Review by BloodGod65

Reviewed: 10/30/09 | Updated: 07/07/10

Utterly Pointless, Oddly Charming and Dangerously Addictive

Over the years Will Wright and his company, Maxis, have gained a reputation for being one of the most atypical development houses in the gaming industry. And with good reason, because their games almost always revolve around some strange idea or concept. The most recognizable of their franchises, SimCity, has always focused on events at a macro-level (e.g. building transportation routes, natural disasters, etc.). But with this game, Maxis brings the microscope out and zooms down to look at the citizens of Simcity, who are known as, appropriately enough, the Sims.

Like any game created by Maxis, the idea behind The Sims is unlike anything that’s ever been done before. The core concept is simple and deceptively mundane. In a nutshell, The Sims is a “life simulator”, which has the player caring for and controlling a family of digital people while guiding them through the day to day events of their lives. If it sounds like the most ridiculous premise imaginable for a game, it really is. And yet, somehow it works in spite of itself.

The first step of playing The Sims is to create a family of little Sim-people. Players can make families with as many as eight people or just a lone bachelor (or bachelorette). Creating a Sim is an easy process, and allows for a decent amount of choice. Players can choose the sex of the Sim, skin color and whether it is a child or adult. Then you can determine the Sims appearance by choosing a head and body from a variety of options. The problem with creating Sims is that there just aren’t enough options, and if you’re a dedicated player, eventually you’ll start seeing similar Sims. But that’s a relatively small issue and once you’ve settled on an appearance you can give the Sim a name and start allocating points for his or her personality.

This step is the most important part of the game, and it will ultimately determine what kind of family you will have created. There are five personality traits to put points into - Neat, Outgoing, Active, Playful and Nice - and each of these traits has an opposing counter (Messy, Shy, Lazy, Serious and Grouchy). Neat affects how tidy a Sim is and very neat Sims will clean up after themselves automatically, while messy Sims will leave garbage lying around and let the dishes attract flies. Outgoing Sims crave social interactions and relationships, while more reserved Sims don’t make friends as easily. The Active trait means Sims will practically leap out of bed in the morning and take pleasure in strenuous activities, while lazy Sims prefer to do as little as possible. The Playful trait determines how Sims are entertained, with playful Sims enjoying things like computer games and serious Sims preferring activities such as reading. Finally, the Nice trait affects how Sims will interact with each other, with nice Sims giving compliments and backrubs while grouchy Sims like to insult others (and kick lawn flamingos).

Each trait can have ten points allocated to it, but you’ll only have twenty-five points to distribute, so careful planning is a must. Sure, super-neat Sims have a very clean house but if they’re shy and lazy, doing anything else is an absolute hassle. The key is to create well balanced Sims that are able to function with some semblance of efficiency.

After creating a family (or choosing one of the premade families), it’s time to move them into a house. Their budget is limited at first (a mere twenty thousand dollars) bit it is enough to buy a cheap house or lot where you can build your own. These houses are always sparsely furnished, so most players will want buy some crappy furniture for their Sims to utilize. There are numerous item categories in The Sims, from chairs, sofas and beds, to bathroom amenities, entertainment devices, kitchen appliances and decorative items. All items have a price and most of the better, nicer items will be out of the family’s reach for the time being. The main problem with the whole catalog of items is that it’s just too small. While there are typically numerous types of any given item (for instance, a tiny black and white TV, a larger floor model and finally a widescreen plasma TV), this still doesn’t add up to very many items. And considering that upgrading to better and better possessions is one of the driving forces behind the game (as will be discussed momentarily) this is a significant detracting factor.

So why are these things so important? Well, not only are Sims very materialistic but they have “motives”. These motives are basically things that drive real human behavior, such as hunger and comfort. All told, Sims have a total of eight motives that include Comfort, Hygiene, Bladder, Fun, Hunger, Energy, Social and Room. While most are self-explanatory, the room motive needs a little more explanation. Basically, Room is a measure of how nice any living space is. Things like windows, lights and nice items boost a Room score while things like garbage and broken items will bring it down.

During the course of the game, motives continually decrease and eventually require a Sim to take action to fulfill these motives. For instance, hunger requires food and bladder requires a toilet (or mop, if you let it bottom out). Motives are directly tied to a Sim’s overall happiness and the more motives that are fulfilled at a time, the happier a Sim will be. And how does one go about restoring these motives? With stuff! So, Sims must have nice items in their house to remain happy. Each item has a motive (or two) associated with it, as well as a score. For instance, a chair is associated with comfort and a cheap one will have a score of two, while an expensive one might have a score of six. This score determines how big the motive gain will be from using the item. For instance, a chair with a comfort rating of six will restore that motive at a much quicker rate than a chair with a rating of two. This means restoring motives doesn’t take as long, thereby freeing more time for Sims to go do things that are more productive.

It’s also worth mentioning that the personality points that were assigned to Sim affect their motives to a certain degree. In some cases, certain traits will cause motives to behave differently. For instance, a Sim with a high Active trait will experience a slower decay of the comfort motive than a lazy Sim. Another example is with Sims who have a high Outgoing trait, which causes the Social motive to decay faster. While there aren’t nuances like this for every trait, it does add another layer of complexity to the game.

So Sims need things for self-fulfillment, but nice things don’t come cheap. If they want good stuff (or if they just want to keeping eating), they’ll have to get a job. Indeed, Sims can become employed in the game and will need to do so if they want to get the cash to buy nicer things. A Sim can get a job in one of ten career tracks by looking in the daily newspaper or checking out posted listings on the computer. As is to be expected, each career has its own pay level and work hours. Each career has ten career levels, and if you go to work every day in a good mood and have the requisite requirements, the Sim might get promoted to a higher paying position. Of course if the Sim goes to work in a bad mood they can get demoted, and missing two days of work leads to an automatic pink slip. An interesting wrinkle with careers comes in the form of chance cards. Every time a Sim comes home from work, there’s a chance they’ll get a random bonus that describes some positive event that occurred during the day and usually comes with a cash reward. Unfortunately, there are also negative events that can cost the player money, get a Sim demoted or even put onto a different career path. One particularly infuriating event involved a Sim I had just gotten to the top of the entertainment career path (with a 1,400 dollar a day income). She got a card which read “You decide fame isn’t enough and decide to run for local office and win in a landslide”. Thus, her career was changed to Politics and my salary dropped to a measly 600 bucks a day.

While these things can be annoying, they do add a certain unpredictability to the game, thereby assuring things don’t get too stale. However, one issue I have with the whole career thing is that when Sims go off to work each day, nothing really happens. They simply leave their house and if nobody else is there, time speeds up until they get home. It would have been nice if you could follow them to work, or at least get some sense of what was going on while they were away. Plus, the different career paths are really useless. Sure you can choose a business path over entertainment, but there’s no benefit for doing so. In fact, it’s best to just pick the career with the highest maximum pay and follow it. If Maxis really wanted people to try out different careers, they should have put in random perks for each career.

With that said, getting ahead requires a lot of work at home. Getting promotions requires having certain skills and a specific number of friends. There are six skill types in The Sims, which include cooking, mechanical, charisma, body, logic and creativity. Much like real life, each career has a required skill set to succeed. For instance, a Sim going into entertainment needs lots of charisma and creativity along with a healthy body to keep up with the demands of fame. Of the six skills, only two of them have any use outside of a career, these being cooking and mechanical. Cooking adds to the hunger-restoring value of a meal and significantly reduces the changes of a Sim setting the house ablaze when cooking on a stove. Mechanical allows Sims to repair broken household appliances without getting electrocuted.

And as with real world careers, connections come in handy. Socialization is a huge part of the Sims. During the course of the game, the Social motive will decay and leave Sims feeling lonely. More importantly, friends are needed to get promotions for jobs. Sims can interact with the other Sims who live in the neighborhood by calling them on the phone or catching them as they walk by on daily strolls. Making friends is a relatively easy process. By clicking on another Sim, you can make yours interact with them in all sorts of ways, from talking to compliments to more saucy interactions such as hugs, backrubs and kissing. Of course, a little common sense is necessary for this, as laying a big sloppy kiss on someone you just met probably won’t be good for the relationship. Thankfully, figuring out how relationships are progressing is very easy because there’s a sub-panel that shows, in hard numbers, how every person feels about you. Plus, during interactions you will see green plus signs or red minuses whenever a relationship changes. One important thing to note is that the neighborhood doesn’t have many people in it from the get-go, so players might have to create numerous families and move them into houses just to have enough friends.

During all these inter-Sim interactions, players will hear a lot of the native Sim tongue “Simlish”. The Sims don’t speak any comprehensible language, but rather a gobbledygook mish-mash of gibberish. Rather than being annoying, as this is in most games, their jabbering is oddly charming mainly because it sounds as if they’re actually conversing and trying to form words, much like the babbling of an infant. Hearing them chatter away is so much fun, it’s entirely possible many players will find themselves making Sims talk just to listen in. Simlish isn’t just confined to conversation either, as you’ll hear Simlish on the television and on the radio (hearing Simlish in song form is disgustingly adorable). Sims also sound unnervingly human in some of their non-verbal vocalizations. Female Sims will make an annoyed grunt when another Sim has left the toilet seat up and when taking out the trash, Sims make a hilarious “Yuck!” sound.

Should you continue to pursue a relationship, it will eventually turn into a romance. Budding romances have different interaction options such as “flirt” and “give gift” along with the aforementioned kiss and hug options. If a Sim can plant a kiss on another Sim, a romantic relationship has officially begun. From here numerous interesting events can unfold. If the other Sim lives in another household, your Sim can propose and a short wedding ceremony will commence. Afterwards, the new person will move in. If they were the only adult in the old house, they’ll bring all their money with them (booyah!) and, if they have any, their children as well (damn!). There are other small perks to romance as well. Sims aren’t shy around those they love and will bathe or use the toilet in front of each other, which means you can get things done a lot quicker.

Of course lovers can also procreate. I found this out in a most hilarious way; after getting two Sims to fall in love, the woman immediately asked her companion if he wanted to have a baby. Boy, those Sims sure do move fast! Of course I said no (I’m not ready for that much responsibility!). As previously mentioned, children can be put into a family from the get-go, but this allows you to expand later on if you’re so inclined. However, that “Let’s have a baby” option doesn’t pop up very often. On the other hand, players can adopt a child from random phone calls, and this allows other Sims to get in on the child-raising festivities. Babies and children are a whole new experience unto themselves. After a baby is born, Sims will have to care for it, feed it and sing to it in order to keep it happy. If you neglect it, Social Services will come and take it away. Should you last three days, the baby will grow into a child. After becoming children, these little Sims will have to go to school every day and study at nights so their grades don’t get low. If they start making bad grades they’ll be shipped off to military school (which is good to know, just in case…). Beyond this, children never grow up (indeed, no Sim ever ages) so the family stays static throughout the game. It certainly would have been nice to see some sort of chronological progression where children became adults and moved out for their own adventures rather than staying useless parasites throughout the entire game.

While Sims don’t actually age, it is possible for them to die. Of course, this really only ever happens if someone screws up in monumental fashion (that would be you, oh mighty puppeteer of the keyboard…). They can starve to death, drown in swimming pools, be killed in house fires or electrocuted while trying to fix a broken appliance. Death is a sad occasion for Sims and they’ll mourn the loss for a while. When a Sim dies they’ll leave behind an urn or gravestone, which can be moved around or deleted. If you leave it hanging around, there’s a possibility that the ghost of the Sim will return at night and scare the occupants of the house. There’s nothing quite as funny as killing off a family, then moving someone else in and watching the shenanigans.

While controlling the lives of the Sims is plenty of fun on its own, actually building houses is one of the games most intriguing aspects (Fun fact: The Sims actually evolved from an original premise that involved building a house with digital people to evaluate it). While the neighborhood has some pre-made houses, there are several empty lots that players can purchase and build on. Creating a house from scratch is very engrossing and one could conceivably spend hours on this. Players will create walls, lay down flooring, put up wallpaper and generally design every aspect of the house. There are also tools that allow for a second floor to be built and swimming pools to be created. All in all, it’s possible to create the ultimate dream house if you’ve got the time and desire to do so. However, in terms of wallpaper and flooring, there aren’t as many options for decoration as I would like. I also lament the fact that you cannot choose your own color scheme for these things, nor can you do so for the other items.

Up to this point, my only complaints have largely been an issue of Maxis not providing enough items to play around with. Unfortunately, the game does have several other issues that end up bogging down the whole experience. The first of these is a general issue that may or may not be a problem depending on your point of view. The Sims really has no focus. While this fits Maxis’s style, some players might find the game boring simply because it gives you no advice or leading as to what to do. This is largely because it’s completely up to the player to forge their own path, but even so, the game certainly could have done with more direction rather than keeping Sims happy and buying new things.

Then there’s the issue of time. The Sims has a twenty-four hour in-game clock. This clock is greatly sped up, with each in-game minute being roughly two seconds of real-world time. The real problem is that the actions of the Sims do not fit the actual rate at which time passes. For instance, it can take a Sim thirty minutes to walk from one end of their house to the other. If you look at this in real-world terms, this means the house would be well over a mile long. So, very careful planning is required in order to get anything done in a day’s time.

Another design issue is one of family fairness. What I mean by this is how easy it is to play a family of any given size and the opportunities afforded by the number of people in any given household. During my time with the game I found that there were certain family setups where getting anything done was nigh impossible. With a family of one or two people, gaining enough money to survive on, while making friends and boosting skills is an insurmountable task. On the other end of the spectrum having a full family of eight people means absolute chaos, with a painful amount of micromanaging just to make sure the idiots get to the bathroom before wetting themselves. I found that a six member family led to optimum efficiency with four members working and two staying at home to make friends and boost skills. While there’s an interesting social commentary in this conundrum, it does mean players will probably gravitate to one playing style over the others.

The biggest problem The Sims has is with Sim AI. To be perfectly clear, Sims are monumentally stupid - so much so that they can’t even navigate their own houses. Sims pick out set paths through their houses and do not deviate from them, which often brings them into conflict with other Sims trying to follow the same paths. This happens even when there is plenty of space to them to take another route. One of the most common instances of this I saw was when a meal was served. All the Sims would come to the plate at the same time, clustering around it and randomly stopping as others got in their way. Then they would bumble away trying to get a seat at the table. When something interferes with their plans, they just stop and stand there for a while as if they forgot what they were doing. At this point, the only thing that gets them going again is usually canceling out any actions that were queued, then telling them to do it all over again.

The game has an option to make Sims semi-autonomous or completely player controlled, but it’s actually sometimes better to stick with the former, especially if you’ve got a large family. This way, they’ll attend so some of their needs instead of just standing around like idiots. Despite this, you shouldn’t expect them to take care of themselves because they’re just too stupid to realize something needs to be done. There were plenty of times when a Sim decided to go watch TV when they were about to wet themselves and they have a tendency to want to bathe every five minutes or so.

As of this writing, it has been almost ten years since The Sims came out and the technical aspects of the game have held up quite well. From the games isometric viewpoint, the houses of Sims are extremely detailed. However, part of this continued graphical fidelity is no doubt due to the fact that all items are actually highly detailed two dimensional models. The Sims themselves, on the other hand, are not. They were created with 3D graphics and they’ve come to look pretty bad in the intervening years.

This is unfortunate, but the fact that the Sims are so well animated should help most players ignore the fact. When Sims speak their language is very vibrant but even when they are talking, Sims are incredibly expressive. Though technically a bit unpolished, the animations are varied and often hilarious. They’ll dance to the radio, flap their hands wildly during conversation and cross their arms when they’re being bothered by someone they don’t like. My personal favorites include lazy Sims in the morning, who groggily slide out of bed then do an angry little dance, along with dirty Sims that sniff their armpits and recoil in disgust.

Simlish is a very endearing aspect of The Sims, but the rest of the audio is pretty good as well. Sims can listen to a variety of music, such as rock, Latin, classical or country, on the radio and these are all quite catchy. In the building and buying modes music also plays and this is so relaxing and comforting that it could probably put most people to sleep all on its own.

The Sims is not a game that will appeal to everyone. Taken as little more than the sum of its parts, it basically consists of all the excitement one could expect from everyday life. However there is something oddly compelling and irresistible about playing the puppeteer to a bunch of none-the-wiser digital people. If you can stick with it long enough to learn its intricacies, you might just find its pull inescapable. I know there were times when I looked up at the clock only to realize I’d been at it for hours. While the second entry (or perhaps an expansion pack) really needs to tighten things up and provide some clear focus in order to remain compelling, this is one of those games that manages to be much more than the sum of its parts.

Rating:   3.5 - Good

Product Release: The Sims (US, 01/31/00)

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