At the risk of turning this blog into some kind of Sims-centric experience (I do play other games too, I promise), I have again come across a gameplay mechanic in the Sims 3 that has taken me by surprise. This time it’s the concept of autonomy in player controlled games, which in the Sims, includes ageing, childcare and someur moralising on the part of the game designers.
I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with autonomy in the Sims, especially ageing. On the one hand it can become immensely tedious to play the same poor schmuck day after day, knowing that ultimately there isn’t really any point in what you’re doing, and that eventually you will have learned every skill, bought every item (try singing that to the tune of “Climb Every Mountain”) and woohooed with every single inhabitant of your town (or is that just me?). Life in the Sims is so empty sometimes that I wonder if the Sims 4 will have an afterlife Simulator beyond the basic haunting experience already included. Time for a little spirituality in Riverview perhaps? Will I be able to build a church or Temple or Synagogue in the Sims 4?
Anyway, I digress. Back to ageing and autonomy.
On the other hand, ageing in the Sims 3, with its new mechanic of autonomous and active Sims even when you’re not playing their household, unearths some really weird quirks in the design. I decided to experiment with an entire town populated by young metallers and alternative types. That’s what including Emo haircuts in the game does for you: I created several large households of young weirdos in the town with the specific purpose of becoming romantic entanglement fodder for my single player-sims. It was like living in Doningon in 1988, during Monster of Rock season!
After forcing my newly created and active Sim to spend several weeks shunning the town to max out the gardening skill, I found that the relative nature of time and autonomous birthdays in the town had meant that half my young and buff creations had grown up, got married, had children and many had even progressed into decrepitude. The horror!
I wasn’t fully aware of the implications of this until I decided to return to an earlier Sim to continue her leet gardening development and to test the mechanic of gifting omni plant seeds to other sims. To my surprise she had decided to become a single mother, accidental pregnancy having been eliminated from the game in an early patch (how telling is that?). So I was faced with the prospect of playing a single parent against my will. The game had chosen this for me.
I think I lasted 3 in-game days playing the dutiful parent before I became irritated by the needful toddler in the household, and decided the baby had to go. Luckily the Sims has a long-standing game mechanic where children don’t have to die to go away – sufficient neglect will trigger Child Protection services who remove the kid from the household. This was a sure-fire and guilt-free way to get back to my single Sim, or so I thought. It took 3 game-days before Child Protection showed up. 3 days of the child crying constantly, hungry, tired and soiling itself. It rattled the bars like a n prisoner, throwing the most disturbing tantrums I have ever seen in a game, as I, with increasing disgust at myself, refused to let the mother see to her child’s needs.
The mother too was becoming distraught, despite the distraction activities I lined up for her. For starters, the mother was unable to sleep while her baby was crying. Even if the child was at one end of the lot and she at the other. It simply wasn’t allowed. I found this to be highly hypocritical of the designers, given the large amount of autonomy built into the Sims 3. After all, if they could choose when to eat, sleep, woohoo and even have birthdays/get older, then why was the basic human requirement of rest forbidden to a parent?
I found the only way to get any rest was to head over to the Day Spa to get a package treatment, which restores 50% of energy to the Sim. In the mean time the babysitter I hired by default when a Sim leaves the house without their offspring, did nothing to alleviate the child’s suffering. One the one had I was relieved, at least now I knew that Child Services would be on their way soon enough, but on the other I wondered why a babysitter hired explicitly to care for a child when the parent was gone, would not even bother to feed or change a baby? How could she stand to be in the house when all this was going on? Given the autonomy all over the Sims 3, why wasn’t there any autonomy here too? Especially as the game is l so gung-ho for implicit moralising, I expected there to be a severe telling off from the babysitter, but she just took my $75 and went home.
So after 3 in-game days of the kind of play that really wasn’t any fun at all, Child Services finally showed up and took the child away. This of course triggered a highly emotional scene from the mother, and a hell of a negative mood modifier for a further 3 days. By this point I was so sickened by doing what I felt I had been coerced into doing by the game, that I knew I could never play this poor Sim again. The fun had definitely been taken out of this particular game.
I felt dirty, and cruel. How could the designers force me to go through this, just to undo an AI autonomy action that I as the player had no say in at all? Just so I could play the Sim I had spent hundreds of in-game days building and shaping? Isn’t this the ultimate punishment to the player, for – I don’t know – playing the game as it was fucking intended?
I felt so utterly guilty about the entire episode that I deleted the whole town. I had to bring about the apocalypse for Riverview and all of its inhabitants, because of Free Will. Even though I had set it to “Low” in the game options.
And now I can’t help but wonder: Is this how God feels about us?