'The Sims' is not escapism, it's the saddest game ever made
Want an escape from real life? Do anything but reinstall The Sims
The Sims is the most harrowing game ever made. If you actively enjoy it, you’re either a dangerous sadist, or you’re just playing it wrong.
It’s OK if you disagree with me, here. Every so often, either wilfully or accidentally, I forget this too. In fact, just this weekend, I forgot. And I thought: Let’s install and play the Sims for ages again, that’ll distract me from my own godawful life.
Monopoly seems fun at a glance. That’s why anyone ever agrees to play it. The guy on the box is one friendly dude, the tokens are charming, the idea of ‘building’ up an empire of streets seems innately pleasing, and you are seduced by the fantasy that you might turn out to be good at business, or at least better than your assembled friends and family. Fun. But the game is deliberately designed not to be fun. It’s derived from another board game, Elizabeth Magie’s ‘The Landlord’s Game’. Magie sought to demonstrate the exploitation of tenants by unscrupulous landowners through the frustrations and tensions the game would cause among its players. Essentially, it encourages you to behave like a complete bastard in order to win. The fact that you can, and inevitably will fall out with your nearest and dearest over non-existent properties is meant to serve as lesson in the corrupting influence and inherent unfairness of land-grabbing.
The Sims promises pure, unadulterated wish fulfilment. There are external forces working against you in the real world, thwarting you and forcing you to give up on your dreams and to settle for less. But there’s nothing stopping your Sims achieving everything you couldn’t. The Sims is a chance to live through someone else, to start over with a clean slate, to build their house from the ground up, to realise their career ambitions, to fall in love and to follow their hearts. You control their destiny in a way you can’t control your own.
The first hour of The Sims is fun. You create your Sim, set their lifetime wish, build their first house, choose their profession, make a couple of friends, even whisper enough sweet Simlish nothings into another’s ear to ‘WooHoo’ with them. In this honeymoon period, I find it amusing that I start conceiving of my own, real-world needs in Sims terms. Oop, my ‘hunger’ level is low! Better pop to the kitchen, get another load of Cheesestrings, haha! and Ahh, that piss will have replenished my ‘bladder’ meter, arf!
Then after a while, these Sim-needs become infuriating. Your Sim doesn’t want to put the effort into becoming a piano virtuoso by continuously practising scales until their hands bleed, they want to ‘hang out’ with their ‘friends’. They become deeply unhappy and unwell if you make them lift weights for three days in a row without letting them shower. They outright refuse to come back from a 15-hour shift as a hospital janitor to immediately start reading the medical journals required to become a brain surgeon, and just crawl into bed without even eating.
This wouldn’t be so bad if ageing hadn’t been introduced to the series. Each in-game ‘day’ approximately represents a year, and you only have, like, 90 and then your Sim dies. You’re made acutely aware that, not only do your Sims’ stupid, boring, primal ‘needs’ get in the way of the good stuff – i.e. your dreams – they use up all the time needed to achieve them. And they all bleed into one another. As soon as they eat, they need to go to the toilet. As soon as they go to the toilet, they need to become clean. As soon as they’ve done all this stuff, they’ve decided they’re not having fun anymore, and so they have to play video games for a few hours to unwind. And then they’re shattered. And then another day is gone, and your dream has moved further into the horizon. And you realise less of your Sim’s life is spent being the thing that ostensibly defines them – ‘astronaut’, ‘rock star’ or ‘fireman’ – and more plate-spinning these monotonous little tasks, maintaining enough of an equilibrium to keep them alive until they die. These tasks are their life, the stuff you set out to do isn’t. This isn’t escapism.
From time to time, little cravings (called ‘wants’, ‘wishes’ or ‘whims’ depending on your version of the game) pop-up based on your Sim’s fleeting desires. You can ignore them, but completing them makes your Sim happy, albeit temporarily. They’re usually innocuous and often easily attainable little things – like wanting to own a particular stereo or watch a sunset – but they take up precious time. And you don’t have time. As your tolerance becomes thinner, you become crueller. No, you think, you can’t have grilled salmon for dinner because you didn’t spend enough time working on your cooking stats, and so it will take you too long. And you make your Sim reheat leftover macaroni cheese for the fourth night in a row so they can get enough sleep to be in line for a promotion. And then they sleep too long, so you wake them up prematurely and send them to work exhausted. And this makes them useless at work, and so by way of punishment you deprive them of grilled salmon again. You punish them for not achieving their dreams by not even allowing them the small mercies that might make their days bearable. This isn’t escapism.
The longer you play, the more it becomes unflinchingly real. WooHooing is practically a permanent ‘want/wish/whim.’ But after making them WooHoo with another Sim once, all the novelty is gone. What’s the point in WooHooing with that Sim again? Unless you’ve coupled-up and you’re trying for a baby. WooHooing is reduced to either notches in the bedpost or a necessary formality. But you – the player – aren’t interested in your Sim getting their end away at all. All the boring effort you have to put into the preamble: making two people ‘talk’ and then ‘chat’ and then ‘compliment personalities’ and then ‘flirt’ and then ‘smooch’ before you can even broach the idea of WooHooing, for what amounts to a moment’s worth of their contentment. You could’ve used that time productively, working on your art, on your mind, on your body, on your dreams. Why can’t they realise their constant pursuit of base sexual gratification in the short term is not just frivolous, but fundamentally impeding their ability to fulfil their actual dreams? This isn’t escapism. This is an out-of-body Ebenezer Scrooge-like experience, where you must watch on, helplessly, as you piss your life away by failing to exercise even a modicum of self-discipline or restraint. If you just sat down at an easel and painted relentlessly until you grew old, you’d be a master. But you didn’t, did you, shithead? And now there already aren’t enough days left to even become competent.
At this point, I get ruthless. We're going to fulfil these dreams if it kills us. I lock my Sim away and force them to work tirelessly towards their life goal, alone. I manually cancel all of their plans to WooHoo and their covert attempts to communicate with the outside world. Their best friends decay into mere friends, and then into acquaintances. They become extremely miserable, but, slowly, surely, they get their head down and they start improving until, finally, all their toil pays off and they fulfil their life’s dream. Your dream.
And is it satisfying? Is it fuck.
Nothing changes. Your Sim has more money now, sure, and you use it to fill their house with a bunch of expensive shit, but all it does is just let you eat, sleep, clean, excrete and have fun in nominally different ways. The best items replenish your ‘needs’ meters faster, but you don’t need to save time anymore, not now you’ve accomplished your dream. You’ve spent their lifetime distracting yourself with arbitrary tasks that seemed to be leading towards something, but getting there has made them redundant. Now they’re just some old guy with no aspirations to strive towards, living in a house full of crap with nothing to do. Their world seems much smaller now, because you’ve both lived in it too long. Their whims become listless and uninspired. They’re sad again.
At this point last weekend, in a fit of utter financial depravity, I found myself buying an expansion pack which lets you go on holiday. I paid actual real money to send my Sim on holiday. I’ve barely been anywhere on holiday myself, and yet it seemed important to send my Sim out to see the world and experience a life beyond their own.
Instead of returning invigorated, enriched and changed by this once-in-a-lifetime trip, my Sim came home and forgot about it within a day, immediately reverting back to wanting to just eat, shit and sleep. Regardless of the successes your Sims achieve and the good memories they make, no matter how good life gets and how free they become to do whatever they want with it, they will ultimately, at the end of the day, just want to eat, shit and sleep. Until they die.
The Sims is basically an even more ambitious version of the home-truth-disguised-as-fun Trojan Horse approach that was supposed to make everyone hate capitalism after they played Elizabeth Magie’s Landlord’s Game.
It’s a game that masquerades as a lighthearted wish fulfilment simulator, but is basically an elaborate demonstration of just how heartbreakingly underwhelming life can be. It’s punishing: at once immersive and yet distant. You can live through your Sim, and you can also stand back and see the sum-total of their life. What could be bleaker than pathetically finding yourself caring about your dumb little character, feeling their victories as heavily as their defeats, only to find that – upon getting exactly what you wanted – you’re no longer interested? That swimming pool looks inviting. I could just make them get in it. Have them swim about a bit. Then delete the ladder. Killing them. I should kill my Sim.
This is when no longer seems ironically amusing that I've spent the best part of my weekend recklessly indulging my own internal ‘fun’ meter. I could have been learning the piano, or lifting weights, or studying medical journals, or just bettering myself in some way – learning to cook grilled salmon, maybe. If I took all the cumulative hours I've played The Sims and other nonsense video games over the years, and converted them into time spent at an easel, I would almost certainly by a master painter by now. But I didn't, and now there aren't enough days left. And what's more, I'm now aware of the part of me that doesn't care – the part which doesn't think it would even be worth it in the end.
As per tradition, I not only stop playing at this point, I completely uninstall it from my computer. I purge it from my home. I studiously avoid contemplating the crushing disappointment of living at the worst of times, and I absolutely don't need things I do for mindless escapism drawing attention to it, thank you very much. I want to live in blissful, self-enforced ignorance, where things can seem worthwhile, hopeful, and fun.
Months will pass, a year – maybe two or three this time – and my selective, optimistic ignorance will mean I will forget. And I will think: Let’s install and play The Sims for ages again, that’ll distract me from my own godawful life.