The Sims 2 (Electronic Arts, 2004) was making my hard drive complain. Not the usual grinding noise, but a louder, tap-knock, ominous kind of noise. I have had hard drives go corrupt on me before, so I powered down and switched a few cords. When I powered up again, I got a series of 01 01 01s on the screen.
I always do a pre-emptory body count when it comes to crashes — this was better than usual, since my latest book was just out and I’d yet to start another one — even as I work to save what I expect is a dying patient. But, as it turned out, it was my willy-nilly wire switching, not a hard drive failure, that was the source of the trouble and before long I had The Sims 2 booting up again.
I called my wife, Susan, in — she’d been interested in checking out the game or, rather, having a good excuse for avoiding marking papers. We watched the intro, which is a great, colourful and enticing cavalcade of various scenarios: people dancing, doing yoga, necking and so on.
When the game loaded, various things scrolled by: “Chlorinating Car Pools,” “Partitioning Social Network” and various plays on the strange marriage of mechanical and organic that life simulators are. It’s clever, but Susan was antsy. “They should have a little game you can play while it’s doing this.”
I agreed. “They have one when you’re installing the game,” I said. I’d been impressed by that, since it always seems a waste that most games ignore the potential of game interstices. They’re a great opportunity for tidbits of story or world building. And while most gamers can’t be bothered with a tutorial, for instance, gameplay tips at these points would be appreciated more than a static loading page.
The Sims 2 has a good tutorial. It’s broken down into 32 steps, and this is actually indicated. One of the difficulties people coming new to games have is that you don’t know how “deep” they go, the way you know you’re halfway through a book — it comes from catering to an audience of the hardcore who don’t need encouragement to stick with it. The Sims 2 is full of considerate design like this.
The interface, considering the huge amount of detail involved, is an intuitive marvel. After we were familiar with it we looked through the stories we had to choose from. Susan was in the captain’s chair, and she dismissed the first one as being like a soap opera, and the other one as being like Shakespeare, so we went with the weird one.
Each story has a couple of families in the neighbourhood you can zoom in on. The one we chose — a “mixed” alien/human family — had a husband, wife, son and daughter, all of whom go about their business fulfilling their basic needs. Susan set to getting them doing stuff like jumping on the couch, smashing their dollhouses, jumping in the pool — “I feel like it’s a dare,” she said. “You don’t control them directly, you just tell them what to do and stand back and watch.”
Beyond their basic needs, characters have various aspirations. The father, for instance, wanted to improve his relationship with his daughter, although his daughter had no similar motive. She did, however, have a fear of her father dying. We had the father tickle his daughter, and he got points for that.
Easy enough. The son had a more complex aspiration, however — to have a good party. Susan called up a bunch of people and invited them over. The party countdown started. I panicked. “We need food, it says we need food and music,” I said. Susan seemed unconcerned — it was an interesting reversal, me feeling the anxiety she usually feels with shooter games. “I’ll just order pizza.” She went to the phone and put in the order. “Where’s the stereo? Is it upstairs?” As we looked around the house for the stereo, the seconds ticked away and, pizza or no pizza, our party rating was “Sleeper.”
The son’s status went from “Man About Town” to “Wretched Outcast.” It wasn’t just because he’d wanted to have a good party: one of his fears was to have a bad party, which we hadn’t noticed. He reeled around the house, crying and being miserable. He gained the aspiration of wanting an expensive hot tub.
The Sims 2 reminded me of the first life simulator I’d played on the Commodore 64, Little Computer People (Activision, 1985). Little Computer People was a blocky, bitmapped cross-section of a house with none of the graphical or gameplay sophistication of its grandchild, The Sims 2. But in one respect, LCP is more believable as I remember feeling — watching the flat little man respond to the doorbell I’d pushed or the package I’d left — that such a little man could live inside a computer in the way that mice live in the walls of a house. You might believe that the mice have love for their children mice, but not really buy that they’re like us to the extent that they recline with tiny pipes in tiny armchairs. The characters in The Sims 2, while being more engaging and interesting, are clearly too complicated to live in a computer.
Or maybe that was who was knocking from the inside of my hard drive.