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It was the Age of Simulation. The highly popular games where the player's aim was to mutilate and kill were partly displaced by even more popular games where the player's aim was to conquer and command. "Build your own [fill in the blank]" was the general motto and ancient civilizations were simulated, and futuristic ones invented, to cater to the human lust for domination. My reaction to all this: yuh, whaddeva. The last simulation game I had played and enjoyed was Dogz, which had been neglected for years because however much I liked playing with it, I didn't feel like training the little mutt.
Sit, doggie! Lie! Play dead! Aah, the heck with it...
Therefore, "yuh, whaddeva" was my first response to the Sims, a delightful game where you can build your own family; great, when I'd just escaped from one. A daddy with a job, a mum at home and two point four school-going kids, all struggling to advance socially and survive each other's company. I know graphic violence in computer games is nothing new, but this kind of grim realism, I thought, is one ugly trend. I'd rather be subjugating Romans.
Inspiration can come from strange places. A colleague showed me the 3D design application Poser and some other software he planned to use for importing his own objects into some shooting game. Which had me nosing through the free downloads at Renderosity.com for human and other puppets to pose. And as usual, there were millions of busty, scantily clad (mostly white) female puppets, and very few male, child, coloured and/or animal ones. My search for the first category led me through gay-male Poser sites, where the interest in busty females would understandably be minimal. On one of these sites I saw the Sims praised as a game that allowed alternatives to the Western ideal of the all-hetero nuclear family; Sims are inherently bisexual (if one can say that of a programmed game sprite). Not something that would make good publicity for a game in the USA, of course. But my interest was sparked.
There followed a brief websearch into the nature of this game, which confirmed my earlier impression; no matter how Sims and their environs can be personalized, underneath they remain stodgy Simburbian money-worshipping nine-to-five drones, in accordance with the rules of the game. But what if these rules can be bent? Fan projects like "SimLifecycle" and the existence of gay (and Goth, and anime fan) Sim sites showed that some Simmers at least made the attempt. Twisting this game to act out a personal fantasy rather than an artificial and imposed way of life seemed increasingly possible. Finally, curiosity and the purse won. I bought the Deluxe two-games-in-one edition, and spotted the Sims, Livin' Large and House Party for Mac at 50% off. Hoping I wasn't making the mistake of my life, I installed each on their respective platforms and took my first trip to Simsville.
Scorning the tutorial, I dived straight into the Goth household. What a shock. There were two announcements of a carpool and school bus about to arrive, and little people walked around or disappeared up the stairs. I tried to remember which control did what, but my mind was as blank as at the final exams. A missed bus and carpool later, I left without saving, too stunned to touch the Sims for some time.
The second time, I did the tutorial and managed the Newbies for a while. Seeing their faces appear up close in the pie menu when I clicked on an object was quite lovely, as the normal view was a disappointment even in the closest zoom. Something that surprised me when I discovered it later: Betty's body type was "fat"? I saw quite a difference between her and Bob. I attribute it to the US "fat chicks" phobia that while male Sim body types are emphatically fat, skinny or beefy, the female fat, fit and skinny meshes just show a slight variation in the hips and bust - amazing how well-trained pecs can push that pair forward. All right, I've given up expecting a realistic depiction of the female physique in computer games and am grateful enough that there are "granny" heads and meshes, and that a number of NPCs are female without being decorative. In fact, the female working NPCs (including "Newsie") outnumber the male; it seems women can actually have a job outside the house? This in stark contrast to Bella Goth and Diane Pleasant in the stock Sims families: rich men's wives hiding behind their mother role and waiting for the husband to bring in the money. My first impression of Bella Goth was a useless rich bitch (as the bio goes, she enjoys a wide variety of activities ranging from golf to miniature golf) determined to be nasty to everyone, while Mortimer was a greasy lizard, tickling women left and right. The Newbies' social class was obviously "white trash", their clothes informal (or dirty, as with Bob the Slob, who also produced little belching noises) and their formica kitchen breathing cheapness, although that doesn't mean I didn't like it. Going shopping with what little money the Newbie household had, I had a jolly good laugh at the product descriptions; Sim materialism isn't so bad when the game makes a running gag of it. The computer descriptions were obviously born of amusement or downright exasperation at the hollow cries with which multimedia monsters are marketed, and the plumbing section was a punfest. Some Maxis employees must have been having a very satisfying time coming up with these. My attempt at Sim housekeeping, however, was a failure. Do Sims need Fun and Social that much? These people wouldn't last a second in the real world. I left a deeply depressed Bob & Betty without saving and set about providing the Roomies with their dream house, this time wisely using the money cheat.
If only that was my house...
Depending on how well the hardware works, both buying and building mode are accompanied by the soft, soothing muzak that is supposed to put consumers in a money-spending mood. Add to that the radio whose default station is "Latin", and it is understandable that Simmers should spend long hours at the computer in a light state of trance. Having further mastered the art of managing Sims (and found out that when provided with the right objects, they manage well enough without my interference) I created my first fan-anime family (simply choosing the closest face from those provided by Maxis - and I think I did pretty well), applied the mother of all money cheats and built a house right up from the foundations. This family was called "Bison" after a gang of youths in a rather adult anime film where the gang's leader becomes involved with the space colony's (that's where the characters live) ruler; considering they're at opposite ends of the social spectrum and don't get on too well, a painful relationship. Rather than go for the original situation - the gang lived in poverty and survived through petty crime - I built what I assumed would be the party house of their cheesy adolescent dreams. To emphasize the fact that they were orphans, I made them children; that's how I found out how little autonomy Sim children are allowed. Evidently I would have to do some hacked object surfing, as constantly deleting bills with the move_objects cheat and having Servo do all the other grownup stuff just wasn't enough. Besides, I found out later when deleting a Goth to be reborn refreshed for the coming visitors that consequently never came, just how tricky the move_objects cheat can be.
The Cassandra-Matic at work.
I did give the Goths another try, discovering what a marvellous girl Cassandra was and what strange quirks the malfunctioning of virtual memory could result in, when the cemetery started producing Cassandra clones from a tombstone. The Newbies also had their second chance, as I'd been moved by Bob voluntarily getting off his lazy butt to rub Betty's shoulders when her mood was dropping. In keeping with their situation, I didn't hand them any money but had them work for it, choosing jobs with different hours as they were not yet friendly enough to share a bed. Experimenting with character points after noting Bella "superbitch" Goth's high Nice points, I created a very sweet outlandish character (the Greek outfit coming in handy) and his nasty tag-along brat with catapult in back pocket. The brat's high Outgoing points more than made up for his tendency to tease: before long, all the women in Simsville adored him, and Cassandra was his bosom buddy. (This is also when I discovered that guest children at play can stay the day without having their marks drop, and will ignore their bladder so that unless stopped, they end up standing in a puddle.)
Bringing flowers, no less!
By now I had surfed together a good number of hacks and utilities and was turning my attention to object sites. Maxis allows the cloning and modifying of their objects (they'd better, it's where they get their fan following from!) and I thought it was incredible what people could do with objects. Time for my first disillusion. The bigger object sites asked money, and one of them was very insistent about the copyrighted nature of its downloads, quite ironic considering those downloads were another company's hacked property. Now I don't mind high-traffic sites asking payment for bandwidth (most have a free download section anyway) or artists wanting recognition for their efforts, but I do mind what some site maintainers aptly called the object war. Nasty things come together; the same site featured, among more neutral downloads, a US flag for Sims to salute to and the USA Freedom Phone to allow children the same rights as adults. Now anyone who knows the finer points of US American history, starting with the arrival of the first European religious extremists that the natives weren't smart enough to exterminate, knows that this country's flag is nothing to salute to; nor is the flag of any country I know. And since it is precisely the white US American culture, of which the Sims were born, that reduces minors to passive, greedy consumers whose only "freedom" is to conform to peer pressure and become working drones like their parents, any object that shows respect for children should not have that country's name in it. Not to be outdone by their fans, Maxis offered for download a high-points computer with the Intel logo and a MacDonalds food kiosk. I can't control what I use at work, but privately I happen to boycot both these companies. The descriptions for these objects lacked the usual tongue-in-cheek tone; freedom of speech is all very well, but we mustn't offend the companies with the big bucks, must we? Such nice surprises for the hapless Simfan. I downloaded the Intel monster with the aim of one day cloning it into an AMD Athlon machine, and stayed away from object sites for a while.
Processing the last Sim natives that had come with the game (waste not, want not) I used what I was learning off the 'net to metamorphose both the Pleasants and Michael Bachelor, who I believed was made for greater things. To wit, becoming the "maker" and occupant of some buildings in which I wanted to stretch the possibilities of the building components to their limits. Building and furnishing houses is a large part of the game attraction, culminating in the satisfaction of planting some Sims there and seeing how they like it. Yes, the Sims is a great exercise in virtual hospitality, and in searching of exactly that right shade of chair or wallpaper to fit with the design, I felt appreciation again for those object cloners who simply produce copies of the same object in different colours. A shame all those duplicates take up so much room in the catalogue. In my role as Michael Angelo: eccentric architect, I was so creative that my experiments covered two lots and required the extra inhabitant Julie Angelo, the pioneer of DiagonArt. And with that, my first neighbourhood was concluded.
And It Will Be! As soon as I've figured out the z-buffer.
Now to take all this beautiful stuff that I'd brought to and finished on the PC, back to the Mac. Er-hum. Without thinking, I'd included the whole range of Deluxe objects, which of course were missing in my Mac Livin' Large installation. The result varied between oddly dressed Sims, "objects missing" messages and plain crashes. Quite in character, I could not even hover the cursor over the Unpleasants' house without a radical screen change and the superfluous message that this particular Carbon application had unexpectedly quit. The Aspyr helpdesk let me know that I was on my own. Oh well. My Sim enthusiasm had been jarred anyway by the sudden death of the Maxtor drive on which resided the PC installation of the Sims and all the downloads. Apparently Maxtor drives are not to be trusted these days, a brief Internet foray told me. That's great, when three of my current harddisks are Maxtors.
Once you've seen all the little surprises in the Sims - singing in the shower, giving each other roses, presents and back rubs, asking a partner to dance - it gets a little boring. The daily grind of life is, after all, just that, whether in reality or SimReality, and when I arrive at work moody and tired after having stayed up until 03:00 making sure my Sims arrived at their work bright and happy, the game's attraction fades. One way to revive the interest is to inject some fan content. I'd already started to build a BOTP-hood ("Battle of the Planets", a popular scifi cartoon that pales beside the original version it was translated/hacked from) and the discovery of some uncharacteristically good Sailor Moon skins (as opposed to the skins that feature Betty Newbie in a sailor suit) complete with cats, was a good excuse to buy The Sims Unleashed. Along with delightfully animated dogs and cats - watch those tails twirl! - this expansion pack featured vegetable-producing gardens. Joy! Who cares about the bindweed in real gardens when there's a nice neat virtual garden to take care of? It also featured many more lots, making the poor computer that ran it creak and groan. Writing to the PC-based Maxis helpdesk this time, and stupidly using the word "neighbourhoods" to complain about the increased load time due to the larger number of lots (no wonder helpdesk-peoples think users are idiots) I asked if it was possible to switch between the Deluxe and the Unleashed installation. It was not. Well, it is, but the helpdesk ain't gonna tell because they think users are idiots (let's face it, many users are) and don't want to give specialized advice to some twit who's going to screw up and then call them to yell down the phone. So I worked out a way by myself, just as I'd worked out my own way to make bills payable by children. With all this poking in objects and registry keys, I felt I was becoming quite the Sims expert.
Time for another small disappointment, that will teach me to stay the hell away from people's personal pages, and stick ample warning on my own. Re-collecting the utilities I'd lost with the dead Maxtor, I chanced on, if I remember correctly, the Blueprint message board where various Sim-hackers were wishing each other happy Christmas, and the (highly esteemed by me) author of the invaluable program IFF Pencil reminded fellow posters that Christmas isn't just about feasting and merry-making, it's also about the birth of Jesus Christ who died for our sins, wasn't that a miracle. With one blow, my esteem was shattered. Aside from the fact that the baby-in-a-manger tale is a Christian fabrication to cover up the real meaning of Christmas, which is, simply put, the Winter solstice; by Christian standards, homosexuality is considered a major sin. And if I hadn't read about the Sims on a gay website, I would never have given it a second look. I don't know if the utility of my choice is really the work of of a homophobic X-ian, but if it is, I'll console myself that it's used by sinful, degenerate unbelievers like me to create things like the gay marriage hack.
Damn humans at their best. I've long since given up on real-reality anyway. As long as Bob and Betty Newbie are happy, who cares what piles of dishes build up in my sink? Nights are for Simming, not for sleeping, and the dedicated Sim fan does not need to eat.
And so I ended up playing with dogs after all... and other animals...