The Sims 4 is a big game. But like any so-called life simulator, it only seems that way when you add up its countless tiny bits and pieces into one giant mosaic. Actually playing the game feels like you're both telling and watching a series of private, intimate stores.
Let me start with one of those stories, about a man named Fred Bob. Fred woke up early one morning this week. He got out of bed without disturbing Autumn, and started to make her a special breakfast. Everything was peaceful, except for the toilet, which was gushing water all over the bathroom floor. Fred didn't notice at first, lost as he was in trying to make his wife the best damn pancakes that a few weeks of cooking and a spare chapter in a culinary manual could help him conjure.
Autumn really had to pee, so she woke up shortly after Fred and started waddling towards the bathroom, gritting her teeth and locking her knees together. Fred is the more mechanically-minded of the two, so once Autumn arose and started groaning, he rushed to start fixing the plumbing. Ok, technically I did that part -- switching characters from Autumn to Fred and ordering him to start doing his handyman duties. Once Autumn got to the bathroom, she wasn't happy to see Fred hunched over the toilet, laboring as he was.
They exchanged a few curt words, and tiny red characters popped up over their heads. This meant that both of them had upset the other, to the point where the game was dinging points off their relationship ratings. After a moment, Autumn had had enough. Still fit to burst, she inched over to the kitchen and grabbed some yogurt from the fridge, eating it in a few hurried spoonfuls while standing over the counter. Leaving her dirty bowl there, she dashed back to the bathroom the moment Fred stepped out.
He returned to the kitchen, planning to resume his recipe. But there was an empty bowl, just sitting there on the counter, like a giant red stop sign. Fred glanced around the room, looking lost, raising his arms in confusion. So much for a romantic breakfast.
Looking at herself in the mirror while she was washing her hands, Autumn suddenly had a change of heart. I wonder if she thought: What are we doing, fighting like this? Sure, Fred might be an aspiring comedian who never manages to button his shirt and insists on dying his beard bright pink. And yes, maybe we got married without a wedding, just minutes after he proposed to me one night sitting on a couch in a museum. But so what? We're young and in love.
Or maybe, once she'd emptied her bladder, she just realised that she was feeling feisty. Either way, she strode out of the bathroom cheerfully, catching Fred on his way out of the kitchen. She smiled. Kissed his hand. Before long, the two of them were back in bed.
And then The Sims 4 froze.
I sat there, staring at the two lovebirds I'd just helped move past a minor quarrel, seeing the little "z's" hover above their heads in suspended animation. I guess it's time to try again, I sighed. One reboot later, and I was back at the beginning of this scene -- Fred once again on the edge of his bed, waiting for me to press "play" on the game's menu so he could start his day anew.
I was annoyed. I'd already lost several hours' worth of time building and decorating their house over the weekend when my PC ran into a similar hiccup, so I knew the sting of lost Sims time all too well. But it also occurred to me that this was an interesting opportunity to essentially restart a "level" in The Sims 4. Plenty of other games let you do that. The Sims doesn't -- at least to the same extent. You can create distinct save files, of course. But it's very hard to reach a clear "game over" state. The Sims and all its characters just keep moving forward in time, regardless of the choices you make. Earlier generations of Sims grow old and die, giving way to new Sims in turn. Any mistakes you feel you've made either have to be edited out or built upon. However minor it was, I had a rare chance to try one specific scene again.
My second attempt for a peaceful morning went over much better now that I knew what was coming. I immediately put Fred to work fixing the toilet. Once again, Autumn woke up shortly afterwards. Once again, she waddled over to the bathroom. But this time, instead of snapping at Fred, she simply walked into the kitchen and started making a salad. I was still controlling Fred at that point, mind you, I had nothing to do with Autumn's salad decision. Fred finished fixing the toilet a moment later, and once again she was finally able to pee. While Autumn did her business, Fred stood a few feet from her, staring aimlessly at the mirror. I'm not sure why.
Still no special breakfast. But this time, both of them left the bathroom feeling extra flirty. They walked into the kitchen together, presumably to finish cooking. Once they'd struck up a conversation, however, neither of them seemed to be able to focus on anything but each other. I played along. You already know what happens next.
I know these are just two video game characters, I scribbled in my notebook. But I still feel giddy just seeing how happy they are together. How can you not???
This reset wasn't supposed to happen. In my and The Sims 4 publisher EA's ideal world, it probably wouldn't have. Games are supposed to run smoothly. Mornings with my Sims are supposed to go off without a hitch -- at least a technical one. I'm glad it did, though, because it helped me realise what I love about The Sims 4.
Every time I start and restart a level in a video game, I always do things slightly differently. The end result, however, is usually the same: no matter how I make it through a dungeon, I still end up killing bad guys, getting the key to the big door, acquiring some special sword or piece of armour. Things are similar in The Sims 4, but they're also very different.
For starters, there are all the other ways that I could have let that morning between Fred and Autumn play out. With my blessing or bidding, Fred could have lashed right back at Autumn when she started to chide him. Or he could have just gotten up and left the toilet half-fixed and gone for a jog. Hell, I could've never even prodded Fred to pursue his boo so passionately. If I was feeling particularly vindictive, I could have switched over to the game's "build mode" and removed one of the doors in their house, trapping Autumn and leaving her there to squirm. Or -- and this is the one thing I regret not doing -- I could have just pressed "play" and sat there, giving no commands, and seeing how the predicament resolved itself.
There are many different ways to play The Sims. Some people like to create elaborate virtual dollhouses -- the more ornate, the better. Others like to introduce their own challenges, seeing how fast they can produce 100 babies or abide by a set of "self-imposed rules." Yet another group just likes to wreck havoc and watch gleefully as the denizens of their world react in horror and anguish.
How do I like to play The Sims? I'm far too scatter-brained for the dollhouse method, and too weirdly sensitive to torture my Sims. I guess I just like to be, I don't know...nice? I approach the game with a mindset that's half-parent, half zookeeper. I like to create things. But what I really love is watching them grow.
You begin The Sims 4 with a lump of clay and a broad directive: create a Sim. It's easy to lose yourself for hours at this first step, because the game's character creation system is phenomenally detailed. Thankfully, the aesthetic is cartoonish enough to keep its character creator from sliding too far into uncanny valley levels of creepy almost-realism. But despite their resemblance to stock Pixar characters, the visual fidelity of The Sims 4 is so striking that I wonder if it will end up hurting the game in some ways. It's very easy for me to create Mii versions of friends, family, and famous people in Nintendo's sim game Tomodachi Life, in comparison, because all the characters in that 3DS game look and sound so ridiculous already. There's a commonly understood suspension of disbelief. The characters in The Sims 4 are quirky as well, but they feel like something more than just cartoons. Every time I've tried to create a Sim version of myself, for instance, I've stopped short upon realising I could easily spend the rest of my day (read: weekend), mouse in one hand and mirror in the other, slowly inching his eyebrows up and down.
At a certain point, you just have to let go. Once you manage to let your Sim stand on his or her own two legs, things become far more challenging -- and far more interesting. Sims in their figurative infancy act the same way humans do: they have impulses and desires, but they also can't seem to figure out how to feed and bathe themselves. Even the ones who start out as adults don't grasp their own physical limitations, leading to plenty of silly moments where, say, someone drops to floor in a fit of exhaustion:
You teach them by bossing them around, and they gradually learn. Impulses and desires give way to hopes and dreams, ultimately crystallizing into the realities of life: jobs, houses, spouses, hobbies. Slowly you peel back the layers of their character, and more of the game's world reveals itself to you in turn.
At least, that's how it worked with Fred. Once I'd settled on his features and assigned him a personality, the real work began. I set him up in a dingy apartment, and got him a job. He made almost no money as an aspiring comic cutting his teeth on the standup circuit, hence the dinginess. I spent a lot of time putting out fires -- both literally and figuratively. If one of his appliances started leaking or shooting off sparks, I couldn't afford a new one for him, so I had to tell Fred to toughen up and fix it himself. When he started to get bored and lonely, I took him out to the gym or the bar. That's where he met Autumn one night.
The drama of Fred's life probably sounds dull, even to my fellow Sims players. It is boring to everybody but me, which is part of the game's special charm. But just describing the steps Fred has taken so far in his first few days on this Earth doesn't capture how much of a feat it was to get him to where he is today. In addition to the new and improved character creator, EA made two changes in The Sims 4 that have a dramatic impact on what playing this game actually feels like: emotions and multitasking.
Emotions are just that: the things your Sims are feeling at any given moment. Multitasking means that your Sims can now do a few different things at the same time -- watch TV or talk to someone while running on a treadmill, quit their job while taking a dump, there are many different combinations. Since performing specific actions usually has a direct impact on a Sim's mood, managing these two new features is a surprisingly challenging balancing act. Oftentimes, for instance, I find myself in a situation where one Sim only has an hour or two before they're supposed to start work and are feeling tired, hungry, uncomfortable, bored, lonely -- what have you -- at the same time. Nobody wants to send their Sim off to work exhausted, smelly, and on an empty stomach. Do I tell the Sim to nap? That doesn't leave much time to eat. I guess I can have a Sim go to the bathroom while simultaneously reading a book or using their phone, which can kill a few birds with one stone.
The real impact this has had on my Sims 4 game is that it feels much more...game-like, for lack of a better word. There's always something to keep track of, always a new prompt above Fred's head inviting me to, say, have him write a book if he's feeling inspired. Or go crawl into a little ball in his room and mope if he's feeling embarrassed after his book gets rejected from every major publisher. Or, or -- better yet, go practice his writing skill, so he doesn't get quite so embarrassed next time. This has made many of the mundane aspects of The Sims far more engaging. It's also made me stumble into some serious time sinks.
I've played The Sims 4 for more than 40 hours since last Monday. I'm honestly not sure how I spent that much time playing this game, because I haven't made much in the way of "progress." There are many nooks and crannies of the game's two neighborhoods I've discovered in that time. But as my Sims advance in their careers and start having families, I've also begun to feel as if The Sims 4 is pulling me ever inward -- drawing me back to the two houses I've built to attend to one thing or another that just seems to need doing. There's still a vast world outside of these homes, which I can shuffle around or rebuild in the exact same ways I've added to Fred's dingy apartment. Maybe if dealing with Fred and Autumn's toilet fights starts to feel dull after another 40 hours, I'll start to explore a bit more. But if The Sims 4 demands one thing from its players, it's that you play it at your own pace.
My pace? I guess I like to admire the scenery. Characters like Fred and Autumn obviously have a special place in my heart. But I've often caught myself getting lost in many of the game's other quiet moments. Sometimes, it's incredibly soothing to watch this little world unfold before you.
You start with a lump of clay. You shape it. Then it begins to shape itself. Eventually, these Sims come into their own. To a degree, of course -- otherwise you wouldn't have much to do in The Sims 4 after a few hours. But there's an ongoing tension between what you, as a player, want your Sims to be, and what they naturally are. The Sims 4 succeeds because it never fully resolves that dilemma. That's what amazed me about the toilet kerfuffle.
See, I helped jump-start Fred and Autumn's relationship. But what their spat made me realise is: it's still their relationship. Autumn isn't even a Sim I created, after all -- she's just one of the stock characters that's dropped into the town at the outset of the game. The Autumn I met early in the game is a very different person than the one I know now, though. She has longer hair, wears big glasses, and loves to pick fights with people when she's not at work as a criminal mastermind. When I think about it: Fred is different, too. They have both come into their own, to the point where it doesn't matter if I mess up fixing their toilet or forget to cook breakfast. They will still go about their lives regardless. If I really wanted to, I probably could have torn the two of them apart that morning -- or whenever, really. But doing so would have taken a lot of time and energy clicking through the game's dialogue wheels to essentially force the two of them to antagonize one another.
Over time, if I stopped nudging them along, things might fall apart on their own. But why would I? Seeing that my Sims are happy makes me, well, happy. Everybody wins...right?
Not necessarily. I've been having a great time with The Sims 4. But I can also tell that many others haven't. This discontent began to stew before the game even came out, when EA revealed that it wouldn't be released with many features that longtime Sims fans consider essential. Toddlers and pools were the two most prominent examples, but the list goes on and on (and on) depending on who you ask.
I could understand this furor before the game actually came out. But even now that The Sims 4 is out and I've started having a great time with it, I haven't seen any of this blowback subside. If anything, it's gotten more intense now that the entire game is available to pick apart. I approached Kotaku's readers to help me make sense of this. Here are the main criticisms I took away from their responses, all of which I've also seen on other gaming forums and websites as well:
The game is buggy and lacks polish.
After trying to barrel through this game and losing hours of valuable building time because the game freezes up and I'd forgotten to save, I am now completely sympathetic to players who bemoan the instability of The Sims. By the same token, however: haven't Sims fans been tolerating these kinds of issues for a long time now? As one commenter put it on Monday: "lets face it, Sims 3 ran like shit."
That's not to say that we should all give The Sims 4 a pass because its predecessors weren't so hot themselves. But rather, I think it speaks to the power of the game that players keep coming back to this series and embracing it all over again, warts and all. Having my game freeze three times in little more than a week is incredibly aggravating. Aside from those (not inconsequential) crashes, though, is the rest of The Sims 4 really going so bad?
Don't get me wrong, there are bugs and glitches like the infamous "demon baby" and the wandering fork. But aren't these also part of the fun? I mean, The Sims is famous for its patch notes. Its patch notes! If occasional instability is the price we have to pay for such an open-ended, ambitious game, is that really such a bad thing?
As for my personal experience, I haven't seen any of the demon babies or errant forks in my game so far. Besides the crashes I mentioned, the only real issue I've had with the game is with the game's AI and pathfinding. Sometimes, Sims just seem to get...stuck, like two of mine did when they couldn't figure out how to sleep in the same bed together. Most often, however, this is a problem with a misplaced object blocking a Sim's line of sight -- meaning that it can be easily fixed by switching over to build mode and, you know, moving it. Oh, and speaking of misplaced objects, sometimes this can happen: At their worst, moments like these are briefly frustrating. At their best, though, they're often hilariously silly. Are they game-breaking? Hardly. Having your computer freeze up is, obviously. But I'd argue that less consequential glitches are practically part of The Sims aeshtetic at this point.
Many essential features from previous Sims games were left out for no good reason, other than the possibility that they will be turned into DLC which you'll then have to pay extra for.
To be fair, EA has explained some of the changes it made in The Sims 4 as best it can. One of the game's producers told Kotaku last month that they didn't add swimming pools simply because they're not sure how these kinds of environmental features would work in the new engine, for instance. You might not like that justification, but you can't simply dismiss it.
As for the concern about how additional content will be added to the game and how much it might cost, there are still too many unknowns here for gamers to jump to conclusions. The Sims 4 launched with a "Premium Edition" that includes three extra chunks of objects and outfits for an additional $US20. And there was one trailer that came out earlier this summer that hinted at some sort of Sims 4 "membership" that would grant players early access to new goodies and exclusive material. But we can only speculate about the future of The Sims 4. So why not stick to present instead? Because who knows what could happen? Nintendo grossed out Mario Kart 8 fans earlier this summer with its Mercedes Benz DLC. But then it won them over again with Zelda and Animal Crossing.
In general, it just feels incomplete. There are too many conspicuous absences to consider this a proper Sims game right now.
The current structure of The Sims 4's world leaves much to be desired, I'll admit. And this isn't just an issue of leaving out various tchotchkes. Many Sims 3 fans feel that the new game has taken a step backwards by abandoning the open-world system of the 2009 instalment .The Sims 4 keeps you fixed in a single "lot" at any given moment, which means that you can't switch over to another Sim in a household if they're not in the immediate physical vicinity of the character you're controlling. If I send Fred to go start testing out some new material on the drunks at the local bar, for instance, I can't simultaneously steer Autumn over to the gym to start working out. At the same time, the lots are only confined by their geographical boundaries, so I could just put a treadmill somewhere at the bar so they can both get a good workout in. But that's sort of defeating the purpose if my goal is to treat The Sims 4 as a proper life simulator.
What makes the current lot system frustrating to me, however, is that it doesn't measure up to the many improvements that EA has brought to The Sims this time around with the new multitasking and emotions features. Having to travel between different lots constantly makes it unnecessarily tricky to keep track of all your Sims (especially if you have more than 3 or 4 in a household), while also adding countless extra loading screens into the game. Those are never a good thing in my book.
As for the overall lack of...stuff in The Sims 4? This is the hardest concern for me to tackle, because I have no idea how to assess the "completeness" of an experience -- be it mine or anyone else's. I can't review The Sims 4 for every single Sims player any more than I can play the game for them. The many ways that Sims 3 fans have broken down the new game, meanwhile, strike me as incredibly persuasive. If you're measuring the success of The Sims 4 by the sheer amount of stuff it has in it, then it's invariably going to come up short in comparison to a game that's been out for half a decade and has received a plethora of updates and expansion packs.
At the same time, however, I'm also starting to see glimmers of excitement in the entrenched Sims community. One self-described "long-time Sims player," for instance, admitted that The Sims 4 does indeed feel smaller, but "in a good way." The diminished scale actually made the game feel less lonely, and thus more plentiful, to the player.
"My Sims 3 characters would go out to the park and not see another living soul - the 'open world' was so open that it spread the NPCs way too thin," this player concluded.
One of my favourite comments, meanwhile, came from someone who first showed up to post a massive list of "89 features missing from The Sims 4." It's tempting to take that as a dismissal of the new game. But once I asked how the reader felt about that, they had something far more nuanced to say:
It makes me a little sad, but at the same time, it makes things much more manageable. I've been playing the Sims since the first release, so I was disappointed in how much stuff was not really in the game, but once you get down to it, it comes down to fun, not features. And I am having a ton of fun at the moment.
"Fun, not features." The two need not be mutually exclusive. But it's far more difficult to add the former than it is the latter.
Last week, I said that "this is just the beginning" for The Sims 4. I was speaking pragmatically at the time. But I think the statement holds up in a grander sense. If its predecessors are any indication, there's still a lot more to come in The Sims 4. EA might have new outfits for all of us to try on, new venues and locales to explore. Proper Sims 4 artists could come up through the game's "Gallery" system to share their best Sims and houses with the rest of us. There are untold mods to be made, secrets to be uncovered, new methods of torturing Sims to be tested.
I want to be around to witness all of this as it happens. More than just that. I want to play it.