want. One of the secrets of good video game design is to make the player feel not entirely in control of his or her characters. That’s why Mario skids when he changes direction, that’s why Master Chief has to reload his guns, that’s why pulling off the perfect turn in Gran Turismo feels so damn good. A good game pokes you, it prods you, it slips you off course so you constantly have to adjust and adapt. In real life, this sort of thing sucks, but in video games, it’s a necessity.
So when my Sim Travis Finn decided he was madly attracted to his boss yesterday, I laughed out loud, and went along with it. I knew it would probably be a social disaster for him, but I also thought it would be a fun and interesting road nonetheless. The lady, a Townie named Iliana Langerak, would have to leave her husband and kids behind to pursue this skinny, young workaholic, but who said that The Sims has to be drama-free?
And isn’t drama the soul of storytelling?
Sim Travis’s house is a starter place with only one bedroom. I decided to have him live with his father Edward and the neighborhood cat that likes to drop by. Since the game doesn’t start Sim families with a lot of spending money, I couldn’t remodel the place so the two men could have their own bedrooms. They had to sleep in the same room. I found this circumstance, which was brought on by the conditions of the game, to be quite humorous. Poor old Edward, grumpy and serious as he is in my short story, had to put up with Travis’s alarm clock, classical music, and constant cleaning. Where Edward wanted to sit down and harangue his son about the good old days, Travis wanted to work overtime and then make out with his boss. It became an odd-couple story for the ages, and I didn’t even plan it that way.
I think The Sims should be required playing for all writers. While the game is incapable of showing the truth and the depth of the dynamics between its characters, it lights the kindling of the creative bonfire. When Sim Travis waved goodbye to his pop, got on his bicycle, and shot across the bridge to see his date, leaving ol’ Edward alone on the couch with his cat, my imagination switched on. It crept inside old Edward’s head, wondering about his loneliness, his feline company, what TV shows would comfort him, and about his feelings for his estranged wife. It gave me ideas for passages that I could put in my short story that I wouldn’t have considered if I hadn’t played the game this way.
For all the complaints of money-grubbing that players have leveled at EA for milking expansion packs, for all the technical problems that the new SimCity has had, and for all the justified concerns that players are currently having for the gameplay of The Sims 4, I nonetheless believe that we need these games. You can only shoot so many ugly aliens before you want to learn something deeper about yourself than how quick your trigger finger is. May The Sims woo-hoo in our hearts forever.