There are a few notable video game anniversaries coming up this year, not least the anniversary of the PlayStation 2 which launched two decades ago (yep, you heard me) and the 35th anniversary of the Nintendo Entertainment System (yes, yes I know the Famicom came first in ‘83, sit down). But for this retro review, I wanted to pay tribute to a series which marks its 20-year anniversary next month and spawned a generation of wannabe architects and sadistic pool ladder thieves. It is, of course, The Sims.
It’s a simple idea. You create a sim, build them a house, get them a job, make some friends, find a partner and manage the day-to-day minutiae of regular life from sleeping to going to the bathroom. Or don’t. You could give your Sims a life of misery, make them wet themselves, get their husband to cheat and set their house on fire. All equal amounts of fun.(Where is your God now?!)
My relationship with The Sims started out with one of those Scholastic book club leaflets you used to get in school. On the back page was a listing for The Sims and having watched my friend play, I skipped home and got my mum and dad to put an order in the next day – because who needs books? When it arrived, having blissfully ignored the system requirements, I was crushed to find my Windows 98 PC wasn’t capable of running the thing. So, I gave it to my cousin to install on her PC instead and we waved goodbye to hours of our lives we would inevitably lose to these tiny fictional people.(“Come on….load!”)
The Sims was the perfect kind of game for me at the time and honestly, probably still is. No combat, no platforms to jump, just a straightforward life-like world where you get to play God for a few hours … and hours and hours and hours after you’d assured your younger sibling “You can have your turn in a minute.” There’s no real objective or anything to beat – well, you can live a full life and die peacefully of old age if that’s your sort of thing – but it’s ultimately up to you to flesh out the story and the role your sims play.(“Anyway, here’s a simulation of Wonderwall!”)
Because of that, it also made for the perfect escape. Offering players various levels of customisation, which got richer as the series went on, you could pretty much create whoever you wanted, deciding the clothes your Sims wore to how outgoing or friendly they would be. Recreate your real-life crush and make them fall in love with you (yes, my friends and I all certainly did this). Break the heart of that bully you hate at school (yep, that too). Give yourself your dream house by becoming filthy rich with a harmless cheat code. While there were indeed elements of strategy involved in ensuring your social metres were properly topped up and your kids got to school on time to avoid a visit from the social worker, there wasn’t a single right way to play.(“You mean you don’t sleep in a money pile?”)
Though the world is yours to construct or destruct, The Sims also came with some memorable and fleshed out characters for your own creations to interact with. I still enjoy reading conspiracy theories about what really happened to dear Bella Goth on Don Lothario’s deck and reminiscing about the soap opera drama around that same slime ball’s secret love affairs with the Caliente sisters.(“Avenge Me!”)
The Sims is a bit of an odd one really. It had such mass appeal to gamers and non-gamers alike but if you simplify it, it’s kind of hard to sell what’s so fascinating about a game where you’ve got to put the bins out and do the weekly shop; tasks the average person takes no joy in doing in real life. Yet, it’s that mix of reliability and fantasy that made it so appealing to a broad audience. Sure, if I wanted a new sofa I’d have to work for it like a normal person but then there was also the very real possibility of aliens coming down and abducting my husband if he spent too much time looking through his telescope.(“It’s probing time!”)
It also shouldn’t go unchecked that The Sims was the first game that had many of us unwittingly invest in a form of DLC. I bought up expansion packs for magic, dogs and romance like it was nobody’s business, which seems crazy now when everyone is rightfully fed up of micro-transactions being used to unlock content that should have been there in the first place. By the time The Sims 2 came around I was more than willing to spend another 15 quid on a ‘stuff pack’ to get myself some Ikea lack tables.(Bastards!)
Perhaps the biggest export from The Sims was its community led content. In The Sims Exchange, a sort of online marketplace for content, talented players with oodles of patience would upload incredibly detailed houses and community spaces for other players to add to their towns. Even if you just felt like having mermaid hair for a change, this is where you would find it. Players were, and still are, also keen to show off their own stories and I would spend hours reading the tales of domestic woe some had inflicted on their sims from running off with the maid to constructing entire lore’s around vampires.(“Come with me and you’ll be, in a world of pure exsanguination!”)
At its core, The Sims always felt smart and had buckets of charm. The detailed back stories you could discover in family trees and subtle details, like sticking Bella Goth’s face on a milk carton, made you feel like you were entering a real, functioning universe. It was also a trailblazer not just in its gameplay but in its aim to recreate the world as it is, namely the decision to facilitate same-sex relationships. Apparently in early design documents for the first game, programmer Don Hopkins wrote that anyone offended by the game showing same-sex romance should “grow up and get a life.” A real one, that is.
My love for the series has waned somewhat over the last few years, even if I did spend my first pay check from my current job on a new laptop and a collector’s version of The Sims 4. I don’t know if it’s the lack of expansion packs which made the latest incarnation feel a little sparse at launch or if it’s down to over-customisation making things feel a little too real but something just didn’t click. I do however, every now and again, get the urge to go back to my favourite instalment, The Sims 2, dress up a house in early noughties decor and test my moral compass. In fact, I haven’t got much on this weekend … see you in June, maybe?