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What is this Sims thing, anyway?

The Sims is a simulation game. Apparently, it was originally a piece of interior designer software. An element of gameplay was added by allowing the user to design families as well as houses, and then toss those families into the rat race. And that is the essence of the Sims.

In the tradition of the currently very popular "build your own empire" games, or of Maxis' other big seller Sim City, the user basically plays god. But rather than maintain a country or city, all the user has to do is run one single family at a time, keeping all its members physically, emotionally and financially healthy. Not as easy as it sounds when bills and breakage ensure that there is never quite enough money, and time passes at the rate of one minute a second. The Sims is a human ant farm, with this difference, that these ants take orders. In theory, since they are programmed to be self-maintaining, the player can sit back and watch the life of these little figures unfold and grow. In practice, they are too stupid and slow to take care of themselves properly, one spends all one's time setting them long to-do lists and switching from one to the other in a state of light panic to see if their needs are fullfilled yet, and they end up doing little more than work, eat, sleep, and frantically try to have fun and socialize in between. Yes, just like real life.

The human ant farm. Sims are eating, sleeping or hanging around; the kitchen is a mess, and there's puddles everywhere.

Much more interesting than the essence of the game are its frills. Firstly, though with limitations - there are no round shapes, and only two floor levels - the program lets users build houses. The furnishings that came with especially the original game were limited, but users can make their own furnishings and add them to the game. Secondly, although that takes more expertise, users can edit or create and even program (though the latter requires special tools) their own buyables. Thirdly, although one shouldn't expect too much from human stick figures with rigid hands, the Sims themselves can be given fan-made clothes, bodies and heads, and so can be made to look any way the user wants; the whole Star Trek crew can be Sim-ified, or people can stick their own face on a Sim.

Or Mulder's, for X-philes...

(The end result can be disappointing, though. Not only are Sims so small that the player can't see much detail during the game, even when maximally zoomed in, but under the skin, the Spock-shaped Sim will still be a Sim, not a Spock. It's possible to approximate the character by a careful allotment of points to each personality trait, but Sim-Spock will have the same voice as all the other male Sims, will still jump up and down while excitedly discussing tennis, and will still pee his pants if not sent to the loo on time. Trekkies and other fans may be positively offended at the Sim-ified version of their favourite character.)

It doesn't always look better in closeup.

Allowing so many user add-ons probably accounts for the game's popularity, and certainly accounts for the very many sites offering custom objects and skins - the larger sites often charging a subscription, because all this downloading demands a lot of bandwidth. The makers of the game have kindly let in a number of cheats which allow the user to, for instance, boost the family finances a bit, so that the ka-chings accompanying the construction of a sumptuous palace for the Sims can be safely ignored; but it's much more fun having money produced by an object within the game. A number of Sims-editing tools have been written by fans, some of them commercial products, and I've seen and bought compilations of Sims objects on CDROM, although given the lack of acknowledgements on one of these compilations, I doubt its legality; still, since that's one CD-ful of objects I now won't have to download, at least it's saving someone bandwidth. These tools and add-ons, whether paid or free, are not by Maxis itself, and affirm that it's the creativity and not the gameplay element of the Sims that has made it a best-selling game. (Maxis has released some Sim tools, but I'm not too happy with them: generally, they're limited, they're slow, or they crash a lot.)

Why bother?

Back to the essence. No matter how customized Sims are, they come in two ages, that is, two heights; they have five needs, six skills and seven interests; their character is made up of five basic traits and determined when they are created. Special objects may alter their personality, but it doesn't develop. Though "personality" is too strong a word for it. Sims have points in the following categories: Neat, Nice, Playful, Outgoing, Active. The categories have a very limited meaning: "active" strictly refers to physical exercise, not to high mental activity; "playful" has nothing to do with originality. Sims are not very profound. It is suggested that maximum points for every personality trait means success in the game, so there are tools that will "max out" personality categories along with skill points. I've found, though, that in some categories too little is better than too much, and 5 points in each category makes the best-functioning Sim.

So, personality is a matter of quantity?

(Additional insight in what their personality traits stand for can be gained from comparing their categories to those of the pets introduced in The Sims Unleashed. Where humans had Neat, Outgoing, Active, Playful and Nice, animals have Quiet, Friendly, Playful, Smart and Loyal. It seems that the first trait is about (not) fouling one's environment and being a nuisance to others; the second is all about socializing or repulsing company; the third is about having too much or too little energy; the fourth is about doing tricks and being entertaining, or haughtily refusing to, and indirectly again about socializing; and the fifth is about being emotionally clinging.)

As said before, Sim "personality" doesn't amount to much. It has two functions: steering the Sim's actions (a Sim with more Active points is more likely to hop in the pool than watch TV) and determining what objects will best fulfill their needs. And fulfilling their needs is vital. In that respect, the Sims are like babies; with Free Will activated they may amuse themselves with what you give them, but you'll find you never stop giving. Sims need objects to keep them happy; these objects cost money; the more money they cost, the more likely the Sim will appreciate them. Sim life revolves very crudely around money, and though ostensibly Sims make their own money at "work", what they get is just never enough. No matter what their personality points, Sims are materialists. They also believe in the work ethic: there are no weekends and although they're allowed to stay home every other day, if they miss two days in a row, they're fired. If that sounds cruel, Sim children can't do a number of things that adults can, like pay bills (basically, without cheats and hacked objects, Sim orphans are doomed), and have to go to school every day or keep up their marks some other way, or they're carted off to military school at a cost of 1000 simoleans, never to be seen again. Neither the user nor the Sim parents have any say in this.

And no one ever saw or heard of her again.

There are other rigidities in Sim gameplay. A Sim can move house in two ways: eviction, or being asked in by a Sim already living in the new house. Individual Sims can't leave their house independently. Moreover, opposite-sex Sims can only be asked in through marriage, and same-sex Sims only as friends. That's if they're adults. Sim children, unsurprisingly, have no options. Sims can have babies, which grow up to children in exactly 3 days; Sim children never grow up. (Obviously, discontented fans have programmed hacks to deal with most of these issues.) The maximum size of a "family" (all Sims in one house, it's not about genetic relationships) is eight. When a Sim is evicted or takes a cab, all the family has to come along.

When everyone works at different hours, a shopping trip becomes a major operation.

When these rigidities are relaxed by game hacks, the Sims can be a very entertaining ant farm. Despite their artificially clipped wings, Sim childen are exactly as mature as the adults, keeping themselves amused rather than whining and demanding attention. Amazingly, a child Sim can talk to and even insult an adult Sim without being hit or sent to bed without dinner. Adult Sims, behaving in exactly the same way as the children, come across as silly and undignified. All Sims are clueless; they will start conversations in places where other Sims urgently need to be - the bathroom, for instance - and stolidly ignore the queue that's building up. Or one Sim may be burned to death because the others are stupidly obstructing the fireman.

And then there's the guests who can't find the toilet or the exit, or who stay too long and fall asleep in the street.

Refreshingly, The Sims is less racist, heterosexist and West-centric than I'm used to. The game allows for three standard skin tones, though of course white-male-adult is the default when creating new Sims, and some effort has been made at ethnic diversity. Gender can be ignored when striking up a loving relationship or having (rather, adopting) babies. The Sims speak Simlish, a language not connected to any country, and live in Simsville, a 'burb in an unspecified part of the world. Excepting horrors like the "USA Freedom Phone" (misplaced fan patriotism) and the Gila Monster PC with "Intel Inside" (Maxis accepting sponsorship from the Bill Gates of the processor world) the game's objects pleasantly mock the very values that went into making it. (And judging by the invisible comments uncovered by IFF editors, quite deliberately.) Who wouldn't enjoy reading object descriptions like:

Originally designed for maximum security prisons, these steel toilets have made a big splash in the home. You see, it's not only the sleek minimal lines and cold hard steel that consumers have a gut reaction to, it's the virtually indestructible quality that really puts the squeeze on the competition. And with prices this low, they're practically being dumped on the market! "ExcreSys - We do the dirty work!"

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