For a game that was originally made as a satire on the suburban domestic dream of middle-America, the Sims franchise took an unfortunately capitalistic turn in its last iteration – The Sims 3 may as well have been called ‘DLC: The Game’, with so many blatantly consumerist and unashamedly branded content drops coming to form the central experience of the entire game.
The Sims 4 is a killswitch for that, it seems – having been in development for three years, the game has been taken on a journey through various development teams, each reworking and reengineering core aspects of the game in a systematic process that’s seen every element of the game scrutinised. The foucs this time has been on what makes a Sim a Sim – that is to say, Maxis is paying close attention to what makes our digital alter-egos even more human.
Graham Nardone, associate producer on the title, told us; “Realisitcally, when you look at it, being a life simulation, [the game’s] about injecting life into our characters. Our new technology in The Sims 4 allows us to do a lot of things that make the Sims act realistically that we simply couldn’t achieve in the past.” This technology is called SmartSim – and it grants the Sims the ability to multitask, engage in real group dynamics, move fluidly and believably and makes their entire life that much more authentic.
This is an important aspect for the sequel to focus on – the main point of the Sims is escapism, pure and simple. As a distraction, the game taps into the appeal of a perfect domestic existence; the ability to micromanage every aspect of a family’s collective life engages that part of our personalities that craves control, perfection. For that, these games are a complete playground of escapism – a top-down voyeuristic time consumer with endless potential. That isn’t to say everyone wants to be a benevolent puppet-master, though – The Sims is infamous for bringing out the dark side of players who like to abuse the power of their unseen hands. “If you’re more of a deviant player, we’re going to have a lot of fun things in there for you to be able to mess with other Sims, control their lives, manipulate them, make them have a miserable existence,” explains Nardone. “If you want to do that, it’s going to be there for you.”
While some players will enjoy this potential for sadism, other may balk at it. The game takes the form of a sandbox laced with deep mechanical and gameplay elements – some players want a sense of progression from The Sims, not just an excuse to get megalomaniacal. “The way we think of sandbox – you know, this open world filled with tools that you can go in, manipulate, play with, set up scenarios exactly how you want – that’s different than how our players think of a sandbox. Really, to them, sandbox is another word for life simulation and what they want is more tools, more freedom to play out their lives in any variety of ways that they want. They think sandbox, they just want more gameplay options, more ways to do the same thing. [The Sims 4] is really about going back there, adding more depth into the gameplay, giving them the ability to tell stories in ways that relate to them.”
That’s an interesting point – using the game as a canvas upon which to paint your own, personally relevant stories. The original Sims is a game in which you can never really succeed - you just keep the mundanity of dollhouse life at bay by acquiring more stuff: a big, airy house; a loyal and attentive partner; a well-paid and satisfying job; a healthy and vibrant social life. The challenge for The Sims 4 will be keeping that appeal alive – changing up the paradigm to suit a generation of gamers used to flashier things, deeper things, more engaging things.
“Well, I think the challenge for us is really in messaging [what our game can do] – there’s so much going on behind the scenes in the game engine and the life simulation that we’re driving that it can be difficult to see those subtle changes on the surface,” Nardone informs us. “But I think when you really get in there and start to see the gameplay, see how the Sims are interacting, how they’re moving around their home, how they’re conversing with other Sims, for players who have been with the series it becomes instantly apparent what we’ve changed and how we’re bringing them to life in much more believable ways.”
It all sounds very promising – and Maxis’ focus on the individual single player experience is reassuring. The developer has put a lot of thought and effort into the ability to make your Simmish avatars become more like you – there’s even a feature that allows you to customise their memories, establishing an emotional connection with certain items, events or places. The detail in which you can recreate yourself in this open-ended sandbox realm is extensive, and we look forward to seeing what levels of havoc we can test our virtual selves with when the game launches in autumn 2014.