A few months ago, I found myself in a Lyft with the dulcet tones of Nelly’s “Hot In Herre” serenading me. Usually I’m happy to hear the early 2000s classic, but on that day, all I could hear in my head was the Simlish version released with the Sims 4 Get Famous expansion pack.
It sounds so much like the original that it kinda freaks me out. I’ve always wondered what it takes to get these sometimes scarily accurate renditions of songs in The Sims, and now, the game’s development team has shed a light on the process.
The Sims has had Simlish versions of real songs since its second instalment. The series features artists like Depeche Mode, Janelle Monae, and Toni Braxton, and Katy Perry, who recorded her Simlish songs herself and even collaborated on other in-game content. Developers didn’t confirm how many artists record their own Simlish covers, but according to Maxis senior audio director Robi Kauker, making such an accurate Simlish rendition of a song starts with the artist.
“First, the lyrics for the song are provided to us, and then our Simlish experts on the Maxis audio team work out how to attack the needs of the melody and rhyme schemes,” he said over email. “We don’t hold too tightly to literal translation ideas, since there is very little literal Simlish to use. Most Simlish is abstract concepts or emotional driven expressions, which have limited uses for singing.”
Simlish isn’t a language with strict grammar rules and a vocabulary. It’s situational, and the only phrases that exist are the ones Sims will use in-game. Players might know that “Sul Sul” and “Dag Dag” mean “Hello” and “Goodbye,” but that doesn’t mean there’s a literal translation for “I am getting so hot, I wanna take my clothes off.” When the team rerecords a song with an artist, the process of fully translating the song varies depending on the needs of the musicians they’re working with.
“Some artists actually write their music using gibberish syllables before they get to the proper lyrics, so it isn’t such a foreign concept,” Kauker said. “Others are very tied to meaning and the poetry [of their lyrics], so we try to give them freedom with the Simlish and talk about delivering the emotional story through their voice performance rather than the lyrics.”
Non-English songs, especially songs from languages that aren’t Germanic or Latin based, are a bit trickier to turn into Simlish.
“When we did S-Pop, those songs were from Japanese artists, so we were given the song lyrics in Japanese, which none of us speak or have any grasp of, and then had to figure out how to turn that in to Simlish,” Kauker said.
“That music had lots of words and song structures we weren’t accustomed to, so it was pretty difficult to sort out the rhyme schemes and such. The artist then had to convert that into a believable performance! In this case, we actually recorded a guide track for the Simlish pronunciation to make it a bit easier.”
Not every collaboration is as challenging as S-Pop was, though. In the case of working with Katy Perry for The Sims 3, Steve Schnur, worldwide executive and president of music for EA, said that she was very hands on and eager to work with The Sims’s team. Schnur told Kotaku that he remembers meeting Katy Perry in 2007, right as her star was rising.
“My old friend Jason Flom, who was at Capitol Records at the time, sent over a newly signed artist he was incredibly excited about, and hoped I would be, too,” Schnur said over email. “Sitting cross-legged on our office floor with her guitar, Katy Perry played us ‘Hot n Cold’ and ‘I Kissed A Girl.’ Her talent, personality, and star power were undeniable. I knew then and there that she should—and would—be working with EA on a major project in the future.”
Two weeks later, the team was working with Perry on a stuff pack for The Sims 3 called Katy Perry’s Sweet Treats, which featured costumes, props, and settings from her California Dreams Tour. She also went into the studio to rerecord her song “Last Friday Night.”
“Katy understood exactly how to bring her one-of-a-kind enthusiasm to rerecording ‘Last Friday Night (TGIF)‘ for the game,” Schnur said. “At one point, she even changed a lyric to ‘Schnur’ and convinced the producer that it was legit Simlish.”
Kauker said that discovering artists to introduce to Sims players is “the most fun part for me.”
Schnur and senior music supervisor Cybele Pettus are the ones who find new artists for the team to work with, and they’re the ones responsible for getting cult indie songwriter Car Seat Headrest into the game with the City Living expansion. Hearing “Not What I Needed” while playing The Sims 4 was so exciting that I immediately texted my boyfriend, who is also a huge fan of Car Seat Headrest, to let him know. We were both thrilled and astounded.
With The Sims 4, the kinds of genres and artists that the developers showcase have only expanded. The game now features a new age radio station for the Spa Day game pack, a singer-songwriter station, an electronica station, and even a Latin music station. Deciding on what artists to include all depends on the vibe the team is going for in a particular pack.
“If we are doing a Spa Day-oriented theme, for example, we look at the real-world equivalence and look at a couple options before landing on new age,” Kauker said. “In the case of something like the Get Famous expansion pack, the process led to hip-hop, which then led to discussing opportunities to work with real artists.” The Get Famous expansion brought artists like acclaimed rapper Vic Mensa to The Sims, and Kauker named the Simlish version of the IV Jay track “Pretty Wings” as one of his favourites that he’s worked on.
Another favourite of his? The Depeche Mode song “Suffer Well,” from all the way back in The Sims 2. He explained, “It was the first time I felt like, ‘this is awesome in a way only The Sims can be.’”