The Dongs. A crude name, maybe. But the Dongs were my family. Two adults and one child. Back in early 2000, they were the people who I tried to reign over as master and commander.
They were an unruly bunch. Arguing with neighbours, leaving dishes on the floor and causing kitchen fires with such regularity that I couldn’t fathom how the intelligence setting was at maximum.
Yet, they were my family. A weird bunch who I established a bond with as they lived their lives, got jobs and caused more fires.
Eventually, after a couple of setbacks and a few too many fires, I accumulated enough money so that I could build them a larger house filled with handful of expensive trimmings.
It was great. Probably causing me to neglect similar real-life responsibilities in the process, but great fun.
Fun that I had hoped would continue with the three sequels that rolled out over the following 15 years. Alas, none of these sequels satiated my hunger. No matter how much they added, or how polished it was, these future titles never scratched that itch and, for the longest time, I could never work out why.
The house that love built
Recently, I logged into the original, made a family and built a house. I realised at this point that it that the minimalistic design that I loved. Something that was missing in the sequels that focused less on house building and more on the world around.
In the three sequels, more focus was placed on making them more human experiences where you were given more control over the way you interact with the game’s inhabitants.
In two, for instance, you can visit places around a town, interacting with the locals. Each of the other two sequels continued to build and modify these mechanics, allowing character traits such as aspirations, memories to be selected.
Sure, this was fun, but it wasn’t why I loved The Sims.
The original was a canvas that let you play god just like the sequels, but the amount of control you had over characters were limited and often, due to the poor AI, ignored.
Yet, this unpredictability was part of the fun. When they ignore your instructions and cause an argument, you had to deal with the consequences, enabling each interaction to be fresh. Watching the ensuing chaos after an instruction was ignored is part of its charm.
It felt natural. That’s why the more tools they added, the more micromanaging they allowed, the more artificial the experience became.
It’s all Wright
Will Wright, the creative genius behind the series, originally designed The Sims, under the name Dollhouse, as a game with more of a focus on constructing and designing, but developers felt the public wouldn’t be interested. He yearned to create an architectural game where gamers could design their own houses; both interiors and exteriors.
Wright succeeded. I spent days designing houses, carefully considering the placement of plants, fridges and telephones.
If an object’s placement wasn’t perfect, it could cause a sim to feel unhappy or unaccomplished, leading to a less productive character. This was fantastic and I had to battle my inner designer against my need to do well in the game. A compromise that led to a few precariously placed kitchen objects.
The Sims was a great game because it was minimalistic. Almost spartan in design. There was a limited control panel that enabled you to manipulate your sim.
However, Will Wright has previously mentioned in interviews that another inspiration for the series was Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Something that was included but simplified into zero sum attributes such as emotion attributes. In the first game, decisions such as providing a high definition television rather than a standard one will quickly fill up a gauge.
Consumerism at its finest, but this is precisely why I loved the game: it allows you to play god from an isometric perspective.
I also loved this design choice because it was an intrinsic link to the architectural building aspect of the game. It made these decisions feel purposeful and challenging, incentivising players to carefully plan land layouts, rather than arbitrarily plonking down objects and cracking on with the other part of the game.
Bella of the Goths
This isn’t to say that there weren’t features from the sequels that I wouldn’t have liked in the original. For instance, even though I love the original’s graphical style and feel it will age better than any of the sequels, the choice to force players into a 90 degree, isometric angle while playing was an annoying one.
Other features such as the lack of aging were both good and bad; on one hand, the eternal youth the characters possessed in the original enabled players to continue playing with a set of sims for an indefinite amount of time. However, gamers are not always the best at knowing when to cut ties, start over and develop something new and this could cause players’ experiences to stagnate.
It is also nice to be able to see the stages of life played out in a game as it can modify the way you approach a challenge, build a house, and various other decisions. This inclusion would not require any extra menus or UI to be present, but would have enhanced the original experience.
Equally, the second and third game dabbled with adding multiple floors, including basements, apartments, and I feel this would have been a nice addition in the original, allowing the player to create more wild and interesting designs.
Annoyingly, all of the games provide a small number of items in the base games and are often only expanded up in DLC or expansion packs, limiting the player’s ability to be creative in their design unless they are willing to shell out some of their hard-earned cash.
While the original isn’t perfect, it is still one of the most fun games I have ever played and remains one of the few games to get that designing a house can be just as fun as any other game mechanic.