When I was putting this list together, I had The Sims 3 ranked about here, in the top 40, and I wondered “does this game really deserve a spot this high?”
So I installed the game and all twenty expansion packs — yes, twenty — and booted up the game.
I made a Sim named Clay Skylark, after the protagonist of an aborted novel manuscript I started in 2010. Clay is skinny and good looking with dark hair (not to be confused with his creator).
So I buy Clay a house, get him a job, and have him start learning to cook. He gets a dog, Rex. He goes out to a bar and meets a Sim lady whose name I now forget. Let’s call her Caroline Sim. Clay courts Caroline and, in typical Sims fashion, marries her within a week.
Before long, they have a baby, John. Clay, Caroline, John, and Rex: They make a happy little family.
“This is fun,” I think. “Maybe not ‘top 40’ fun. But fun.”
Still, at this point — as always happens with The Sims 3 — I’m addicted. Clay gets a promotion. Caroline starts painting and takes Rex on walks.
After a few Sims days, it’s John’s birthday. He’s “aging up” from a baby to a toddler.
Caroline grabs John from his crib and brings him downstairs. She, Clay, Rex, and John gather in the kitchen.
Caroline lights John’s birthday cake. But something goes wrong. Maybe she drops the match on the table, or maybe a napkin gets caught in a candle’s flame.
All I know is that, moments later, the Skylarks’ kitchen is burning down. Caroline puts John on the floor as her clothes catch on fire. Clay panics. I repeatedly click for him to try and extinguish his burning house, HIS BURNING WIFE, but all he can do is look around the room in shock.
The fire department comes only minutes later, but it’s too late for the table, oven, and refrigerator. And Caroline. A cartoon Grim Reaper whisks her away, and her body turns to ashes.
The fire department leaves as soon as it’s put out the fire, so John has to clean up. In a state of mortified shock, he brings John upstairs, back in his crib. Then he goes downstairs, sweeps his wife into an urn, and places her ashes on the mantle.
There is a “mood” status that is something along the lines of “Devastated for the loss of a loved one” — it’s the harshest modifier in the game, basically guaranteeing your Sim is miserable.
Clay has that status in his mood for a week. Remember that one sim day equals about one year, so he took it very hard. Every couple of hours he would call out in agony, her face on his mind.
Rex didn’t take it much better. It took him two days to emotionally overcome the loss of Caroline whom he’d grown close to. Dogs are supposed to have shorter memories, right?
But the kicker? Baby John didn’t get the status at all. I guess he was too young to process it. But while Clay banged his fists on the ground in grief, John would be playing with toys from his toy chest. Less than a day later, he was over his mother’s death.
As you might (or might not) imagine, all of this was somewhat traumatic for me. I don’t play video games expecting existential anguish. But then, I don’t play The Sims 3 like I play normal games. Well played, Sims; you can have your top 40 spot.
I’ve heard complaints that The Sims is nothing but a “virtual dollhouse.” To those people I’d argue that — by your reasoning — Call of Duty is nothing but “virtual action figures.” Yes, it’s true that The Sims 3 allows you to tell your characters to go to the bathroom and cook dinner. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
I get the most fun out of The Sims 3 when its two major gameplay elements — 1) addictive, simple, open-ended challenges, and 2) projection of unpredictable narrative — coincide.
Let’s start with the first of those. The Sims 3, especially once you pile on the expansion packs, is jam packed with fun minigames that all amount to “developing your character” to some extent. Along with the well-noted requirements to feed and bathe your Sims, you can guide them along a few dozen career paths, develop their skills as artisans, fill their houses with goodies and furniture, invest their money in local businesses, start a band, travel the world, collect pets, and — in later expansions — time travel and become supernatural beings.
Each of the dozens of these minigames is addictive in a small way: Click a few buttons, watch your Sim do what you asked, and your Sim levels up or gets the reward. It’s like one of those dumb Facebook games. You always, ALWAYS want to just go one more level. Unlock one more achievement.
Add all of those up and consider the freedom you have in choosing how to play, and you have something that is always satisfying.
Now, the second half of The Sims’ proposition. I call it narrative projection. It might have a proper name. I’ve heard “interactive storytelling,” which is almost right (and Sims skeptics, as I mentioned, might call it “virtual dollhouse”). But to me, it’s “narrative projection.”
What is narrative projection? It’s providing a story from your head to the events that take place on the screen. Because The Sims 3 does not force a story onto your player. It’s up to you to determine that.
Thus, if you want an emotional connection to your characters, you have to do at least a little bit of this. Most people do this intuitively, I think. But, silly though it sounds, I’ve found that I really get into the fictional lives of my characters… and I try to get into it. Few game experiences have been quite so fun as role-playing like this.
The thing that ties the “minigames” and “narrative projection” together, are the characters you create and control. You choose the way they look and their “personality” — aka, a list of five traits — and then guide them and their family through life.
In other words, if you’re looking for complex, strategic gameplay, head elsewhere. If you want a goofy, open-ended sandbox world with characters you completely control? This is for you.
(I’ll also mention a third key element that has never really drawn me in, but is actually quite in-depth: The architecture and landscape design engines that allow you to design your own house and property.)
There is something to be said for the insane amount of variety you can find in The Sims 3. Remember that there are twenty expansion packs. Nine of these are just “stuff packs” — large collections of additional items and home design elements to spice up your house. But eleven of them legitimately add gameply features, from travel to college to running a business, etc.
Some hardcore fans prefer The Sims 2 because it allows you to control each “household” in its own time frame, and it’s far less buggy. But I definitely think Sims 3 is the way to go. First is the obvious reason: The game looks better. The characters are more expressive and everything is more interesting, detailed, and polished.
The Sims 3 has a couple other advantages over previous games. The aging feature from The Sims 2 is back and slightly refined, especially following the “Generations” expansion which adds more age-specific goals. You can build a whole family tree.
The second-biggest reason The Sims 3 is the must-play in the series are the improved handling of Sims’ personalities and moods. Sims are more distinct and responsive; they “feel” much more engaged in their world rather than direction-obeying robots. And Sims’ ever-important moods are more dependent upon the actions they take rather than their “needs.” That means micro-managing “hunger” and “energy” and such are heavily downplayed.
But the biggest improvement over earlier games is the new “neighborhood” component. Towns are now seamless open worlds for Sims to explore .They’re not just stuck on lots, but can visit stores and landmarks and bars and parks. It adds a lot of variety and scope to the game.
As you can tell, I’m an unabashed Sims geek. I get more enjoyment out of its open-ended gameplay than I do just about any other game. It’s an addictive, varied “story engine” that pulls you in and doesn’t let go (…unless it crashes or freezes, which is all too frequent in this notoriously buggy, computation-intensive game.)
Sims 4 is set to drop this fall. I’m very excited about it — the gameplay focus seems to be on having Sims respond more to the world around them, which promises to make “narrative projection,” as I call it, all the more interesting. I also know from previous Sims games that the content will be a little bit light, and Sims 4 won’t turn into anything great until we’re a few expansion packs in.
But, for now, I’m good with Sims 3 and its many, many expansions. The story I led this post with is one of dozens of strange, engaging, affecting, memorable things that have happened to me in the embarrassing number of hours I’ve played this game. I happily rank it as one of my favorite games.
(Last note: Like all Maxis games, The Sims is heavy on inside jokes, fringe silliness, and innuendos. The famous gibberish spoken by characters is back and better than ever. EA even paid some famous artists to cover their own songs in nonsense “Simlish.” Stuff like this adds a lot of charm and flavor to the game.)