All’s Fair in SimLove and SimWar in The Sims

The Sims is a strangely compelling simulation game that lets players micromanage someone else’s life.

It’s made by Maxis, the same folks that created the legendary SimCity games, as well as the less legendary SimEarth, SimAnt and pretty much anything else that begins with “Sim”. Those games were largely macroscopic in scope, giving players control over ant farms, cities, and even planets. With The Sims though they go in the opposite direction, dropping the simulation down to the household level.

Players begin the game by attempting to micromanage the life of a slacker named Bachelor. He’s just graduated from college, and your mission is to get him a job, find him some friends, and eventually buy lots of cool stuff.

There are several careers that our young college grad can take, including athlete, doctor, politician and criminal (although admittedly the last two are somewhat redundant). Each of the tracks require certain skills, and those skills can only be improved by purchasing — and then using — certain items. Buying weights lets you improve the character’s fitness, bookshelves improve engineering and cooking skills, and chess improves his or her grasp of logic. An artist’s easel lets the character paint, improving creative skills while eventually producing a painting they can sell.

Each character has several attributes — hygiene, hunger, comfort energy, fun, social and … bladder. Most of the items on sale can improve some of these stats, with more expensive items offering more bang for your buck (a simple bed is ok for sleeping on, but an expensive one greatly improves your comfort level. The low-end TV is ok to watch, but the Sims really like the big-screen beauty).

In addition to the nuts and bolts items of every day life, there are also extras like espresso machines, fish tanks, plants, lava lamps and paintings, all of which improve your Sims mood (while also improving the “value” of a room. Some, like the sauna, are group activities, which your Sim can undertake when he or she invites friends over.

And invite them over you will, or else your Sim will get depressed. By default there are two other families in addition to the “Bachelor” family — the Roomies, which consist of two women — and the Goths, which consist of a husband and wife and one daughter.

In order to advance in their careers, Sims need to have friends, and in the upper levels of the people intensive career tracks like athlete or politician, they need quite a few friends. Of course, most people are looking for someone to be more than just a friend, and Sims are no different. Sims can fall in love, and even get married. Married Sims can even have children, but these children suffer from the Peter Pan syndrome, and can never grow into adults in their own right.

All of the characters are customizable using skins that come with the game, or that are downloadable from Aspyr’s web site (or Sim fan web sites), and players are able to move their Sims into pre-built houses or build their own dream homes. One touch I particularly liked were the radio stations — the game has folders for varies radios stations like Rock, Classical and Country. if you drop MP3s (or links to said files) into one of these folders, and then select the station during the game, The Sims will randomly play those tracks. This is something I’d love to see them add to the next iteration of SimCity.

Simulated Strangeness

SimCity has always been one of my favorite games, and I can’t begin to guess how many hours I’ve spent build (and — of course — destroying) cities. I’m also a big fan of strategy games in general, be they real-time ones like Age of Empires, or traditional turn-based games like Civilization.

The Sims shares a lot of the same traits of its Sim brethren — players are basically trying to manage numerous feedback loops, attempting to find that sweet spot in which the simulation will thrive and grow, only in this case, players are managing individuals rather than Gotham. The game is extremely challenging — each character has its own particular personality quirks, and it takes a while to figure out what makes them click. In this it’s not unlike the old Tammagotche game that let kids care for virtual pets.

That having been said, it’s can be a little strange managing these individuals lives. You control all of the minutia of the characters lives, including when they go to sleep, take a leak, watch TV, clean up the dishes and even fall in love. My wife finds it decidedly weird — here I am micromanaging someone else’s life while the dishes in my own sink go unwashed.

To that I say … neenier, neenier, neeiner. Odd as it is, the game is extremely addictive, and for all the same reasons as SimCity — it doesn’t really matter that these are people — the game is the thing, and keeping all the balls up in the air, making the simulation work, is what is fun.

One of the reasons I bought the game was to play it with my 8-year-old niece, BreAnna, whom I suspected would get a big kick out of it. I was right — she enjoyed decorating the house (although she was continuously frustrated by her Sims lack of money) and getting her Sims to fall in love and have a baby. She howled in frustration when her exhausted Sims passed out while trying to take care of the infant and Social Services came to take it away. In her words it was “very cool.”

A few of the reviews I’ve read of The Sims were critical of its focus on material things, and our friends on the liberal left or religious right might have problems with the Sims focus on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (rather than say, saving the whales or their immortal souls). After SimCity’s plethora of government programs though, I found The Sims lack of “higher social awareness” to be refreshing. Heck, you could probably get way with calling it libertarian — the Sims don’t have to pay taxes on their earnings and there’s the government’s limited to only walk-on appearances in the form of fire-fighters and police).

A solid Mac game

The Sims has been a big seller on the Macintosh, and the game runs just as well on the Mac as it does on the PC. Game play is identical — this is one of the few PC games that doesn’t require use of the right-click button, so the Mac’s singular mouse button isn’t a problem.

Both of initial expansions for The SimsHouse Party and Livin’ Large — are available on the Mac, and I’m guessing that based on their previous top-seller status, the Hot Date expansion will Mac it onto the Mac as well.

Out of the box, The Sims runs under Mac OS 9.x, but the company responsible for the Mac line — Aspyr — have released a Carbonized version that allows The Sims to be run natively under OS X. I ran the game on in OS 10.1 on a 500 mhtz iBook with 348 megs of RAM and encountered no problems with it — the game hasn’t crashed once.

The PC side of the game featured lots of Net downloads from the Maxis web site, and Mac fans haven’t been left out of this cornucopia of net goodies. Aspyr has made numerous extras available on its web site, and Mac fans have posted many of their own creations online as well.