Guys and Dolls

The Sims 3 is a great sequel. I just wish it would stop staring at me with those blank, glassy eyes.

Sims3NotPaulBunyan.jpgThe cynic in me (which at this point, I guess, is just “me”) would love to hate The Sims 3, but there’s just too much that the game gets right. Things would be a lot simpler if this had been the game that ruined the franchise. Unfortunately for anyone who wants a quick-and-easy understanding of the videogame industry (and unfortunately for my free time for the foreseeable future), it’s a very good game, probably the best of the series.

It’d be easier just to assume that corporate giant EA had squashed all of the spark of originality out of the game in its attempts to squeeze every last cent from its ludicrously best-selling franchise. But there are still plenty of clever touches and the same goofy sense of humor as the earlier games. It’d be simpler if you could just whine about the new pay-per-object scheme and micro-transactions for new objects, but that actually addresses one of the biggest problems with the business model that was starting to overwhelm The Sims 2: the expansions that were adding real depth to the game were getting lost among the onerous “stuff packs” that just shoveled new clothes and objects onto discs, but were still inexplicably popular.

And you could just drag out the oldest cliche about the game: that it’s nothing more than a dollhouse to watch boring computer people read books and pee themselves, and that it only appeals to teenage girls and middle-aged shut-ins. But I’m not middle-aged.

But more importantly, The Sims 3 is full of clever refinements to the core game design that finally start to deliver on the promises of the original Sims: you really don’t have to focus on micromanagement anymore, and you really can start to see emergent storytelling.

Lurking beneath the building-houses and playing-with-dolls aspects of the Sims series, there’s always been a strategy game based on time management. And in the attempts to keep it a “game” instead of just a “toy,” the design philosophy has been to keep everything balanced. If you want to build your Sim’s career, that takes time away from personal relationships. If you want to keep your house clean, that takes time from having fun.

That preoccupation with balance is everywhere in the game, almost to the point of obsession. If you want to make your Sim’s personality “Outgoing,” you have to take points away from “Clean” or “Nice” or something else. When The Sims 2 introduced a system for directing the player, it added “Wants” (still a pretty ingenious system, very cleverly designed and implemented). And because of that balance, introducing “Wants” also meant introducing “Fears:” events that your Sim doesn’t want to happen, like getting rejected for a date or being electrocuted by a dishwasher.

The Sims 3 doesn’t toss out those ideas completely, but it does simplify them somewhat. The “fears” of the previous game weren’t nearly as interesting as the “wants,” so they were jettisoned. The whole system was turned into the unfortunately cloyingly named “Wishes,” which just give you semi-randomly generated objectives to complete. That lack of balance seems like it would violate the idea that it’s all a real simulation, but in practice, it makes the whole system work better.

Even more noticeably, that point-driven personality system loosely based on Zodiac signs is gone, replaced with “Traits” like “Evil” or “Athletic” or “Never Nude.” You can choose up to five of them, and few (with obvious exceptions like “good” and “evil,” or “couch potato” and “athletic”) are mutually exclusive. Their presence or absence determines what actions you can perform with a character, their animations while doing them, and how they’ll behave without your intervention. And that one system — more than the heavily-touted open neighborhood, or all of the features borrowed from previous expansions — improves the entire game.

Having the earlier personality system balanced was a noble idea that didn’t quite work in practice. Instead of real personalities developing, you’d see most characters settling into a bland middle-area. You had to push all your points into one trait to see it have any effect at all, and more often than not it resulted in a character that wasn’t very much fun to play. The personality traits fix that. When a character does something interesting, the game explicitly tells you why: it’s because he’s “good” or because he “hates children.” And even better, it becomes easier for the player to infer that’s what’s happening. Some animations and behaviors might not be tied to any particular trait, but now, when the player sees them, he believes that they are. “He just kicked her out of the house because he has commitment issues.”

That’s the “emergent behavior” that the game has promised for a decade but never quite completely delivered on. No doubt there’s a purist out there on the internet somewhere, complaining that choosing pre-defined behaviors and suites of animations isn’t as interesting as changing subtle variables and watching complex behavior emerge from the system. But the interesting part is in the combinations of existing behaviors: what happens when I make this guy an Artistic Genius who Hates the Outdoors and Children? It encourages the player to experiment, and it makes the results quickly visible.

And you can see this playing out in all the discussions about The Sims 3 in game-related forums: people are coming up with genuinely interesting and fairly complicated stories, putting all the pieces together. I’ve spent more hours playing Sims games and their expansions than I have with all other videogames combined, and I’ve only ever managed to get two or three interesting story moments out of it: most of it really is just watching boring computer reading books and peeing themselves. After only a couple of nights playing the new game, I’ve already seen those story moments and am encouraged to keep the soap opera going over multiple generations.

Now, I couldn’t in good conscience consider myself a videogame player without complaining about something. So I’ve got to say I’m still disappointed by the art direction. The changes to objects and buildings are pretty subtle: most of it just looks like upgraded versions of Sims 2 art, which is fine by me because the art in that game was excellent. But the characters all have this bland Second Life quality about them that not only makes me enjoy the game less, it leaves me feeling a little creeped out.

The Create-a-Sim mode of Sims 2 gave you unprecedented control over the look of your character’s face (there were still only a few body types), but what impressed me the most about it was the unified look to all the characters. You could generate dozens if not hundreds of variations, but they all seemed to be characters designed by the same artist. (Unless you cheated and turned off the constraints, of course). And they were appealing, too: just shy of being cartoony, easily identifiable as “Sims,” and even the uglier ones were still appealing enough that you’d want to keep looking at them over the amount of time it takes to play a Sims game.

The character creator in The Sims 3 gives you even more control, but something got lost in the process. You can now see your character get fatter or thinner, more muscular or flabbier, which is a welcome change, but the faces range from “boring” to “downright creepy.” And in all the time I’ve spent playing Sims games, this is the first time I’ve felt uncomfortable using the character creator. Those glassy, doll-like eyes stare back at me, and I’m reminded of Marie Osmond hawking dolls on some home shopping network, and I picture some lonely old woman laboring for hours to find just the most adorably perfect outfit for one of her dolls. And it’s made worse when I have to go through picking clothes and hair and such. I don’t have any idea what the hell women are supposed to wear, so I’m used to being at a loss there, but even the guys confound me. It could just be because my sense of style and fashion is frozen somewhere around 1996, but having to chose between all the American Idol hairstyles and Banana Republic (I guess? I don’t even know what those stores are like anymore) clothes is as if the game is screaming at me: YOU ARE NOT THE TARGET DEMOGRAPHIC FOR THIS COMPUTER ENTERTAINMENT PRODUCT.

And while I’m on the topic: what is the deal with beards in videogames? I know from experience that there’s no shortage of guys in the game industry who are either unwilling or unable to shave correctly or consistently, so it’s not as if the artists don’t have plenty of real-world reference on hand. You’d think that’d be one of the things that game artists can do well (the others being paunches and ironic T-shirts). But I haven’t played any game with a character creator that got it right.

At least in Sims 2, the hair and clothes suggested a story. They had one set that was a big flannel shirt and lumberjack boots, so I put those on a dude along with a big biker mustache and said he was a mountain man (or at least a guy who’d just stumbled out of a bar on Folsom Street and decided to go live in the mountains) and called him “Paul Bunyan.” He and his wife “Babe Blueox” got married and started a family and ended up being my most successful characters in that game, so I got attached. When I started The Sims 3, the first thing I tried to do was recreate him. The results are the photo at the top of this post. Sims 2 Paul Bunyan could knock that guy into next week without breaking a sweat. That’s no mountain man. That’s a manager at a Hot Topic store, at best. He looks more like Bobby Flay than Paul Bunyan, and I just realized that every time I get a character creator I subconsciously end up with grizzled versions of Bobby Flay and I don’t like to think what that says about me so I’m going to stop writing about The Sims now.