What’s the story with The Sims 3?

Being a passionate lover of the performing arts, I possess a real weak spot for a fine in-game story. I lean towards the more artistically-poised games; Silent Hill, BioShock, Mass Effect – those games that manage to simultaneously proffer a weighty, penetrating narrative and a rich gameplay experience to players in a deliciously agreeable way. I’m not really one for attending to pointlessly virtual canines and being repeatedly scolded at length by one sexually frustrated Mr. Resetti for forgetting to save my progress in animal-inhabited communities.

At least, this is what I would be taking pleasure in telling you, had that wily Maxis not Junk-Genie-trash-compacted the ‘hard’ part of my hardcore identity a few years back. From the moment I inserted that deceptively lacklustre-looking The Sims disc into my PC disc drive, my life became a hopeless mess of capricious customisations and frenetic skill progressions. I was hooked. That’s right, hooked. I have now come to terms with this. I recall wincing at finding myself repeatedly dressing my sim in the girliest of garments, deciding that the shoes didn’t quite match her lipstick as well as they ought to and subsequently changing the entire outfit bar the shoes. What were these dress-up sessions even in aid of anyway? To attract a partner for my Sim perhaps? Yes, I think that was it. They were to attract a partner in a world where you may as well look like Jabba the Hutt as Cameron Diaz for all the Sim-bedding good it would do you.

I had become illogical – the very thing that we women seem to spend most of our lives trying to convince the opposite sex that we are not.

Jabba the Hutt - come - Cameron Diaz

What happens to me when I’m playing The Sims is beyond my comprehension, I simply become an irrational ball of girlish glee. Despite this, however, I’ve always felt some dimension to be lacking from the experience, something close to dramatic emergent behaviour. What I mean by this is that both the first and second games lacked significant interactive storytelling. Okay, so my Sim did ascend her fashion career quite satisfyingly. She also experienced more than her fair share of affairs with Sims possessing a commitment to carnal gratification that would perk up even the most austere of gals’ pixels. Nonetheless, these are the kinds of events one might still consider to be rather conventional.

However, the life-simulation genre is arguably the only one which is truly capable of bearing meaningful dramatic experience. Other, somewhat narrative-driven genres such as adventure, RPG or, more recently, FPS cannot provide such experience because at their core they lack the laws of interactive drama. Some of these games even lack the basic laws of standard drama. Despite the enjoyment these games offer us, their very nature does not allow a two-way narrative to exist; every plot has been created by the developer. Discovering Jack to be a Fontaine-shaped vessel at BioShock’s critical plot twist certainly had its impact. However, the narrative had merely chugged along its pre-laid track until it arrived at this lofty landmark. The player’s role in such stories remains fundamentally passive. This just ain’t what games are about.

It would surely be one of the biggest leaps forward in gaming history were a sound storytelling engine to be developed. Indeed, the cavernous gap between videogames and storytelling is steadily being bridged as programmers endeavour to build interactive storytelling technology outside of the familiar comfort offered by C++. And as one might expect from the progenitor of commercial interactive storytelling, Maxis/Electronic Arts is working frantically to fill its ‘creativity’ meter by advancing in-game story creation using SimAntics technology. Mostly, it would seem from recent previews of the game, by promoting the ‘acting’ seen from Sims themselves.

The Sims 3

This is indeed a timely effort. A common criticism of The Sims franchise is that it concerns itself with routine housekeeping. This has lead games designer Celia Pearce to dub it “the IKEA game”. I can relate. But due to the introduction of character traits in the latest iteration, we may witness Sims evolve into rather believable agents. These traits, of which there are 63, should theoretically act as the ‘drama inducers’ of the game. Ranging from “paranoid” and “perfectionist” to “never nude” and “vegetarian”, the resulting dynamics should help to reduce my dress-up sessions quite suitably. They might even encourage other developers to tap into the exciting interactive potential truly unique to games. I mean, just think of the sadistic fun we could have had if cinema allowed us to superimpose traits such as “never nude” on James Bond.

I’m pleased the story portion of The Sims franchise is gestating because anyone currently eyeing my unique Sims story would think me a possession-obsessing, slutty-dressing, neighbour-bedding whore. It would also hold large implications for the gaming industry if it makes a step towards extracting the oxymoron from the term “interactive storytelling”. Of course, we will likely lose some control over agents’ reactions to dramatic events as in-game variables interact with each other with increased complexity and sophistication. However, this is truly what interactive storytelling is all about; a beautiful narrative creation between developer and player. Let’s make it happen, baby.







3 responses to “What’s the story with The Sims 3?”

  1. Zoey avatar

    I must admit that after being a Sims 1 addict and having all the expansions (how sad was I?) I didn’t play the Sims 2 that much as my poor laptop was struggling to keep up once a few expansions were added. But, a new laptop later and I’m really interested to play this game and it’s about time – I’ve missed my dose of Sims. However, that means juggling regular console games, arcade games, Virtual Families (which I’m still addicted to) and the Sims – argh! I guess I better give up my social life!

  2. James avatar

    Storytelling engine? I have a feeling that were such an engine ever to be created it would immediately be purchased by all major Hollywood studios and used to replace David Koepp. I don’t know which fate is worse. Least the engine would have a decent justification for being formulaic and soulless.

    The Sims falls into that category of games I never ‘got’, but I suspect the very things that turn me off the franchise (furniture arranging, arbitrary outfit selection etc) are the things that millions adore about it. From my perspective a dynamic, open-ended and interactive plot would certainly increase the draw factor. Less grind, more narrative rewards. Sign me up!

  3. Lorna avatar

    I find Sims a calming sandbox sort of game and the fact that I don’t have to drive along any story but whatever I haphazardly choose for my Sims to be one of the game’s greatest strengths.

    Looking forward with caution to the third one…am hoping that the new introductions won’t take away from the ‘controllability’ of the player to drive those lives. Sometimes the management faffing can be fun as opposed to the scramble for a tricky achievement on the Xbox.

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