I tried to be as evil as possible in The Sims 4, and I was not disappointed. You might have heard that The Sims 4 removed a (according to some players) pretty key series feature: pools. While swimming was, in previous games, a great way to build up athleticism and take a load off, many gamers would use pools as watery testbeds for demented social experiments. With in mind, I decided to play The Sims 4 with a mind towards discovering new, different forms of evil. Mwahahaha, etc.
However, when I first showed up to a recent Sims 4 preview event in San Francisco, I found myself at a loss. Step one? Create a new Sim. Other journalists had come up with some damn cool character ideas (Game of Thrones families!), but I was running on the sleep deficit from hell. What could I possibly do to be interesting? I hate playing "myself" in these things, because the most interesting thing about me is my collection of off-kilter pants.
Unable to settle on any particular idea, I just started messing around with the new (and nicely intuitive) Create-A-Sim option, which let me physically grab, pull, and pinch Sims' features until they were as handsome, hideous, or akin to kind of, like, an anteater -- but fleshier and from my nightmares -- as I wanted. That's how Evil Da Vinci was born. Based on the famous artist/inventor, I envisioned him as the antithesis of everything the real Leonardo Da Vinci stood for. Evil Da Vinci did not create art, he stole it. He brought out the worst in people with his foul mouth, ugly heart, and cool purple hat.
He was also a total bro.
Yes, in addition to the "evil" trait, I selected "bro" as one of Evil Da Vinci's defining characteristics. So while the former let him derive happiness -- an observable, statistical boost in emotion and ability -- from other Sims' suffering, the latter turned him into a fun-loving lug the second sports or other bros entered the picture. He was a beautiful, frightening contradiction, his own sort of masterpiece.
As soon as I plopped him down into a plain but functional starter house, I noticed that the traits I'd selected for him manifested not only in his personality when interacting with other Sims, but also in a series of quest-like goals that would give him powerful (but temporary) emotional boosts. The first suggestion? Declare someone an enemy. I glanced outside Da Vinci's barren misery lair and saw a balding man in a tanktop stroll by. I felt kinda bad for the guy, to be honest. He'd earned the searing ire of Evil Da Vinci. By existing.
Since Evil Da Vinci was, you know, evil, one of his first conversation options was "rude introduction." Predictably, Da Vinci's target wasn't pleased. With greetings out of the way, I had full access to the conversation wheel, which offered tons of options in multiple categories, from nice to mean. I went all-in on the latter. I had Da Vinci jeer at the guy, compare his mother to a llama, insult him, shock him with a hand-buzzer, and give him fake bad news, only to be like "jk haha it was funny because you cried delicious, nourishing tears."
After talking with Da Vinci for a couple minutes, this man hated him. Mission accomplished. With enough negative points on our relationship meter, all that was left was to select "declare enemy" from the conversation menu and the deed was done. Just for good measure, I then had Da Vinci get into a roaring, Looney-Tunes-style fistfight with the guy. What better way to seal the deal on being arch-nemeses than with a few swift socks to the gut?
The whole exchange left Da Vinci feeling happy and inspired, the second of which temporarily opened up a new set of conversation options and modified old ones. He became more daring, capable of asserting himself to total strangers and telling jokes that would fall flat if spoken by a tongue dulled from anxiety. It even affected his approach to, er, using the bathroom. "Pee like a champion," read the option wheel as Da Vinci approached a toilet.
Would that we could all pee like champions all the time. What a better world that would be.
So that was the beginning of Evil Da Vinci's descent into vile jerkitude, but I decided to experiment to see just how low I could go. Here are the questions I asked and answered in the process:
Can I... become an international art thief? -- Basically. Using a quick and easy "smart phone" interface, I could do all sorts of things, from travelling to another neighbourhood to getting a job. One optional activity stood out: "crime." Evil Da Vinci, inherently evil and Leonardo Goddamn Da Vinci though he was, started out as a small-timer, but he slowly ranked up through experience and completing various semi-related objectives when he wasn't at work. At first he came home embarassed (and therefore prone to crawling under his covers and sulking while surfing the Internet; too real, The Sims 4, too real), but eventually he got a handle on it.
Can I... quickly and easily burn down everything? -- I couldn't find a direct, surefire method, but I definitely witnessed a couple fires as the day went on. The person next to me left their game running after they left, and even though Sims are able to decently take care of themselves when left to their own devices, that didn't stop one from burning his house down and getting a surprise visit from The Grim Reaper. The developers also told me that, theoretically, it's easier to start fires than ever. I just never figured out exactly how.
Can I... make everyone storm out of a bar? -- One of The Sims 4's best new features is multi-tasking. No longer is a Sim confined to a single activity, stuck behind the cold, lonely bars of their own tunnel vision. Now they can walk and talk, so to speak. Or sit down, surf the web, watch TV, and carry on a conversation all at once. This also means they can converse with large groups of people, and because of this Da Vinci sure did love his nightly trips to the neighbourhood bar.
He'd saunter in with that showy little walk of his, order a drink, and immediately begin firing off insults at anyone nearby. Multiple people would then join the conversation, at which point I'd just have him switch between conversational targets to maximise the simmering rage until they stormed out. It was like grilling up a few burgers on a nice summer's day -- bouncing back and forth between each as it sizzles and pops -- only instead of beef patties they were people, and their outrage was more delicious to Da Vinci than any mere sandwich.
Then, something unexpected happened: Evil Da Vinci found love. Don't ask me how. I pulled out all the stops to infuriate and alienate everyone at the bar, but a lady named Nancy dug it. She was a bit evil herself, not to mention vain -- a trait that Da Vinci began to learn from her by interacting with her frequently.
But not every relationship slots together just like that, like some kind of ready-made puzzle. Sometimes you've gotta do a little... house-cleaning to make it all work.
Can I... break apart a family to win someone's heart? -- Nancy had a family. At least, she did when she first met Evil Da Vinci. All was not well, however, and Da Vinci proved exceedingly good at making things worse. He took every opportunity to insult her husband and son, usually when Nancy wasn't around. But of course, when it was just the two of them, Da Vinci was a perfect gentleman. Funny, too. Before long, she was showing up at Da Vinci's place every day, and it seemed like her family had just… ceased to matter.
Here's what I think might have happened: Sims in bad moods often feel the need to vent to other Sims, to air their frustrations even though it might strain their relationship with the Sim to whom they're venting. So Da Vinci's appearance gave Nancy a little push, and inertia took care of the rest. By the time I was done, Da Vinci and Nancy lived together -- along with a cabal of, like, five artists, because Evil Da Vinci was a master of the long con.
Can I... trap a man inside his own home and make him slowly but surely lose his mind? -- Yeah, OK, that escalated quickly. Granted, this is The Sims. There is a long and rich tradition of demented shenanigans, a gnarled tome in which I was simply writing the latest chapter. Before moving in with the artists, I had Da Vinci set up shop alongside two scientist brothers named Malakai, one good (Good Malakai) and one evil (Evil Malakai). I quickly decided there was only room enough in this tow -- er, household for one maniacally terrible scumbag, so I reprised a classic Sims tactic to rid myself of Evil Malakai. One room, no doors, no anything else.
I would have used a pool with no ladders, but in a sad, parched world devoid of pools, you've got to make do with whatever you can find.
Can I… involve pink bunnies in the previous plan? -- Oh right, Evil Malakai wasn't completely alone in his little room. Sims games are nothing if not hotbeds for strange, exceedingly specific social experiments, so I decided to give him one fern to admire. When that didn't really have an effect on his sanity or overall disposition, I deleted it and added a small legion of pink bunnies.
What transpired was fascinating: Evil Malakai didn't enjoy his cramped bedroom prison for long. He became hungry, tired, and frustrated, and would intermittently gesture rudely toward me, his cruel new god. And yet, he survived with no food, no toilet, and no proper place to rest his head. For more than a week of in-game time.
I couldn't figure out what was going on, but suddenly it hit me: Evil Malakai had taken to continuously interacting with the bunnies, because that was literally all he could do. As dark as this is going to sound, he'd gone totally nuts from isolation and starvation. Now he was talking to an army of stuffed pink bunnies, addressing them as friends and countrymen, guests at what he perhaps believed to be some kind of Gatsby-style dinner party.
And that's what kept him going. The bunnies managed to keep Evil Malakai's "fun" meter consistently topped off, meaning that even though all other stats were united in a chorus of flatlines, he was having the time of his life. He didn't need food, or water, or comfort. He had bunnies.
Can I... turn two brothers against each other? -- I don't really know why this happened, but for some reason Good Malakai would always make a point of eating in front of Evil Malakai while he was trapped in fluffy pink hell. Every single time: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It might have been a glitch, but it was a hilariously mean-spirited one -- especially coming from the "good" brother.
Later, I had Good Malakai throw a party next door while Evil Malakai chanted something not of this world to his unholy pink bunny gathering -- insult to injury, basically. The party was great. Good Malakai even managed to flirt up a storm despite his crippling awkwardness, at least until Evil Da Vinci walked over and threw a drink in his face.
Can I... trap the grim reaper? -- Eventually, inevitably, the Grim Reaper showed up to take Evil Malakai away. With a simple swing of the scythe, Malakai was reduced to a tiny urn of ashes, the quiet credit sequence after a loud lifetime of evil science and talking to inanimate objects.
...with pink bunnies? -- But the Reaper didn't leave. He kind of just… stood there. And then he began interacting with the bunnies. Not even the Grim Reaper could resist their mysterious allure.
After a day or so, the Reaper poofed back to the underworld, having apparently finally gotten his fill of inanimate rabbit chit-chat. It was at this point in the day that I realised The Sims 4 is kind of a strange game.
Can I... witness the five stages of grief in immaculately depressing detail? -- So it turns out that Good Malakai liked his brother pretty well after all, even though he always made sure to eat directly in front of his starving brother. The new Sim emotion system actually managed to express Good Malakai's grief rather brilliantly, whether intentionally or not. Half the time Good Malakai seemed to be trying to get on with his life, working, reading, and playing video games. But then he'd wander over to the urn that contained his brother's ashes, take a long stare into its cold, unfeeling metal, and all that bluster would go right out of him. He'd get despondent, fail miserably to complete a basic task (like cooking), and go hide under his covers. It was… heartbreaking. Actually heartbreaking.
Can I... kill a Sim with pure emotion? -- I began to worry about Good Malakai. The developers told me that Sims can now die from particularly overwhelming emotional states (oh goodness, the possibilities for rampant evil there), and damn it, I'd taken a liking to the goofy old man. I wanted to experiment with that new feature, which producer Graham Nardone told me the team had put in with an eye toward players who play The Sims to do admittedly monstrous things, but not on Good Malakai. His was a beautiful soul. I decided what Good Malakai and Evil Da Vinci needed was a change of scenery, so I moved them in with a bunch of young, hip artists.
"Jackpot," I imagined Da Vinci thinking to himself, a diabolical grin spreading from ear to ear. That's when I realised I was getting way too invested in these characters.
Then, something weird happened: I stopped with all the social experiment shenanigans and started playing like a non-sociopath. I watched Evil Da Vinci struggle to be not a total arsehole -- to fight against his very insipid nature -- and decided to just go with that. He was now a recovering psychotic reincarnation of one of history's greatest minds, and he was in a stable, happy relationship to boot. He was also excelling in his role as a criminal lackey, skipping home each day with a smile on his face and someone else's money in his pocket. It was basically the American Dream.
Good Malakai, meanwhile, lost his taste for rocket science and space exploration after his brother passed away. For a short time, all he'd do was play video games, eat, and sleep. However, he began hanging out with all the other members of Artist House during dinner -- taking part in these massive, laugh-packed conversations while chowing down on homemade food -- and soon he fell in love with a member of the household. They both took up music together, her doing a terrible job on guitar while his clumsy pretzel fingers made a piano hack up choking melodies that had no business being called music.
It was beautiful.
I… I really liked them. They were quirky and sometimes horrible -- to themselves and each other -- but I had a lot of fun making them interact with other Sims. All the new emotion stuff turned this big, bustling household into a playground of drama and intrigue, with the occasional heartwarming moment mixed in. I basically took to playing dolls, and it was mesmerising.
Here's the problem, though: before long (six hours or so), I started getting bored. I really liked the changes to the game's core systems and AI (a focus on emotions, more surprising Sim autonomy, multitasking) but I still felt like I was playing a game a bit too fundamentally similar to every other Sims game.
I don't know. Sometimes I think the reason people end up playing The Sims in really demented ways is because the game's fundamental mechanics aren't actually very interesting. People get bored, and they start dumping water on the anthill.
Last week's preview event didn't give me close to enough time to explore the full range of stuff that will be in the full game, and I certainly can't say whether or not The Sims 4 will be worth picking up, especially if you've already invested a ton of time in The Sims 3 and its various expansions. But the short version is, I had fun with The Sims 4, and am surprised to find myself itching to try more, to experiment more, and to discover new uses for those pink bunnies.