Two Ways to Play The Sims

I feel like there are two fundamentally different ways to play The Sims:

  1. As an ant farm. You load it up with a bunch of people with varying personalities and goals and then watch them live their lives and bounce off each other.
  2. As a dollhouse. You focus on specific individuals and families and have an idea of who they are and what their life should be like so you decide most or all of what they do.

These two approaches are contradictory because they require different levels of control over the game. Just as you might occasionally tap the glass of an actual ant farm or drop in some cookie crumbs or something to see how the ants react, an ant-farming Sims player might order one of their Sims to flirt with or insult someone to create some drama and keep things interesting. But by and large, this player wants their Sims to make autonomous decisions so the simulation keeps running.

Meanwhile, in actual dollhouses, nothing happens unless the person playing with the dolls says it happens. Similarly, dollhousing Sims players want complete control over their Sims so they can create exactly the story they’re trying to create. These players disable Sims' autonomy (called “free will” in earlier Sims games) so that Sims don’t make out-of-character decisions.

Now, I have to admit that I’m only inferring the existence of ant-farming players based on design decisions in more recent Sims games. I’m very much a dollhouser, I’ve never talked to an ant-farmer, and it didn’t even occur to me that they’d exist until I was trying to understand some of the changes that came in The Sims 3 and 4. But if they don’t exist, then a lot of those changes are completely baffling.

In the first two Sims games, time didn’t pass outside of the house you were currently controlling. That was fine in The Sims because aging wasn’t really a thing, but it became jarring in The Sims 2 when your teenager could reach adulthood but find that all their friends and romantic partners were still teens.

As a dollhouser, to me it’s obvious that the solution here is to give the player more control over the Sims outside of the active household. Give me the option to instantly age up those other Sims to adulthood. Let me decide things like “these neighbors I don’t care much about; they’re just someone to talk to and to help with career advancement, so let’s go ahead and age them up - but this important character over here, I’m actually gonna switch to and play out their coming-of-age manually, and this other character is someone I want to get to later so I’ll just leave them as a teen for now.”

Instead, The Sims 3 decided to fix this through increased Sim autonomy - a solution that favors ant-farmers. While you can still only directly control a single house at a time, time passes for the entire neighborhood and the Sims you aren’t currently controlling can age, reproduce, change job and relationship status, and more. These effects were bundled together under an option called “story progression” which I find laughable because semi-random systems-driven events are the opposite of a story. In a story, events are deliberately chosen in support of a narrative - that’s what makes it a story instead of just some things that happen. Sims doing things outside of human control helps with storytelling about as much as, say, predictive keyboards.

This is one of a few reasons I skipped The Sims 3 entirely. I kept playing The Sims 2 for a while, and when The Sims 4 was recently 88% off I picked it up to try out. I was horrified to discover that even with “story progression” disabled, time passes at all of my houses when I play any of them. When I switch between them I find my Sims doing weird random things I’d never have told them to do and which the characters I was visualizing would never have chosen to do. It’s as if every time I played with one of my dollhouses, a stranger would rearrange all the dolls in my other dollhouses. It doesn’t make me feel like I’m playing in a living, connected world. It makes me feel violated. There’s no way to turn it off, and I’m pretty sure it’s why I have basically stopped playing after just a couple of weeks.

I don’t think this game design decision is part of any artistic commitment to realism. (I mean, it’s still a common problem that houseguests will walk right into their host’s bedroom and play on their computer and even today you can really only prevent this with mods.) My assumption is that the decision is because this is the preferred solution for ant-farmers and whoever’s calling the shots here thinks EA will make more money catering to those players.

As the series has progressed, a lot of work has gone into improving things for ant-farmers - and all that dollhousers get is the ability to turn off some of the ant-farmer features. Maybe I’m forgetting something, but I can’t think of anything that The Sims 4 has that makes it better as a dollhouse over The Sims 2, and there were several obvious improvements that could have been made. It kind of blows my mind, for example, that there’s still no way to take full control of houseguests - even if they’re Sims you created who live in a house you often control directly.

Catering to the ant-farmers is probably even the correct economic decision. I’m sure EA did some market research and I’m no longer at all surprised when my preferences are very different from those of dominant market segments. I just wish that they had decided to make the games better for everyone, instead of for part of their audience at the expense of other parts.