You get the impression that the geniuses behind The Sims are beginning to phone it in a little – their latest expansion pack, released at the beginning of February, is literally called “Romantic Garden Stuff” – but there is no denying that the series, now in its sixteenth year, has carved out an enduring niche in the video game market.
Although The Sims was technically released in 2000, it is most assuredly a product of the 90s, which explains that almost absurd postmodernist bent written all over the game. This is the decade, after all, that brought us Big Brother, which seems to occupy the same cultural space as The Sims, both having succeeded in marketing the mundane as a form of entertainment. Think how many hours of your life have you have wasted trying to make believers out of your friends: it’s a game/show about people sitting there and eating breakfast and stuff, you tell them, struggling to remember what exactly it is about it you enjoy.
The Sims is a step above Big Brother though, not least of all because the characters are less likely to find themselves at the center of a racism controversy (although my own little man is suspiciously downbeat about his new Persian rug). The game compels you to put your real life choices under the microscope, as you bounce from one pursuit to the next in a never-ending battle to placate your character’s perennially insatiable whims. Few video games are ambitious enough to tackle the question at the heart of The Sims: does happiness come from within, or without?
It is fair to say that the average Sim would struggle to pass the Turing Test – many of them would probably forget to go to the bathroom without your instruction – but it has been satisfying to witness their evolution over the series. Though their communication skills still leave much to be desired – Sims don’t so much talk as they do grunt and squeak – they are now fully three-dimensional, in both appearance and character (OK, you still initiate relationships by surreptitiously tickling a member of the opposite sex, but you can now make your Sim a hipster or a video game nerd as well as an uptight businessman – that’s progress).
But looking at the reaction to Romantic Garden Stuff, an expansion pack which helps you design the perfect backyard and costs £7.99 to download (yes, really), one wonders whether The Sims has gone as far as it can go. Bold and original at its inception, EA now find themselves shamelessly pumping out nondescript novelty expansion packs in a feeble effort to compensate for the glaring lack of genuinely fresh ideas. Like the Sim who sits in front of his plasma TV overcome by a sense of ennui, fans are beginning to wonder if all of this window dressing is truly making them happy.
Art is supposed to imitate life, but The Sims’ rigid commitment to realism entails obvious limitations; how many other successful video game series can you name which feature neither guns nor cartoon villains? The closest The Sims comes to violence is a drunken brawl with a love rival, while morning commutes are skipped, presumably to prevent you from nihilistically mowing down pedestrians en route to the office/garden centre. There are calls for the game to afford players a greater array of options, but for developers there is always that delicate tight rope to be walked between structure and freedom.