Creating a single Sim is a painstaking process. Even without all the clothing and facial customization features in the most recent edition, you are confronted with a wide array of traits that will determine how your Sim will behave, what your Sim will like, how your Sim will react to dangers and crises. Do you make a Sim that mimics your own life or do you create the kind of person that you always wanted to be? The process is more involved and more difficult than building your typical RPG character because it feels like you are giving birth to a personality – not a math equation.
We aren’t used to seeing The Sims as a roleplaying game, even thought it has all the hallmarks of one. Usually defined as a strategy game (manage resources – usually time – efficiently to meet a goal) or a sandbox game (goals are user-defined and unlimited), it transcends even those wide boundaries. The game starts by focusing on a central character who must repeat tasks and complete small quests in order to improve him or herself. The characters have strengths and weaknesses and once you manage a household you will see the importance of specialization.
Why do we resist the RPG appellation for this genre-bending hit? A lot of it comes down to the personality thing. You aren’t creating a character as much as you are making a person, someone with limited free will and whose reactions to other people and places are sometimes out of your control.
British game design student Robin Burkinshaw is one of those people who doesn’t like the RPG label for The Sims. It’s more an opportunity for story-telling and computer-aided improvisational theater. Burkinshaw’s Alice and Kev stories, a series of short fiction based on the adventures of a homeless man and his daughter, is a poignant reminder of how easy it is to assume the role of a Sim.
Burkinshaw set out with a different goal from most Sims players. “I know a lot of people who like to play The Sims as wish fulfillment, just enjoying having an alternate life where they are rich and successful,” he says. “I wanted to make my first experience with [The Sims 3] as much of a struggle as I could make it.”
And a struggle it was. He committed to playing Alice unless she was in school or asleep, with her deadbeat father Kevin there mostly as someone for her to react to and against. This set up some troubling dynamics for Burkinshaw.
“Like the scene where I decide to try to repair the relationship between them after Kev hits Alice. Because I’m controlling Alice, it is she that tries to make amends, and it’s she that tries to apologize. By limiting myself to only influencing one side of the conversation in that situation, I inadvertently recreated the behavior of someone in a real abusive relationship, and felt mildly horrified at myself.”
Robin Burkinshaw sees playing The Sims more like story-telling than roleplaying. Like an author, he sees places the story “went wrong” for him.
“Allowing Kev to train the charisma skill felt like a mistake after a while, because once a character has gotten some basic charisma skill, every social interaction they do from then on makes them better at making people like them, which wasn’t what I had in mind when I created him. That’s what led to the story arc of Kev and Yvette. He’d accidentally become so charismatic that he convinced a rich old lady to leave her husband for him.”
Most Sims players, however, don’t set out to write sad fiction or just control one member of a relationship. They send their Sim out into the world, and it becomes successful and sociable and then comes love, marriage, maybe a baby carriage, plus a large amount of home renovation. At some point along this lifetime, however, you stop controlling just your Adam or Eve.
And that’s where the roleplaying gets tricky.
Remember – The Sims is really about personality. It’s about leading these dollhouse figures through their lives and responding to their needs and wants. But once you pick up a spouse and then beget children, the question of who is playing whom becomes complicated. All of a sudden, you aren’t directing the life of a single personality, but of many.
This is quite different from party management in your standard fantasy or sci-fi RPG. In those games, the goals are clearly defined and each party member has overlapping ambitions, usually to kill the big bad at the end of the game. Yes, there are sidequests and occasionally some inter-party dynamics, but The Sims is an RPG that actually forces you to make tradeoffs. No desktop deity can be in two places at once.
Once your Sim gets married, you have now two characters to control and satisfy, but the days don’t get any longer. Leave one of the Sims alone for a few seconds and they go off and do their own things. You queue up actions for both and try to keep everything balanced, but there is just enough chaos in the program for your Sims to tell their creator that they’d rather do something else.
Meanwhile, the player’s mindset changes. Where you once identified with one character, one personality, one set of goals and aspirations, you now may find yourself identifying with both. You are roleplaying a family unit that cannot have all its needs satisfied immediately. Someone’s lifetime achievement aspiration will take priority. The non-cooking member of the family might find him/herself in a job that requires cooking skill for advancement. Does the Sim family now deal with crappy and unsatisfying meals while the newbie chef levels up those long-neglected skills?
Children divide the attention even further. Just like in a real world family, the parents that you have been controlling have to set aside their own ambitions in order to provide for the kids. That great art and music room? Now it’s a nursery. Sleep? Gone. Money spent on dates? Gone. The roleplaying of a single Sim with the world as his/her oyster is gone and replaced by … something else.
At this point, who are you? Who does the player speak for or represent?
In most games, we know who we are and who we aren’t. In Mass Effect, we are Shepard – the story is told from her point of view, and we only control her. (Female Shepard is my canon. Sorry.) In RPGs where you create an entire party (like Icewind Dale), there is never really an expectation of identifying with any of them since they are all built at the same time. In strategy games, you are God or a king or Napoleon-but-not-Napoleon because he is also a unit on the map.
Roleplaying in The Sims is about the evolution of multiple consciousnesses. If you create a family from scratch, then you might have an idea who each of these people are from the beginning. But if, like most players, you start with a single or a young couple, then most of the time you are learning about your new family. But you also have to control them and help their consciousness evolve. You aren’t quite playing a family. Sims that are out of your control – and in a family of five that is a lot of lost control – will do as they please once their queued orders expire. And, in my own experience, that first created Sim is still the “main Sim,” the one that is used for wish fulfillment.
But identity is malleable, and few people are as adept at changing perspectives as gamers. We move from space marine to dragonslayer to race car driver from night to night, week to week. The Sims simply accelerates that, challenging you to understand what the computer creations in front of you actually want. You can only guarantee their needs by shifting from persona to persona, subtly answering the question “What would this character do in this situation?”
In many ways, The Sims is true roleplaying even if you don’t consider it a roleplaying game. The Sims was originally pitched as a dollhouse game and the comparison is obvious. You move the dolls around your immaculately designed home, letting Barbie and Ken make woohoo under the sheets. But moving the dolls is the simplest thing you do. You also weigh their desires and their needs. You postpone the present joys for future glory. Or indulge in immediate opportunity and say “To hell with tomorrow.” All the while, other personalities may intrude, compete for your attention, and clamor for your care. It’s bigger than just a dollhouse; the player is like an only child in the backyard who must play every part of the action movie in his head, the Sims player has to either create or embrace the motivations of a myriad of characters.
The fact that The Sims can make this adjustment so easy and so comfortable is a tribute to its genius. You play a dozen lifetimes in the course of a single family unit and never notice how effortlessly it asks you to change roles or perspectives.
In that way, The Sims is the most ambitious RPG ever made.
Troy Goodfellow is a freelance journalist based in Maryland. He blogs about strategy games at Flash of Steel and host the strategy themed podcast Three Moves Ahead. He always names his starter Sim the same thing.