What The Sims doesn’t understand about storytelling

The Sims 3
The Sims
The Sims 2

The Sims 4

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You know The Sims series, right, by Maxis?  One of the most successful video game franchises of all time, praised for its groundbreaking use of storytelling. And yet, The Sims, as a series, doesn’t, in fact, seem to actually understand its own storytelling. To explain why, here’s a brief summary of The Sims‘ “base games” – the main instalments that don’t require another The Sims game to be installed.

When The Sims was first released, Maxis never expected for it become the success story that The Sims retrospectively is today. As far as Maxis were concerned, The Sims gave the player a town, with resident families, and the most infinite sandbox that had yet been seen in a mainstream video game. That brings us to the most famous of the The Sims series’ families: the Goths. In The Sims, the Goths consist of Mortimer, Bella, and Cassandra. Unlike later games in The Sims series, The Sims didn’t include ageing – Mortimer and Bella remain adults, and Cassandra remains a child. The intention behind this was so first-generation Sims could potentially live forever and make The Sims as open-ended as possible.

Which was fine, until we get to The Sims 2, which was intended as The Sims‘ sequel, so Maxis took the story forwards. To advance the time-frame of story, the elder life stage was added, making Mortimer older than his adult appearance in The Sims. Cassandra is now an adult, and has a brother, Alexander, a child. Bella is missing, having been abducted by aliens. This is all takes-place twenty-five years after The Sims, which fits – The Sims was able to seemingly last forever while remaining the same, and The Sims 2 is set some time later, in-which things have advanced. What’s worth nothing is that Maxis were attempting to tell an overarching story in The Sims series now, with the Goths’ story being that Mortimer and Bella have another child, Alexander. When Alexander is a child, Cassandra is a teen and Mortimer is an elder, Bella is abducted by aliens. Meanwhile, Cassandra is currently engaged to Don Lothario, who’s also in a polygamous relationship with the two Caliente sisters, Dina and Nina. This is before The Sims series’ storytelling ability began to break-down, because nothing’s contradicted itself at this point. If the player keeps playing The Sims 2 for long enough, Mortimer will expire, Cassandra will grow old, and Alexander will hit adolescence. And Bella never actually returns. Looking at just The Sims and The Sims 2, Maxis have created a family saga for the Goths, because only in the latter can Sims age to death. But there’s a problem… because once ageing was introduced, the very mechanic that allowed The Sims series to tell its overarching story also became, by its very nature, that story’s biggest flaw. Because both The Sims and The Sims 2 are amongst the best-selling PC games of all time. By this point, The Sims series had become bigger than originally expected. Only The Sims 2 was developed with the foreknowledge of success, which is why The Sims 2 features so many new features that didn’t exist in The Sims – like ageing; Maxis needed to make Sims more like people with the advanced software that was now available to them. And that was a strategy that worked.

Unfortunately, this meant that The Sims 3 would need to be even more advanced than The Sims 2, and this is where things start to take a wrong-turn. Maxis knew that The Sims 3 needed to add to The Sims series’ story, which mainly meant adding to the Goth saga. However, the addition of ageing in The Sims 2 meant that anything from after the timescale of The Sims 2 couldn’t be touched – the player had already decided that for themselves; thus, a sequel to The Sims 2 would contradict would had possibly happened in the player’s own experience. The Sims 3, it was decided, should be a prequel, set twenty-five years before The Sims and fifty years before The Sims 2. The Goth family now consists of Mortimer as a child, living with his parents, father Gunther and mother Cornelia. The neighbourhood is now the Sunset Valley world, which is stated to have been the town that existed before The Sims 2‘s Pleasantview. The problem is that in The Sims 2, Mortimer and Bella live in Pleasantview as a result of relocating from The Sims‘ Old Town. Whereas, The Sims 3 makes Sunset Valley that historical precursor to Pleasantview, rather than just being a different place. Of course, Sunset Valley was designed because Maxis couldn’t have just reused a previous map – that would’ve been uncreative, and the opposite of what had made The Sims series so successful, hence why ageing was added to The Sims 2, which got us into this situation. Sunset Valley’s existence was inevitable, even if in a different game, or even an expansion pack. Plus, The Sims 3 replacing neighbourhoods with worlds gave the player the ability to follow their Sims beyond their property, making the whole town accessible to every Sim, creating a much greater sense of naturalism and verisimilitude. The mistake was making Sunset Valley the precursor to Pleasantview, because that creates a hole in the overarching story that Maxis was attempting to tell. From that decision being made, the story of how Sunset Valley became Pleasantview – a completely different place – was untold. And that’s not the kind of story that The Sims series can tell. Primarily, The Sims series is about people. That’s what makes The Sims fundamentally different from Sim City. The Sims isn’t popular for the way it tells the story of a town, so of course, telling the story of how Sunset Valley becomes Pleasantview wouldn’t have been interesting or relevant to what The Sims is about, which raises the question of exactly why Maxis chose to give Sunset Valley such a significant connection of The Sims series history, when making Sunset Valley its own place would’ve been fine. Ultimately, though, that’s not the biggest problem with Maxis’ storytelling decision in The Sims 3, and it comes back to the necessity to remain innovative. At this point, The Sims series had established itself as a series that added new features into every game, which meant ageing needed carrying-over. And that’s where everything gets screwed. Because that makes one of The Sims 3‘s possible stories to be Mortimer’s life as a child, growing-up with his parents, but still ageing. This means that The Sims 3 isn’t really a prequel at all, but a reboot, because it’s possible for the player to experience Mortimer’s life in a completely different story, while still remaining in the town that we’re told eventually becomes Pleasntview, but doesn’t. And the sandbox mechanics means that Mortimer doesn’t even necessarily marry Bella, which also means that Alexander and Cassandra may not even come to exist. Except this becomes a massive inconsistency because of one previous character: Don Lothario. While only being a resident of the downloadable world Riverview, Lothario’s story in The Sims 3 is a continuation of what happens fifty years later in The Sims 2; Lothario’s memories tell the story of Lothario standing on a teleporter surrounded by the Caliente sisters. The implication is that Lothario has been transported through space and time from Pleasantview in the fiftieth year of The Sims series, to Riverview in the first year of The Sims series. Had Lothario not been included in The Sims 3, there was reasonable doubt that The Sims 3 was in fact a reboot; but once Maxis decided to include Lothario in The Sims 3, in a way that directly links The Sims 3 to The Sims 2, that reasonable doubt was no longer possible. Lothario’s presence in The Sims 3 means that The Sims 3 is definitively a prequel to The Sims 2. Which means that, within The Sims universe, Lothario’s experience is dating Casssandra in Pleasantview, to then be transported back in time to observe a version of history in-which Cassandra and Pleasantview might not even come to exist. And this is where Maxis’ attempt at storytelling falls apart, because that’s the contradiction that killed Maxis’ narrative. Lothario’s presence in The Sims 3 was a decision taken in order to maintain continuity between The Sims 3 and The Sims 2, despite The Sims 2‘s ageing feature being carried-over to The Sims series’ own prequel, thus making that continuity pointless. If anything, The Sims 3 proves that The Sims series doesn’t need continuity between games – that’s not really what The Sims series is about. It was perfectly possible for Maxis to simply release a new version of The Sims with new features that includes new characters, as well as fan favourites, such as the Goths. And yet, Maxis instead chose to employ a format that simply doesn’t fit the medium. There was no need for each The Sims game to not be self-contained, because The Sims 3 makes that effectively the case anyway, even if Maxis want to pretend it isn’t.

Which makes The Sims 4 yet more ridiculous. After the firm un-timeline of The Sims 3The Sims and The Sims 2 was established, there wasn’t really anywhere else to go. In The Sims, only Mortimer and Bella exist, in The Sims 2, the player continues the Goth saga in their own way, and The Sims 3 does at least provide a childhood for Mortimer and Bella (Bachelor), even if it contradicts everything that came before and happens later. The Sims 4 was impossible to place in The Sims timeline, so Maxis decided to… make The Sims 4 a different universe. At this point, Maxis were beginning to realise that attempting to maintain a continuity between a series such as The Sims was pointless because of the gameplay mechanics that made The Sims such a success. When The Sims 4 was developed, Maxis decided that they should stop trying, because The Sims players don’t care about continuity between instalments in the way that, say, viewers of the X-Men film series would. The Sims‘ target audience are people who are able to accept The Sims series for what it should be: standalone games that sometimes features families from previous games; not as continuity connections, but just as throwbacks to previous The Sims games. Instead, Maxis approached The Sims as a continuous story that functions like a television series, even though The Sims isn’t played for a television experience – it’s a different medium, with a consumer base that have a different (though nonetheless legitimate) psychology. The Sims was such a break-out success because the player was given the ability to decide the story, rather than only play the story. And yet, Maxis were also trying to decide what they wanted the story to be, with the player then conforming to that, while also not doing so. Maxis are a company that want a world that is not ideal nor practical, but ideal and practical at the same time. What makes The Sims work so well is that Maxis originally created the sandbox, and allowed the player to create within that sandbox whatever the player wanted. But over time, Maxis have become ever-more controlling of what that sandbox is, while also trying to make it unlimited for the player at the same time. Maxis don’t understand that The Sims primarily belongs to its players, which isn’t the case with most games. What Maxis don’t understand is that The Sims‘ initial success was that the developer was only connected to the product arbitrarily, as the people who happened to develop the game. Is it any wonder that the most successful game in The Sims series is… The Sims?

If Maxis were a government, they’d try to convince their people that they’re being given more freedom by that freedom being taken away. And let’s be honest – Maxis realised that The Sims 3 was a mistake. The Sims 4 is only set in a parallel world as much as The SimsThe Sims 2 and The Sims 3 before – because of course The Sims 4 is set in a parallel universe. Isn’t that the premise of The Sims? That every player’s story is different? That every player creates their own parallel universe, through their own actions and choices? The only reason that The Sims 4 is set in a parallel universe is because Maxis have finally recognised what everyone already knew about The Sims‘ fundamental story mechanics. Maxis have spent three previous base games trying to maintain some sort of continuity between their releases – and to not attempt placing The Sims 4 in that continuity somehow would have proven that very continuity to be pointless and anti-productive. Which is the case, of course – absolutely it is – the difference is, Maxis would never dare admit that The Sims series is founded upon a mistake.

 

For the record, I enjoy playing The Sims. But that’s because I’ve been able to ignore the way Maxis were overthinking it. Like how The Sims timeline is measured in years even though Sims’ ages are measured in days.

Author: alexsigsworth

Generic true believer Marvelite, etc.

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