Flash of Steel header image 2

The Sims (2000-2009)

May 21st, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 6 Comments · Design, Feature:Map, Maxis

What this is about.

To know the Sims series is to either love it or not get it. Initially pitched to EA as a “virtual dollhouse”, Will Wright’s masterpiece has never quite evolved past that blurb understanding of the game. For millions of gamers, this is enough. You have dolls that walk and talk and love in a house you build. All the drama of Melrose Place, with a healthy dose of cartoon fires and exaggerated gestures. As the best dollhouse ever made, The Sims would stand as one of the greatest accomplishments in gaming history even if the manliest of manly gamers can’t get over the fact the game is – in its essence – fan fiction for heroes and heroines of your own creation.

There is a lot of stuff in the game that undermines the whole dollhouse thing. Though the consumerist ethos of The Sims has been much commented on, less attention has been given to the careerist model of the game. Buying new stuff can only keep your Sim happy for so long – without upward professional mobility, however, these acquisitions become traps that you must keep paying for week after week. True happiness comes from climbing the career ladder. Pride is rooted in being your own boss, not the fanciest TV or most efficient refrigerator. Sure, the oohs and aahs of your SimFriends are nice for the first couple of days, but eventually you need to become CEO or Research Scientist or Top Cop. No dollhouse owner works toward making Barbie a super model. She starts there.

Then there is the mapping – how The Sims uses space.

Your Sims have three major resources to manage – time, money and energy. It is the balancing of these three things that lift The Sims into strategy game territory. Unlike RPG action points or mana, one of these three resources is being depleted at all times. Either you are spending money, wasting time or exerting energy. You can win back the energy (sleep/relaxation) or money (work) – and even time in the long run with that life elixir in Sims 2 – but the game is constantly pushing you to minimize the loss of one in the short term (usually energy) and make efficient use of the other two. It’s a brilliant little balancing act even if you do have to pee a lot. It is these three resources that affect how well you can manage the other resources – relationships, food, bladder, cleanliness, intelligence, etc.

The game’s understanding of space is integral to how efficiently you manage the three major resources. First, the game takes place in some sort of time well where it takes 20 minutes to walk from your bedroom to your kitchen and half and hour to make mac and cheese. So it is never efficient to have a house larger than your needs require. But the consumerist and family pressures of the game mean that you will need space for more beds, more baths, larger tables, more furniture and hobby activities and the like, each square foot of which will make your Sim’s life slightly less efficient. You can only counter these new inefficiencies with new goods. Better chairs will recharge the energy, for example. A money tree will help counter some of those spending sprees.

And these goods help with other things, too, depending on your Sim’s personality. Lots of light is good for moods, and the larger the space the more windows you can have. Space for bookshelves or dancing…the map of your living space becomes a reflection of your Sim’s current needs and aspirations. There may be a magic layout for a home that maximizes both fiscal and spacial efficiency, but since so many Sims homes are just a bunch of additions to a basic box, every Sims map is eccentric and unique to whatever that family needs at the moment to climb the ladder.

But these architectural issues are familiar and well commented on. Less commented on is the meaning of the map of a neighborhood in The Sims. Sims expansions often add new areas for interaction and exploration. You get nightclubs, universities, shopping strips and parks that are part of a neighborhood but separate from the homelife.

You never really get a sense of how these locations fit into the world of your Sim. No matter where your house is or where you are going, it always takes the same amount of time to get to a “lot”. And, curiously, no matter how long you spend at a lot, that time doesn’t really count against you when you return home. Go to a lot at 3 PM, stay for five hours, return at 3 PM (or shortly after). You will have spent money, spent energy, made friends, started fights and it all counts. But the time does not.

Sim-lots are spaces outside of time. They are entirely utilitarian locations that have no real meaning for your Sim beyond what he/she can accomplish there. Unlike the homes, they don’t really respond to Sim interaction. You can’t break a window or bust a toilet or drive a business into the ground. They are Free Parking spaces that only matter if you decide to make them matter. Your Sim may want to go out on a date, but he/she will rarely have a preference for dancing over bowling that is so extreme that going to these locations matters.

This reflects the simple fact that everything outside the Sim home has traditionally been less important. You never saw your workplace or school. You couldn’t even visit other Sim homes for a very long time. The series message has, until the Apartment Life expansion, been house centered; a reflection of the traditional suburban American Dream of home ownership. A Sim’s home is his castle, and all that matters is what happens there.

It’s a very isolating world in many ways. You only interact with people if they wander by your home or you invite them in. Despite the attractive lots and locations added to the Sims universe, they never become central to your Sims’ lives the way that some locations do for us in the real world. We have favorite stores, favorite restaurants, favorite bars, favorite plazas and parks. In The Sims, the lots become bonus locations where your Sim does something to help him/her in a relationship centered on making the main location – the house – more livable or interesting.

Of course, Sims 3 will shake things up. It has a more unified understanding of space and neighborhood, which I will revisit in a couple of weeks. One of my concerns going into the game is how dramatically it could alter the Sim-centeredness of the franchise. If other Sims live their lives without me, how can I stay the center of my universe, the hero of my story?

Coming soon, the final entry and one of the three best RTSes ever made: Rise of Nations.


6 Comments so far ↓

  • George

    one of the three best RTSes ever made

    may I ask what the other 2 RTSes are?


  • moromete

    Wow, I’ve never thought about The Sims as being a space based game. Nice reading of the mechanics…

  • Jimmy Brown

    I don’t believe I have ever seen an article that even hinted at what you discuss here. It was a very interesting and insightful read.

    As for the importance of space in The Sims, it only took me a few times of building a wondrous masterpiece of a house to realize that my Sims might get hungry walking from one end to the other.

  • rod humble

    Insightful. The spatial and time game was at the center of our thinking for The Sims 3. You hit the central issues in a very clear way.

  • Feature Series: Maps and Game Design

    […] Gettysburg (1997) 7. Combat Missionseries (2000) 8. Europa Universalis series (2000) 9. The Sims (2000) 10. Rise of Nations […]

  • Europa Universalis series (2000-2008)

    […] up soon, how The Sims is also a game about maps. And not just […]