As the franchise splutters to a halt, Katie Parker examines why The Sims 2 remains the gleaming jewel in the Maxis simulation game crown.
I would love to say I have nostalgia for The Sims 2, but the truth is that since I first received it on pre-order at 14 in 2004 I have kept it in more or less regular rotation to this day.
At 26 I don’t know what is more embarrassing: that I still play a game that simulates a life as banal as my own or that I have never bothered to upgrade to any of its subsequent incarnations.
As it happens I don’t particularly want to.
The Sims 1 was too simple. The Sims 3 and 4 are too complex.
But, like some kind of simulation game Goldilocks, I have discovered that The Sims 2 is just right.
Sims are little people and they do what you do: cook little meals; have little parties; go to little jobs; clean their little toilets. They have little needs that must be fulfilled like hunger, energy, bladder etc. They speak their own little language. You, an omnipresent God, control every aspect of their lives, from where they work, to what they eat, to how they die.
As with real life, triumphs and failures punctuate the monotony. Hone the right skills and your Sim will be rewarded with a promotion! Accumulate simoleons and you can build a pool! Don’t pay your bills and debt collectors will repossess items from your home!
Perhaps this would be as banal as it sounds, were it not for the unmistakable perverseness that the game tends to reveal in its players.
Yes, you can have yourself a happy wee Sims family and let them live prosperous and peaceful lives together. But you can also have them tease, and fight, and cheat on each other. You can starve them, deprive them of sleep and let them soil themselves. You can get them to go swimming in the pool and then take away the ladder that allows them to climb out again.
The Sims as a gaming franchise is an interesting specimen. Made by Simulation empire Maxis (Sim City, Simcopter, Simsafari etc.) The Sims takes the simulation game model and pairs it down to the minutiae of everyday life.
With no logical conclusion, no end goal, and no way of winning, it is a remains a bit of an original in the video game market, with a genre seemingly all to itself. Since the seminal triumph of The Sims 1, four subsequent incarnations have been spawned with each following a similar premise.
But by holding up a mirror to our own selves more candid and cutting than we could ever have dreamed, The Sims 2 was and remains the crescendo of a franchise more brilliant and uncanny than even it could understand. How?
Let me count the ways:
Romance in The Sims 1 was a dry affair. If you wanted your Sims to couple up it was an entirely engineered, lustless courtship. Sure love could be created, but what fun is that without desire? It was like holding two cats faces together to simulate kissing (*cough* I imagine.)
The Sims 2 introduced ‘aspirations’ alongside ‘needs’ which really are more akin to wants. Your Sims now wanted to cuddle and kiss and give each other presents and backrubs and more! Woohooing, the ultimate physical expression of your Sim’s love, was now an ultimate goal not merely a tool for procreation.
This opened up a whole world of wonderfully familiar deviance. ‘Woohoo in bed’; ‘woohoo in the hot-tub’; ‘woohoo in public’: the possibilities are endless and your Sims want it all. Some Sims even want to woohoo with multiple Sims. Others want to marry for money and have some fun on the side.
If this all sounds scandalous, fear not! Just like real life, in order to arrange a woohoo two Sims must be officially in love, which requires a daily relationship score of 50 or over and a lifetime relationship score of 70 or over (you know how it goes).
Natural death was impossible in The Sims 1. There was no adolescence, nor any elderly. Though it allowed pregnancy and birth, the spawn remained a child for eternity. Nightmarish yes, but pretty boring in the long term.
When The Sims 2 introduced time and aging it was a literal gamechanger. Here, babies grow into toddlers, who grow into children, who grow into teenagers who turn into adults who get old and then die. Previously temporally agnostic, the addition of time in the Sims introduced a dimension to gameplay that was quite unexpected: you might call it ennui.
Sims are born, grow up, learn some skills, get promotions, have some woohoos, die (of old age, if you’re lucky) and then turn into a little urn or tombstone. Sure, their ghosts can haunt the living sims but it’s not like you can chat to them.
Play The Sims for a few too many hours and you might realise this is not dissimilar to real life. You maximise your cooking skill points; you build a nice pool; you get a gold gardening badge: so what? Your goals are random marks in the sand. Your achievements are meaningless. You will become a random grave on the lawn, left there by some perverse God who enjoys it as an atmospheric garden ornament.
Never fear however, as there is an antidote, and just as in real life it is…
Your Sim’s children are the physical manifestations of all the time you have poured into this pointless game, the inedible fruits of your simulated labour. Remember that great husband you had who died in the mysterious swimming pool incident? Remember when you had the kid’s headmaster over for dinner? Remember the sexy fireman who saved you from the burning chilli con carne? What better memento than little Billy who now gets straight A’s at his private Sim school.
Feeling lost? Wonder what it’s all about? Have some babies!
If The Sims 2 can teach you anything, this is surely it.
This gaming content is brought to you by Bigpipe, the only ISP that speaks Simlish.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.