In an online chat session with CNN, Will Wright cited the Japanese game 'Go' as a major influence on his work. "[It] has an amazingly simple set of rules. But yet the strategies in it are so complex," said Wright. "And so from that, I've always been fascinated with the idea that complexity can come out of such simplicity."
That fascination is apparent in much of Will Wright's work. The games he makes have an uncanny ability to reveal the intricate complexities of seemingly ordinary and mundane subject matter. In a game like SimCity, the largely dry and academic subject of urban planning was deconstructed to a level that any layperson could understand. Yet the game was incredibly open-ended, arming gamers with the necessary knowledge to build hugely elaborate cities, as varied as what could be found in real life. There is something compelling, even epic, about joining up small components like streets and traffic lights in SimCity; of connecting residential areas to the downtown core or to industrial zones; the setting up of sewage systems and transit; and watching how all those things worked together to create massive urban area with no two gamers producing the exact same city. At the end of playing, one really had to stand back and marvel at how an organism as complex and unique as a city could evolve from such insignificant things. Perhaps more than any other developer, Wright has challenged gamers to explore the intricacies of the ordinary and the mundane. Even the most commonplace things have depth if we choose to study them closely.
In his mega-selling PC release, The Sims, Will Wright built a game around the most ordinary subject yet: suburban living. In it gamers created virtual people known as Sims, plopped them into a suburban setting, and poked and prodded their little Sims to family sitcom happiness, or utter ruin. But just like his other games, the ordinariness of the premise belies the true complexity of The Sims. Designed in much the same way as SimCity, The Sims deconstructs the lives of everyday people and challenges gamers to reconstruct the human experience through their little Sims. The game would eventually become the highest selling PC game of all time, and has now finally made its way to the PlayStation 2 (PS2).
Wright's style tends to be disarmingly subtle and one of the places where that subtlety is immediately apparent is in the graphics. The PS2 port is an improvement in that the game is now fully 3D, and players have a camera they can rotate to get a better perspective at what's going on in their Sim's home. The Sims doesn't push the graphical capabilities PS2 though, choosing to keep the same, modest, low-key look of the original. There are very little if any sort of special graphical effects here. Many objects are nicely detailed so players can easily recognize them as well as distinguish between like objects such as different models of TV sets. But the point of The Sims isn't to assault the senses, but rather to establish a sense ordinariness and plainness found in a suburban home.
The interface is also as clean and unassuming as the graphics. While the PC version was a point and click venture, the PS2 port still manages to maintain the same sense of ease by using a cursor, moved with an analog stick, to select objects and relay commands to Sims. To help reduce the clumsiness of the analog stick, there is an option to pause the game while a player queues up commands, so players don't lose too much time pinpointing Sims or objects with the cursor. Remodeling or building houses, moving furniture, and buying objects are all done through a standard menu system that is commonplace for a PC title.
Superficially, The Sims doesn't look like anything special, but it isn't until playing the game that one realizes how deeply strategic and involving real-life can be. Essentially an exercise in micromanagement, The Sims has gamers managing perhaps the two most limited resources of modern living: time and space. On the surface it seems rather simplistic and reductive, but as one continues to play, the interactions of time and space become increasingly complex. Managing these two resources can quickly become overwhelming.
Time affects many of the decision a player has to make in The Sims, and there are many things in The Sims competing for the available time. The first major choice players need to make for their Sims is what career path to follow. Different career paths not only pay differently, they also make different demands on time, so players need to choose a career path that balances work and social lives. What time remains after working needs to be divided among variety of other tasks. Sims need to take time out and make friends in order to develop a healthy social life, or to find a prospective partner if a player wishes to marry off a Sim. All the while players need to ensure that their Sims' basic needs are being met. Sims need to be fed, cleaned, entertained, and get a good night's sleep before they can be productive. If a player fails to meet even one of a Sim's eight basic needs, it will get upset and start becoming a nuisance to other Sims, or it may even refuse a player's commands. A Sim could even die if it's not taken care of properly.
Space is the other resource in The Sims that needs to be managed. Besides work and friends, much of a Sim's life revolves around the objects in its home. Many of those objects help to satisfy one or more of a Sim's basic needs. Some of the items, like a swimming pool, can also offer a Sim the opportunity to socialize with friends as well. However, objects take up space, and in The Sims, space is limited.
Players need to budget for space as much as they need to budget for time. Smaller homes will hold fewer items so players need to carefully consider the types of objects they will need. For instance, to satisfy a Sim's need for fun, players can choose between a wide screen TV or an electric guitar. The TV will keep a Sim better entertained, but the guitar is more space saving. Players are thus forced to make choices that finds the most efficient use of available space inside a home. Additionally, players need to be aware of how objects are placed within an area as well since arrangement can play an important role. Too much clutter and the home will be difficult to clean and maintain; a Sim could also waste too much time walking around objects. The management of space becomes even more important if players wish to design custom homes for their Sims to live in. Space partitioning needs to maximize the ability to place objects, yet the floor plans have to be highly accessible too, allowing Sims as much ease as possible when they navigate through their home.
Reducing human experience to interactions with time and space seems like an inadequate way to explore human experience, but after playing a while, The Sims seems to take on a life of it's own. The game starts off with a few random surprises, like friends suddenly starting to give gifts to your Sim. Then other things may start happening too. Sometimes a Sim will get into fights with another Sim it might not like. In one game, I had my Sim introduce his girlfriend to his mother, only to have the mother slap the girlfriend. Sadly, my Sim had spent too much time with his girlfriend and his mother became jealous. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Sims can get married to more than one partner; they can fall in love with the same sex; they can even get depressed. The small dramas that manifest themselves in the game are so absorbing and unpredictable that it's hard not to think of Sims as living and by some measure autonomous.
Sim homes also take on a life of their own as they get furnished. Homes in The Sims are highly customizable, and can reflect a wide range of aesthetics. Players can even build a house from scratch, putting up walls and creating rooms wherever they see fit. Selections of wallpaper, brick and tiles are provided to the player, along with a good assortment of furnishings. The system is designed to allow a wide range of players realize what they can potentially imagine in a Sim home. The create-a-Sim mode is also noteworthy, and even more interesting. Players can create their Sims in a wide range of images having been given the option to choose skin color, age, and gender, in addition to their outfits. There seems to be a concerted effort in the Create-a-Sim mode to reflect as much human diversity as possible.
Perhaps the only weakness in the PS2 port of The Sims is the inability to upload and download materials like the PC version. PC fans were provided tools to produce custom objects and skins for their Sims months before the original game hit the shelves. Over time, fansites began providing an unlimited assortment of virtual goods that could be downloaded and traded among Sim players with Maxis eventually providing an online exchange on their website. Everything could be shared on the website, including whole families. Some of the more interesting offerings were family albums players creating, documenting the lives of their Sim families.
The current PC version of The Sims is much more vibrant and dynamic, and due in large part to fan involvement, can easily recreate itself to suit the current zeitgeist. If a particular wallpaper pattern goes out of style, a player can download something more modern. Or a more interesting example might be the number of skins featuring peace symbols currently available on many Sims fansites, allowing many players to express an opinion on the war in Iraq. In contrast, the PS2 port and its close-ended design limits players' ability to express unique aesthetic sensibilities, much less allow for a political voice. The open-ended nature of the PC Sims seems to capture Wright's design philosophy much better than the PS2 port. At its core, The Sims is about superficial things: the appearance of a Sim, their clothes, their homes; and the objects that take residence in the little Sim homes, like TVs and goldfish. Yet from those simple things, Wright was able to create an experience that was immeasurably complex. Not only could the game surprise and delight fans with its little Sims, the PC Sims was also able to constantly change itself to suit whomever played the game.
Despite it's closed nature, The Sims on the PS2 is still an amazing and unique offering for console gamers. The PS2 port certainly lacks the metamorphic quality of original PC version, but its reach and scope are far greater than many of the current titles available to the console crowd. Simply being able to play as an overweight, middle-aged black man, or an elderly white woman dressed in spandex, The Sims demonstrates that is far more in tune and aware of the diversity in the gaming community. Especially now, when the console industry seems content to focus on the male-eighteen-to-twenty-eight crowd, producing games that sell on fantasy, sensation and controversy, The Sims message is particularly compelling. The Sims reminds gamers that we are more complex and diverse than the gaming industry thinks we are. Gamers are both male and female, and are of all ages and races and tastes. And more importantly, gamers are reminded that real-life is not so uninteresting and boring as we might think it is.