In the heart of The Sims’ Strangetown lies a deadly secret: a cow-worshipping cult intent on destroying the sanctity of life. But when that life consists of killer robot attacks, the invasion of green-skinned men and the resurrection of an ancient, cursed mummy, what life is there left to destroy?
This is the world of The Sims 2 on Nintendo DS and its companion handheld games; a world far stranger than anything you remember from The Sims on PC.
Like any grand ideas, the Sims handheld franchise was birthed from a humble nugget. In 2003, Washington-based game studio Griptonite Games won the license for a Sims adaptation on Game Boy Advance. And as then-producer J.C. Connors told Kotaku Australia over the phone, the project was designed to be a straight port of The Sims‘ PC version.
“Our studio had actually been working with EA on a straight up port for The Sims on Game Boy, and it wasn’t working at all. It just doesn’t translate easily on that hardware at all,” Conners said.
“It was kind of a mess. So EA at the time had just brought The Sims to console, and they were taking a little bit of a different path where it wasn’t just a simulation game, you got to control the character and it was a little bit more personal,” he said.
“So I got pulled into a meeting with the EA guys where they were like ‘hey, we want to reboot this, what do you think?’ … and I kind of just off-the-cuff pitched what would eventually become The Sims: Bustin’ Out and they just loved it.”
Bustin’ Out was a relatively straightforward affair, with players setting up in a local farm and attempting to thrive in the big city. As players travelled, they completed quests, collected trash, played mini-games and explored a wide open world filled with obstacles.
For the most part, it was a simple game — but the weirder ideas of the Griptonite team could already be found lurking in the dark corners of Bustin’ Out. One quest tasked players with defeating the superpowered Veloci-Rooster, which would randomly attack players, causing them to pass out in the street.
The ending also saw players embrace their destiny as an adopted alien, enter a spaceship and immediately crash back to Earth.
According to Connors, it was the freedom and creativity EA trusted the Griptonite team with that ultimately led to series completely jumping the shark and embracing the weirder parts of Sims lore.
“EA had loosened up a bit from the idea it had to be a straight port, and they were inspired by what was starting to happen on The Sims on console so there were very little parameters other than to make a great Sims game,” he said.
Connors collaborated actively with writer/narrative designer Darby McDevitt (Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla) and level designer/scripter Dan McAuliffe (Destiny 2), as well as EA producer Virginia McArthur to integrate The Sims franchise into weirder and weirder games.
Bustin’ Out was only the tip of the iceberg, and when it saw enough success to warrant a sequel the Griptonite Games team went all out.
The links to the mainline Sims games got looser as EA took the breaks off, with Darby McDevitt telling Kotaku Australia it became an escalating war of weirdness. “I think the idea of canonicity didn’t exist back then,” McDevitt said.
“I do recall getting some list of characters like, ‘Hey, could you use these characters in your game’ … Around The Urbz there was some effort to make there be some cross-promotion, but nobody was thinking of ‘hey, how does this fit into a coherent storyline’. It was just ‘have as much fun as possible’.”
Playing the games again in 2020, the amount of fun the Griptonite team had is clear, from mini-missions in The Sims 2 on Game Boy Advance where you shrink down and fight bugs to the little touches, like an emotional (and incredibly well-written) monologue in the desert following a scorpion attack. The Sims 2 handheld games have no right to be as fun and intriguing as they are, but the passion and creativity behind them drove their ultimate success.
“I think there was maybe an element that we were blowing off steam in a way, because when you work on licensed games at the level we were working at, it’s very small budgets, quick turnarounds and you’re always at the mercy of a movie’s release schedule,” McDevitt said.
“We did tonnes of movie tie-ins. So, they weren’t going to allow you to delay the game if it wasn’t good. They needed it out a month before the movie so people would snap it up, because they were hyped for the movie … You would always have your client breathing down your neck telling you ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that’ … but with The Sims, it felt like [EA] were like, just make something fun.”
Connors agreed the lack of aggressive creative control from EA was part of the magic of creating the titles. “We went wild with creativity,” he said. “We were unconstrained all of a sudden, and I think that was the origin of a lot of [the weirdness], too.” When Connors began work on the title, he expected a dictionary or rules to follow for lore, but it turns out there wasn’t really anything to go on. “I was shocked because I was a fan of The Sims,” he said. “I expected somebody would’ve written the Simlish dictionary for the basic words, and that didn’t exist.”
It meant having to go back to the original Sims games and studying them to create something basically from scratch.
“We had a lot of agency over what we created,” Dan McAuliffe told Kotaku Australia. “Honestly, we were trying to outweird ourselves. We were wrapping up the storyline on The Sims: Bustin’ Out, and it got weird. Then we were like, alright let’s open The Urbz with that level of weirdness … Every time we added a new chapter, it was trying to outweird the last chapter.”
The freedom afforded by EA, combined with the competitive weirdness quickly developing within the Griptonite Games studio led to The Urbz on Nintendo DS and Game Boy Advance being one of the strangest chapters in Sims history. (Both the GBA and DS versions of The Urbz are the same, with a few mini-game differences between them due to development time constraints and the upcoming launch of the Nintendo DS.)
The Urbz: Sims in the City was a direct continuation of The Sims: Bustin’ Out and leaned heavily into the supernatural fantasy elements hinted at in the original game. While the Griptonite team was initially cautious over tackling an adaptation of The Urbz, given how different the branded property was to their efforts on Bustin’ Out, they were able to find a new happy medium and continue the story with their own unique take on the new ‘urban’ Sims branding.
In the game, players face down the tyranny of Daddy Bigbucks, a corporate developer who aims to turn Miniopolis into his own private amusement park. But as much as the game is about taking down corporate fascism, it was also about embracing destiny and saving the world from evil in an epic time-spanning adventure.
In one chapter you’re tasked with curing the curse of vampiric immortality. In another, you escape from prison via a pinup poster, Shawshank Redemption style. Other highlights include animal gene hybridisation, time travel, talking crocodiles and playing fiddle against a man who’s strongly implied to be the actual devil (shout out to The Charlie Daniels Band, here).
McAuliffe mostly pinned these ideas on Connors, who he described as a ‘Lovecraft’ guy. But beyond Lovecraft, the game also owes a lot of its surreal strangeness to Stephen King, particularly his ‘weird supernatural town’ novels like It.
For most fans of the mainline Sims games, the appearance of these high fantasy concepts might be surprising — but as long-term players will know, there’s always been some level of strange lurking in the Sims PC games. It just took the imagination of the Griptonite team to unlock it.
“We noticed there was a lot of fan fiction and the fans were embracing some of the [early Sims] characters and freaking out that Bella Goth wasn’t in The Sims 2,” explained Connors.
“It kind of hit me that people were getting into The Sims beyond just their own characters. They liked this world that things took place in, and I just decided to double down on that and create a bunch of characters like that to see what resonated. From there, it just got weird … and because we were an E-rated title, we had to come up with creative ideas.”
The stories only got stranger as time progressed with nearly every supernatural creature in the book finding their way into handheld games.
In the mid-2000s, The Sims was at an all-time high. Multiple spin-offs on PC and console had increased mainstream awareness of the title; The Sims 2 had sold 100 million copies by 2008. This success meant Griptonite Games were soon alerted there’d be another sequel in the works.
When it came time to develop the final game in the Griptonite franchise, The Sims 2 on Nintendo DS, McDevitt wanted to take the weirdness to the next level — but even EA had its limits.
The original concept for the game would see players take the role of an amoeba floating around in a Sim’s body. To influence their Sims, players would run around the different bodily organs and punch pituitary glands to elicit a response or prompt them to seek sustenance.
This pitch was ultimately deemed too strange for The Sims franchise, even with aliens and ghosts already roaming around, but McDevitt was quick to develop a new idea on the ride home from the pitch meeting.
At the time, he was midway through watching British classic Fawlty Towers, and realised a hotel would be the perfect setting for the next Sims game.
This idea kicked off a new wave of craziness as the team attempted to top the adventures of the last games.
“Like previous games, it was like ‘what kind of bizarre guests can you have arrive?’ Okay, an alien that can come down — Emperor Xizzle — and I made sure to write him like ‘all your base are belong to us’. I wanted him to sound like he was badly translated because he has a faulty translator. But so many characters were just something J.C. and I would laugh at, like the blonde guy, Tristan … He was based on Brad Pitt’s character from Legends of the Fall … Sometimes, I would have, not more literary ambitions, but I’d want a more unified feeling, and he would always go like ‘no, no, no’ we’ll just have craziness. You know, we’ll have a mummy or a space level. We’ll go to the moon.”
While you can’t play as an amoeba as originally planned for The Sims 2, there’s still more than enough weirdness to keep you entertained while you’re running your hotel.
You can travel down to see Bigfoot living in your basement. You can discover lost fridges hiding out in the desert, or spend your evenings jamming on a custom-made (and fully operational) synthesiser. You can defeat a cow cult led by goth Ava Cadavra. You might even have to face psychotic robot Optimum Alfred and his mechanical thugs, or have your penthouse hijacked by an unruly Mafia boss.
But if you resurrect an ancient mummy in the desert, all your problems will be solved.
It’s just part of the charm of The Sims handheld games, and why they remain such fascinating subjects for study. Developers being handed the keys to the kingdom of such a large and popular franchise is basically unheard of today, and there’s no doubt the hands-off approach from EA is what led to such a fun and colourful series of games.
In a strange, roundabout way, this decision also had a major impact on modern gaming because The Sims franchise wasn’t the end of the line for the core developers at Griptonite Games.
If you’ve ever played a modern Assassin’s Creed game, you’ve seen the work of Darby McDevitt. He was the lead writer on Revelations, Black Flag and most recently, Valhalla. Dan McAuliffe is currently serving as Executive Producer on Destiny 2, and J.C. Connors is helping Amazon’s into video games as Principal Product Manager at Alexa Games.
All three described their work on The Sims franchise as some of the most formative years of their career, with the freedom they were given pushing them towards larger creative projects.
“My game industry career was really forged in those few years and like a fruit fly, I got to experiment a lot,” Connors said. “I think [it] really gave me the basis to be a great producer, working on those titles.” From The Sims, the team were able to branch out and explore new forms of storytelling across multiple different studios. It’s likely you’ve played at least one of their games in your travels.
Even if The Sims handheld games have mostly been forgotten over the last two decades, the impact they continue to have on games can’t be understanded. While the ideas Griptonite presented were often wild and wacky, the best ideas usually are.
It’s the weirdness that makes the Sims handheld games so compelling, and why many look back on the franchise with fond memories. Killer robots, mummies and cow cults make for a wildly potent creative brew.