Deep reads #4: Playing God (The Sim series)

A few years ago, I started a game of SimCity 2000 on a virtual machine that I documented here on the site. The result was a fifteen-part series that ended in a stupid joke non-ending because the VM crashed, or my file got corrupted or something, and I lost all my progress. Should I have backed the file up? Probably, yeah. Do I understand a thing about virtual machines beyond the bare basics of how to run one? Not really, no.

Behold my glorious creation and despair that the city file is now forever lost.

But recalling my own stupidity is not the point of this post. There’s plenty of time for that later. The point of this is rather to look back at my experience with the Sim series, a long-running and now seemingly dead series of games started by defunct developer Maxis. I say my experience because that’s just what it is: mine may be very different from others, because at some point I left the series behind. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say the series took off in a different direction and left me behind.

Game developer Will Wright, the man whose name comes up most often when talking about the Sim series, was faced with the problem in the mid-80s of how to create a game that would be fun to play and that focused not on fighting and destroying, but rather on building and maintaining. The game he and his team ended up making, SimCity, was a city-building simulator just as the name suggests. It had a hard time getting much distribution at first because of how different it was from the usual fare, but those distributors who rejected it must have felt like real assholes later on because the game became a hit.

No, it’s not a farming game despite the cow on the title screen. If you wanted to be a virtual farmer instead, you had to buy SimFarm, released a few years later.

I have serious respect for the original SimCity, but it’s not one of the Sim games I have fond memories of. First put out in 1989, it was slightly before my time, and even after it was polished and re-released as SimCity Classic I more or less skipped over it.1 No, the game that hooked me onto this series was the one I went back to when I was feeling nostalgic a few years ago: its sequel SimCity 2000. First released in 1993 on DOS and later ported to every system on Earth, SC2K was an improvement upon the original in every way. The old top-down view was replaced with a more satisfying isometric one. The constant building and rebuilding, abandonment and repopulation from month to month made the city feel more alive. But the changes weren’t just cosmetic: many more substantive city-building features were added as well.

And of course there were the disasters. These were also present in the original SimCity, but watching your city get wrecked by an earthquake, hurricane, or nuclear meltdown felt more exciting in this new isometric view. I know it doesn’t look like much today, but in the mid-90s this was really impressive to watch, and despite approaching 30 years old as of this writing, the game with its 90s graphics still feels just as functional and playable as it did then.

A tornado rips through the center of my city. Not much you can do in a case like this except wait for it to go away and rebuild.

Both this and SimCity Classic gave the player something they didn’t usually get: the power to create and to lord it over that creation. Not that this meant everything is necessarily going to go the player’s way. You have the ability to build, but you naturally have to pay for what you’re building, which in hard mode means taking out a municipal bond that has to be repaid with interest. And even if you’re doing well financially, your citizens might not be so happy with your performance. Cost-cutting measures like not building enough police and fire stations lead to higher crime rates and more fires breaking out, while skimping on hospitals and schools directly and immediately affects your citizens’ quality of life. And if you’re playing with disasters turned on, your city can be struck with tornadoes, earthquakes, and fires at any time — all disasters that are more difficult to manage if you’ve been too tight-fisted to build and properly fund those all-important services.

You might think that you’re safe from the wrath of your people no matter what you do. The citizens living in the world of SimCity 2000 are stuck with you: they can’t vote you out of office for doing a bad job or oust you from power in a coup. They can protest, however, and if they get pissed off enough riots can break out, leading to fires being set around your city. In the end, it’s enough of a hassle that even if you don’t care about your citizens’ happiness, it’s just easier to keep them content by following fair, sound policies.

This happens sometimes when you try to build a nuclear plant or a water treatment facility near a residential area. People don’t like pollution or the possibility of a horrific disastrous meltdown in their town, who would have guessed.

One of the reasons I think the SimCity games did so well was the balance they struck between accessibility and complexity. SimCity 2000 was easy to pick up and play without any preparation, but it also had enough respect for the player’s intelligence not to dumb things down. The game didn’t require you to manage municipal ordinances or to go through all its charts and adjust commercial and industrial tax rates, but if you wanted to mess around with those to try to make more money or spur growth you had that option. As a consequence, both children and their parents might get hooked on this game — it’s intuitive enough for a kid to pick up on quickly, but complex enough for a teenage or adult player looking for a challenge.

The most tutorial-style help SimCity 2000 gave the player in the course of normal play was advice provided by city officials on the budget screen, but again, you weren’t required to consult with them or to take their advice if you did. And sometimes said advice wasn’t even very good, just like you’d expect from a city council in real life.

For example, this nonsense. Legalized gambling is necessary to a city’s lifeblood in my opinion. The more unpleasant elements the better.

So the game let you play seriously if you felt like it. But if you weren’t feeling like it — say, if you had a hard day at school and wanted to let off some steam — you could also use the well-known cheat code to open debug mode (PRISCILLA, typed in all caps while holding the city toolbar, to this day I remember it.) This gave you access to unlimited money and rewards like statues, mansions, and the city-within-a-city arcologies. It also let you wreck everything with an expanded list of disasters that you could trigger. The normal disaster menu let you freely start the usual fires, riots, tornadoes, and earthquakes. But now, like a vengeful god, you could make a volcano rise out of the earth and swallow your city up (or rise off in an uninhabited corner of the map — it seemed to be random where it ended up.)

This part of the city looks nice and idyllic now but just wait until the wrath of God hits it.

SimCity 2000 stole dozens of hours of my childhood that might have been better spent outside in the sun. That’s what some people say, anyway. I’m not sure I believe that myself. And that’s just as well, because this wasn’t the only Sim game that occupied my time. SimTower was released for PC in 1994, and I jumped on it. This one wasn’t developed by Maxis but rather by the Japanese company OpenBook Co., later renamed Vivarium, under the leadership of famous strange game developer Yoot Saito.

But I didn’t know any of that at the time. To me, this was like a followup to SimCity, only scaled down from a city to a single building — a concept that really appealed to me. I felt like I was building a tower that might exist in one of those cities I built in SC2K, one of the big skyscrapers in the heavy commercial zones. Even though it was made by a different developer and was merely branded with the Sim name when ported over to America (in Japan it was simply titled The Tower) SimTower felt like it fit in well with SimCity thematically, which is likely part of why Maxis rebranded and published it here in the first place.

A basic office building like this is easy to build and maintain, but a real skyscraper in SimTower takes way more micromanagement to keep up.

When I wrote a short retrospective on this game years ago, I called it a happiness management simulator, and I stand by that description. Look at all those people lined up in front of the elevators in pink and red: those colors denote progressively more pissed-off tenants and visitors. Elevators quickly reach capacity and just as in real life, people don’t want to take the stairs. Meanwhile, each office, condo, and hotel room you build also has a quality meter that takes a hit if it’s too close to a busy restaurant or shop. And of course, if the shops and restaurants you build don’t get enough traffic, they lose money, and that’s on you somehow — instead of collecting your rent, you either end up paying to keep the place open or axe it and try over. All this day-to-day activity on a smaller scale makes SimTower a little more hectic-feeling than SimCity, but I still liked the feeling of building something and seeing it run, even if my creation kind of sucked at making money.

Years later, I picked up Yoot Tower, which was not released under the Sim name but was a sequel to SimTower in every way right down to the visual style. It seemed to have a few mechanics problems, such as certain businesses being automatic failures no matter where or when you built them (maybe this was intentional, but in that case I’d ask why the hell include those?) but it was still pretty fun seeing how this game expanded on the original.

Why did I even build this stupid ramen shop, nobody likes it

In the mid-90s, however, I was still hooked on SimCity along with a couple of other simulation and strategy games, so much so that I bought SimCopter when it came out in 1996. This was a helicopter flight sim that let you fly around the custom cities you built in SC2K putting out fires and transporting citizens in medical airlifts. Never mind that the game looked like complete ass. It was still a good time flying around the cities you built solving problems or causing even worse problems. Maxis knew the same players who started disasters in their own cities in SC2K would also try to destroy their cities from the inside in SimCopter, so the game lets them cause chaos in ways that it doesn’t really have to: dragging passengers’ icons outside your helicopter actually kicks them out of the vehicle, even if you’re a thousand feet in the air, and visiting a military base in your city lets you steal an Apache that shoots actual missiles. If you’re wondering what happens if you steal an Apache in SimCopter and use it on a nuclear plant, Maxis thought of that too — it was almost more fun causing horrible disasters in your cities than playing the missions and making money to upgrade your helicopter the proper way.

While games like SimCopter and Streets of SimCity were fun diversions, they seemingly didn’t make much of an impact on anyone. Not so for the next big idea Maxis had, which around the beginning of 2000 would start an entirely new spinoff series of games, one of the best-selling of all time. Although it was both critically acclaimed and a massive commercial success, The Sims was where the series lost me. Not that I angrily swore off the Sim series claiming I’d been betrayed or anything dramatic like that. It just didn’t provide what I was looking for when I picked up a Sim game. And since The Sims was more or less what the entire series became rolling into the 2000s as the original sold millions of copies, I naturally drifted away from it.

Relive the excitement of the shitty house you rented your last two years of college!

Okay, so maybe I’m being a bit unfair with the above screenshot, because the game lets you do a lot more than recreate a sad existence eating cold pizza in a three-room house. It was advertised as a sort of life simulator, taking you down to the level of the individual people living in a suburb, perhaps just the sort of suburb you might have built in the then-recently released SimCity 3000. You had the option of starting with a family of one to eight people and either buying a pre-built house or building a new house for them to occupy. After your characters, called “Sims” in a tradition stretching back to the old SimCity days, were named and appointed to a house, they started living their everyday lives.

And that’s where almost all the gameplay lies. Left to their own devices, your Sims go about their days, pursuing hobbies, entertaining themselves, and interacting with each other. They have autonomy, and they’ll generally do what they need to do to fulfill their desires: eat, sleep, shower, talk to each other, play games, watch TV, and so on. However, they also have to make money (not to pay rent — they live rent and mortgage-free somehow, which is very convenient, but food, furniture, and other goods still have to be paid for.) So you need to press them to get jobs. Children automatically go to school, but some of your adult Sims can be kept unemployed if you want to keep control of them 24/7.

Build mode lets you design and furnish your own house.

The Sims is largely a social simulator — your Sims gain and lose points with each other in their various interactions, and both love and hate can bloom between them. However, the building process is also an important part of the game. I imagine The Sims is at least twice as fun if you’re into interior design, because the game gives the player quite a few options to choose from: wallpaper, siding, floors, light fixtures, many styles of door and window, and of course a lot of furniture ranging from crappy-looking and cheap to posh and expensive. Gardening fans also have the option of planting trees and bushes outside. Your Sims appreciate getting some fresh air, so a nice garden serves them well. It takes some extra money, but building a pool is a good way of completing your Sims’ home.

Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games. Your Sims have that autonomy, and they’ll use it to get to their jobs on their own and do the other things that are absolutely necessary like eating and using the bathroom. However, they also have their own personalities that are set through point systems in the character creation screen, and they’ll act according to their likes and dislikes. A naturally messy Sim won’t be quick to clean up spills, for instance. In extreme cases, if a Sim neglects the bathroom (or if you were an asshole who didn’t bother to build a proper bathroom in your house) they might piss themselves and leave a puddle on the floor. Even worse, your Sims can potentially miss work if they’re distracted by other things. Urine can be cleaned up, at least, but money that goes unmade can’t be made back unless you have a time machine.

With only one or two Sims to deal with, this stuff isn’t too hard to manage. But with eight, all with different personalities and their own likes and dislikes running headlong into each other, things can easily turn chaotic.

Some dumbass starts a fire in the kitchen. This and the other examples I’m using here are official pre-release screenshots from Maxis (the actual game replaces that ugly “GO HERE” button with something nicer and adds toolbars and extra functions) but this is essentially what happens if a disaster strikes: your Sims waving their arms around and being useless, panicky idiots.

I can’t really criticize any of this too much. The Sims was very well-made, with great attention to detail. Much like the older Sim titles, it didn’t feature characters or a story but let the player more or less create their own, and it put the same kind of emphasis on balancing micromanagement and long-term planning.

It still didn’t work for me. Maybe I was just bored with watching a bunch of simulated people live lives that weren’t really that different from our own real-world ones. There was just something so mundane about The Sims that I couldn’t get past. I guess SimCity and SimTower were just as mundane in a way: they also took place in realistic modern-day settings and involved managing money and people to some extent. But they also felt different. I’d never have the ability to control an entire building or city in real life unless I somehow became an insanely powerful CEO or an emperor or someone like that, and I had the sense even as a child that that was not going to happen. Living an everyday life, however — that was something I was already doing when I played The Sims, and it’s still something I do today. Why did I need to recreate that? I didn’t even like my regular life very much, and playing what amounted to a smaller, simpler version of that life didn’t provide the kind of escape I normally looked for in games.

Is this really a kind of escapism, by contrast? Maybe all this is saying more about me than about these games.

This is where my time with the Sim series just about ended. I did buy SimCity 4 when it came out a few years later, and it was a great update to SimCity 2000 and 3000 before it (why they didn’t just continue that trend and call it SimCity 4000 I don’t know; maybe they felt silly about the “thousand” part of the title at that point.) It was nothing new to me, though. The graphics were nicer and more detailed, and there were many more building options and features to choose from, but the old excitement of creation just wasn’t there anymore.

That lack of excitement had nothing to do with SimCity 4 itself. I’d bet that if I were ten years younger, I’d be talking about it in just the same way I talk about SimCity 2000. I’d also bet that there are players out there five or ten years older than me who felt that excitement with the original SimCity and didn’t feel it with SimCity 2000. The first four SimCity titles are excellent games; I believe how you feel about each is largely a matter of which one you started with.

My SimCity 4 city is just as shitty as my SimCity 2000 ones

The fact that I don’t have any nostalgic feelings for The Sims may also have a bit to do with the age at which I played it, but I think that’s more a case of my simply not liking the premise very much. Too bad for me, because that’s the basket where Maxis and its new parent company Electronic Arts put almost all their eggs. The first Sims was followed in the next few years by seven separate expansion packs, not counting later deluxe editions that tied some or all of those expansions to the base game. The Sims 2 and 3 were released in 2004 and 2009, along with their own dozens of expansion packs and with similar critical and commercial success.

I was off the ride at that point, but my ears still perked up when I heard about the newest SimCity release planned to come out in 2013. The release of what was essentially supposed to be SimCity 52 would result in a public relations disaster for EA and Maxis, and the abysmal reception that it received is arguably a large part of the reason that no major Sim titles have been put out in the last seven years other than The Sims 4, which was already well into development at the time. What happened, then?

A promo screenshot of an intersection in 2013’s SimCity.

The new SimCity looked beautiful, but it had the worst release imaginable. Because while it was widely expected to be a principally singleplayer game like its predecessors, it required a connection to EA’s servers to run. The servers crashed upon release, however, so nobody could play the damn game. This was a double whammy for EA and Maxis — first, the fact that having bought a $60 game (still considered a fairly high price tag for a game in 2013) most of its owners could not play it, and second, that it required a connection to play in the first place. The developer and publisher’s defenses of their actions (that they weren’t actually deceiving anyone, and particularly that it wasn’t in anyone’s interest to play SimCity in offline mode) were worse than useless, seen by many as disingenuous and insulting towards the fans. Even Will Wright, who had left Maxis behind well before development started, took shots at his old company for essentially putting DRM into the game that broke it for legitimate players.3

At the time, I watched all this happen, and then I watched EA and Maxis scramble to reassure everyone that The Sims 4, planned for release in 2014, would be playable offline. And though I was very put off by how they handled the whole matter, I think I was done with the series anyway at that point. I likely would have checked SimCity out just out of curiosity, and because it really did look that good, at least from the promotional materials and pre-release videos. But it wasn’t something I was obsessing over, and I didn’t really lose out on much in the end.

But what about the kids who were around that same age I was when I first got hooked on SimCity 2000? It seems to me that they were cheated out of a potentially great experience. To this day, the new SimCity carries a poor reputation, one not helped by the fact that it was also reportedly pretty buggy on release. The go-to city-building games as a result now seem to be SimCity 4 — 17 years old as of this writing, but seen as the last true SimCity game by a lot of fans — and Cities: Skylines, a series put out by serious-business ultra-complex strategy game publisher Paradox.

Cities: Skylines might be good, but does it have stupid-looking mad libs style newspaper articles?

Maybe it’s just my sense of nostalgia talking again. Maybe Cities: Skylines is really a great game, a true successor to the old SimCity titles. But I do think something was lost when EA and Maxis screwed up the new SimCity release and then blamed the players for not accepting the new situation they were trying to create with their always-online scheme. There was no reason the series had to die. It’s not like these PC game series have expiration dates. Sid Meier’s Civilization series, one of my other childhood favorites, has been going strong for almost 30 years now without much trouble. No, it seems like sheer arrogance killed the Sim series. Even though I don’t care for The Sims that much, I can see why a lot of people loved and still love that game and its sequels. And I can also see why a lot of people hated what the series turned into in 2013 and why they turned their backs on it.

Despite all that, the impact the Sim series had on me and a lot of other people has been significant. It took an unusual game concept that hadn’t been tried on a large scale by the late 80s and proved it had wide appeal if done right. Even if it was just a simplified simulation, it showed us the workings of a city, how it was almost like a living organism that could thrive or wither based on how it was maintained and what conditions it was subjected to. And it taught us the joys of making a new save file probably titled [city name]-2 and then unleashing fires, riots, and UFO attacks on said city to see just how much would be left standing after the chaos ended. Many of the same lessons go for SimTower, and though it didn’t work for me, I think The Sims had a similar impact for others. Even if the Sim series is permanently dead now, that impact will never go away. It’s something worth remembering.

***

Sorry, I didn’t mean to get so melancholic by the end. I really feel old after writing all that, scouring my memories of the series and how I felt about it. It all feels like it happened a lifetime ago. There are also a lot of highly praised Sim titles like SimAnt and SimFarm that I didn’t even touch on because I never played them, but I’m sure players have plenty of good memories of those games as well. I don’t know if anyone has any especially good memories of the new SimCity, but if you do, please feel free to leave a comment. A different perspective is always interesting to hear. 𒀭

 

1 I did own SimCity Classic, but only because I ordered it out of the Scholastic catalogue thinking it was that SimCity 2000 game I’d played some of on my cousin’s computer. Still a good game, but I was quite disappointed when it came in the mail and I realized my mistake.

2 I know I’m not even close to the first person to point this out, but it seems like new games released in long-running series that are put out with exactly the same titles as their respective originals have all failed to capture the feeling of those originals: Sonic the Hedgehog in 2006, SimCity in 2013, Thief in 2014. And though it’s a movie, let’s not forget Ghostbusters in 2016, which despite getting a lot of critical praise and some mild commercial success has since been hidden away and almost totally forgotten. It’s almost like there was unwarranted pride at work in all these cases.

3 To be fair, Wright faced his own DRM-related backlash with the less botched but still controversial release of his own game Spore in 2008. I guess he’d learned his lesson by this point.