A virtual slice of domestic life

Game: "The Sims" turns suburban existence into a digital dollhouse where players control a family.

February 07, 2000|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

Michael and Melissa were lovebirds headed for the altar.

Then one day Melissa discovered her fiance frolicking naked in the hot tub with Betty, a red-headed bombshell who lived down the street. Jealous and angry, Melissa got even by flirting with Betty's husband during a neighborhood cookout. Now the engagement is off and all hell has broken loose in the subdivision.

The latest episode of "Days of Our Lives"? No, just another steamy day in the 'burbs with "The Sims," a new computer game from Maxis, the company that brought the world "SimCity," "Sim Ant," "Sim Golf" and "Sim Theme Park."

But "The Sims" could eclipse them all. In an era when Americans get their kicks watching dysfunctional families duke it out on trashy talk shows, "The Sims" ups the ante. Who needs to watch oddballs from somewhere else? Now you can create your own Addams Family or Brady Bunch and make the drama unfold anyway you like.

"It is the weirdest gaming experience I've ever had," marvels Chris Lombardi, managing editor of Computer Gaming World magazine. "It's like a dollhouse for grown-ups. This game is really going to sell."

You start the game by designing your Sims, determining their age, sex, appearance and personality (shy or outgoing, slobs or neat-freaks). Then you move them into the neighborhood, buying a home on the market or building your dream house.

While Sims are programmed to be independent, they need your intervention to succeed in life. Your job is simple: keep your human Tamagotchis happy.

That's easier said than done. Part of the challenge is figuring out how your Sims should spend their time. Do they work out or read a book? Do they hang with a buddy or nap on the sofa? Whatever you ask of your Sims, expect consequences.

Let them go too long without sleep and your Sims will zonk out on the floor. Deny them a social life and they mope around the house, ignoring you. Let the fridge go empty too long and your Sims starve to death.

Your decisions are guided by a control panel on the bottom of the screen that shows how your Sims are feeling. And Sims are truly a moody lot. They get jealous. They get randy. They get angry when they don't get their way and freak out when strangers violate their privacy.

One key to Sim bliss is forming relationships with other Sims in the neighborhood. But beware: Relationships can take twists that would make Jerry Springer blush. Polygamy is possible here, as are same-sex romances.

The Sims is the creation of 40-year-old game designer Will Wright, a computer industry legend who earned his reputation with "SimCity" in 1989. Today this groundbreaking simulation, which challenges players to build and run their own cities, is one of the best-selling games of all time. College professors use it as a teaching tool.

Despite his fame, Wright almost didn't get "The Sims" off the ground. When he first pitched the idea of a real-time strategy game about domestic life, his colleagues at Maxis thought it was the dumbest thing they'd ever heard. A game about taking out the trash and taking showers? Who'd want to sit around watching virtual people do that?

"They tried to cancel it," Wright says.

But Wright persisted and eventually won over the skeptics (it didn't hurt that he's Maxis' co-founder and president).

A college dropout, Wright spends as much time in the library as he does in front of the computer. He based "SimCity" on the urban growth theories of MIT professor Jay Forrester.

To make "The Sims" lifelike, he pored over books on architecture, sociology and psychology, drawing heavily from psychologist Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of needs" theory of human behavior, which holds that people try to satisfy basic cravings such as hunger and thirst before they try to find love.

Wright, however, intentionally stopped short of total reality. The Sims, for example, don't grow old or commit child abuse (social services will take away your baby if you forget to feed it).

You don't see Sims having sex (in a 1950s approach, Sim babies come from heavy kissing). When they strip, a pixilated screen hides their private parts.

"The game is really a caricature of reality," Wright says.

Players don't seem to notice the difference. For example, when Maxis gave "The Sims" to testers, one of the most popular virtual purchases was, strangely, a computer. Many testers spent hours staring at their Sims staring at their virtual PCs.

"You're sitting there, spending hours making sure this guy is going to the bathroom, eating well, getting ahead in the world," says Lombardi.

"And after awhile you can't help but go, 'Why aren't I spending my time eating right and advancing my own career?' "

The Sims requires Windows 95/98, a 233 MHz or faster Pentium processor, 32 MB RAM, and 300 MB disk space. For more information, call 800-245-4525 or visit www.thesims.com.

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