Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Maxis
Released: 2nd of September, 2014
Trailer: “Zub zub?” (warning: ridiculous abs)
Plot: The Sims 4 puts you in charge of a poor digital schlub, who must work and earn money, design his or her own house, decorate it, make friends, settle into their new community, start a family, and just generally be a whole lot better adjusted than you or I are. Canvassing all of the stages of life in an exceedingly family friendly way, The Sims 4 offers you the opportunity to go back and undo all those mistakes, and never marry that bitch Brenda and buy those couple of paintings from Sears and that big water bed tha- well, I digress.
I – In Which We Encounter a Personal History of the Sims.
The Sims – the fun! The excitement! The endless pointing and clicking!
I distinctly remember my first experience with the original The Sims. It was a Saturday night and I wandered over to a friend’s house for a quiet pizza and movies gathering. His sister was sitting in the corner, focused intensely on the family computer and something that looked like the most banal game I had ever seen. ‘So, you basically just boss a family around?’ I asked over her shoulder. Then I saw. You could build things. You could earn things. You could recreate your family and your family household, and then you could do your parents one better and rebuild it into the house of your dreams and drown your little brother in the pool along the way! You could remake the world the way it should be! The domestic world at least. Other things still remained pretty weird. Every morning my character was picked up in a suspiciously tinted car and swept off to a job that I had acquired over the phone. Every now and then I’d be randomly promoted. The neighbour would steal my paper. It was strange, intoxicating, and when I looked at my watch it had been hours since I’d shoved his sister off the seat and taken over. All of my friends had gone home. But I didn’t need them. I had digitally generated friends now, and they were perfect in every way. And I could control them – well, except for that strange pink bunny that kept appearing.
As each new iteration appeared, my enthusiasm slowly slipped bit by bit. The Sims 2 was amazing; finally I could rotate the camera, and build more than a few stories. These were the glory days of the Sims. Then The Sims 3 turned up and I was ‘yeah, ok, whatever – it’s cool to wander around the neighbourhood and stuff, but all I do is pick up seeds and rocks and shit.’ After a while I realised all I would do is build giant, expansive houses that my Sims couldn’t afford to move into without cheating and really I had no interest in running their lives anyway. I felt like John Galt; I’d blow up my inspired and ingenious designs before I’d let these mediocrities soil it with their bladder problems and inability to clean up dishes. And then I just sort of lost touch and lost interest, and got worn down by each new expansion which layered complexity upon complexity till my Sims couldn’t interact without clicking through a bajillion menus and their lives had been so extended it seemed like they never aged up and died unless I made them cook in an unventilated room full of plastic pink flamingos. In short, it became exhausting and work and typically it took me hundreds of hours to realise that, but when I did it was onto something more respectable, like masturbating.
And here we are now, years later and so many editions or updates of this franchise along. My level of excitement was non-existent, and all I knew about the latest edition was that it wouldn’t contain pools or toddlers, ostensibly to prevent a spate of real-life toddler drownings and political outcry against the corrupting influence of life simulation games. Then I passed a copy in the store, and thought ‘fuck it, why not, I’ll review it for my lame little review website that’s only read by three people’ (Hi Konrad and Phil! Fuck you, Kale!) So, here we are.
II – In Which We Explore the Much-Lauded New Features.
The fourth iteration is being much lauded for rethinking the moods and interactions of your Sims. Sure the different needs bars that veterans know and love are still there, but layered over the top is a ‘mood’ determined by events in the world, interactions, or things your Sim has accomplished. It’s a smart move, as after endless hours of painting (I set up a sweat shop, Sims gotta make bank) my Sim – Friedrich Nietzsche – was ‘inspired’ and produced some of his best work. After a brisk shower he was energised and ready for work (theoretically exercise too, although I just let him go when it came to being overweight). Working and promotions have been made more transparent, with clear goals for your Sim to achieve in their home time to qualify them for a bigger office. Weirdly though, Sims just disappear into thin air when they work and you’re left staring at your shitty, plate-strewn lot that you could only afford to half decorate. Another nice touch are unlockable objects specific to your profession, like chairs, typewriters, awards, decorations which also help inspire your Sim into an appropriate mood for that profession.
Moods also affect your interactions with other Sims; allowing you to flirt more effectively if you are flirty, introduce yourself confidently if you are confident, and vent all of your troubles if you are tense, etc. Part of this system is ostensibly built on some random personality traits you select for your Sims – offering bonuses or efficiencies to certain activities or interactions that you effectively won’t notice as you grind up your sim’s mechanical and piano skills. The game looks good, with it’s usual mix of the realistic and the comic. Everything is drawn in bright, customisable colours and the character animations get better and better with each iteration (I was impressed with the expressions my sim’s avatar took on for the various moods). Overall, it’s a good system and offers a lot of potential for improving over previous iterations.
But here in lies the problem, and the classic EA treadmill of expenditure. Buying a sims game when it comes out is buying the bare bones of the system; it has some good content, but you know that all of the cool additions and stuff you want to satisfy your materialistic desires will be nickel and dimed from you in periodic content releases. If you are an obsessive Grand Designs fan like me, then the true joy of the game comes from building in ever more elaborate styles and architectural fantasies. The Sims 4 offers you a solid system for realising your dreams – with a blessed ability to move rooms around whole without demolishing, stretch and extend them, and generally renovate with greater ease than before. But those looking to create elabourate basements, split levels, Escher-like stair constructions will be disappointed. As usual, those features come with the expansions, along with tons of consumer crap to shove into your houses.
Don’t get me wrong though, there’s still a lot of fun and some epic designs to be made with the basic game. I know; as the House of Nietzsche I built is a modern masterpiece.
III – In Which We Tell the Story of Nietzsche and Foucault
So of course I generated a Friedrich Nietzsche to boss around in a virtual play pen; there is some quiet, philosopher’s joy in making the man of the Will, self-overcoming, and the Übermensch wander around pointlessly in a giant electronic waste of time. I also wanted to test out how a neglected sim would do with no help from me – his handsome overlord – so I created Michel Foucault too. I ostensibly specialise in the work of Foucault, so I thought why not; let the founder of biopolitics, author of Discipline and Punish, and former Chair for the History of Systems of Though at the Collège de France also suffer under the gaze of what is Bentham’s Panopticon’s wet dream. ‘The right to punish has been shifted from the vengeance of the sovereign to the defence of society!’ I think I heard him proclaim once I’d finished with the Create-a-Sim menu, but then again it could have just been ‘meba-naar.’
And next it was in to our community, a desert oasis named ‘Aridville’ or something. Of course I made that classic Sims mistake – instead of buying a nice, modest two bedroom house with a little money set aside for some furniture or a luxury, I bought the largest, most prestigious lot I could possibly find. Moving into this well-to-do, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses neighbourhood, my generous outlay on a giant chunk of land (well, they’re not making any more of it, to quote Michael Bluth) meant at best these two distinguished philosophers could live in a shack. An undecorated shack. So be it; the local council didn’t seemed bothered and there was no need for building approval. Once the boys had worked up a bit of cash-ola – sorry, simoleons-ola – we could easily upgrade with the build mode’s new, Play Doh-like manipulative controls.
Then I discovered a weird thing about The Sims 4; it exists in a strange world where market forces run rampant, and the simoleon is king. You see, standard day-to-day actions have cash inserted right in the middle of them, like a constant transaction that had become shorthand in its numeracy for human existence and activity. Nietzsche goes to the fridge to kindly whip up a meal for a bummed-out Foucault (he was depressed because the walls were unpainted, the room undecorated – in short, we couldn’t ‘have nice things’). As soon as he opens that fridge door? Cha-ching! Ten simoleons, subtracted straight from the bottom line. Holy snapping duck shit – our decadent shack already meant we were living on a razor thin margin, and now this? In the old Sims fridges came fully stocked with magical food that never spoiled, until you ran out and had to phone up to order more. In The Sims 4, money disappears and ingredients materialised – teleported? Or delivered by Amazon drone – into the back of the fridge. Oh, brave new world! But money is everywhere present, everywhere needed. I had a brilliant idea – Nietzsche was creative, why not have him whip up a few paintings and sell them? That dubious trick used to work in previous iterations. But – holy snapping duck shit again – as soon as he settles down at the easel, more cash is deducted and a canvas miraculously materialises. Whatever benevolent supplies corporation that rules over The Sims 4 has obviously mastered the teleporter and replication technology from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
But things were moving along. We had a precarious seventeen simoleons to our name, but Nietzsche was churning out the good stuff. Oh no, wait, he wasn’t – it was painting after crude painting of bunnies; always bunnies. I knew it was a bad idea to give Friedrich Nietzsche an aesthetic outlet; the results were bound to be horrifying. But wait – the bubble ‘sell to collector’ appeared, and, lo!, someone actually bought that derivative rubbish. Which raised deeper, darker questions – like, who was the disturbed individual who was willing to pay top(ish) dollar for a Donnie Darko nightmare? (Well, fans of that film, I suppose). Either way, this market was wide and deep in The Sims 4 – with a click of the mouse I could sell any old homemade hokum to anyone without the keen embarrassment of a garage sale, or the ordeal of the local craft market. I was going to be rich! During this time, Foucault dicked around, reading, playing with his phone, sitting on our one chair – typical Frenchman stuff, so I kept my promise and left him to it.
Then something even stranger happened. First, a confession – we may have only had one chair, no wallpaper, and a shitty little shack but I pushed out the boat when I finally bought a trash can meets bin. Perhaps I was high off the unexpected success of Nietzsche’s horror-bunny period, but I went all out and bought a glowing green box, something that said it even generated energy from the trash you turfed into it. Then it happened. At the close of a routine dinner with Foucault, Nietzsche scrapes the leftovers into the trash – only to discover that doing so gifted the household a whopping ten simoleons. For their trash. At any moment I expected Andrew Ryan to burst onto the television and give a speech about ‘no gods, only Man’ etc, etc. What is going on in this objectivist utopia? Money for my trash? A scam immediately came to mind. A cheap four-person meal cost, what, twenty simoleons. After nibbling a little at the meal, Nietzsche could scrape the four plates into the bin for forty, netting a miraculous twenty simoleons in the process. It was a money-generating machine. I’d like to say that I avoided this scam through pure principle, adhering to the principles Ayn Rand had in mind when she constructed this objectivist utopia for our Sims; but really, it was just a whole lot of dull pointing and clicking for a minimal payoff, with which I could not be arsed. Nietzsche had bigger things in store. Foucault continued to play with his phone.
By this point, Nietzsche’s creative career was going well and pulling in the dough. He’d transitioned into writing children’s books on the neat new PC his budding painting career had netted him. I started referring to him as N-Fred, to give him some more street cred and recognise his outsider bunny art. God knows what Nietzsche was putting into those children’s books – ‘don’t listen to your parents, theirs is the voice of the herd’ or ‘God is nice and lovely with fluffy clouds and angels and goodness for all, and you murdered him’ or ‘always be polite, turn down the Devil’s threesomes with Lou Salomé.’ But it was time to date; and to be honest, Nietzsche’s real-world track record wasn’t great. So I set out to make him a modern-sim Casanunder (hey, the world’s second greatest lover tries harder), dating every random sim that walked past our shack (strangely, that was dozens – at all times of night and day. Weird.). Nietzsche’s approach and execution was flawless:
- Walk up and confidently say hello (as soon as I clicked on them, they politely stopped – even if it was a game-world hour or so until he made it over from the other end of the lot);
- Invite them in to play chess (no one ever refused!);
- Play a shitload more chess (because this, of course, filled both their friendship and romance bars, and improved Nietzsche’s logic skill – which all the ladies appreciate); and,
- Flirt a bit and then propose woohoo.
Now those of you not regulars to The Sims series might not be familiar with a few elements of that approach. Yes, friendship and romance is helpfully measured by a bar visible at the top of the screen, and to let you know how you’re going occasional green pluses or red minuses float over your conversation. Is this a revolutionary cure for autism? Possibly, although as I understand it this has yet to be tested in a real-world environment. In any case, it worked for Nietzsche – who brow-beat those girls and guys into bed (eh, beggars, choosers, etc) with the force of his logic. Tragic, really, when one considers his namesake. Occasionally Foucault would wander in and out of the love nest to say hello, fitting for a man who pitied heterosexuals because they would never experience the joys of a Californian men’s bath house. But I digress. Here’s something curious; at one point, one of Nietzsche’s partners got the moodlet ‘unsatisfactory woohoo.’ I look forward to parents explaining that one to their children, all over the world.
Here’s the problem with being a popular guy, though. Those paramours turn up at your house constantly; knocking on the door, wanting to know if you are in. You can ignore them of course, and they continue on their way with their mysterious schedules, but it was a real bummer being reminded of the string of simulated hearts N-Fred loved and left. But he was a man of genius, and had no time for those dependant parasites. They were free to pursue alternate suppliers of love on the free market like any rational, self-interested individual.
But at some point you find a reliable distributor of affection, carefully consider the options and opportunity costs, and then propose a merging of your affairs. Also, without trying he got quite fat (alas, how art imitates life). So Nietzsche married; to a nice enough sim who, as I write, I cannot remember the name of. A brunette. Anyway, a baby was quick to follow – and Nietzsche was on his way to full-fledged family-hood. Things had been good at work too, with Nietzsche for now laying aside his calling of terrifying children through the written word, and instead becoming a patron of the arts. The house had improved as well, taking on a more modern Grand Designs style; sleek contemporary, with a touch of Fraiser-eclectic.
Nietzsche was going well. His two boys, A. Schopenhauer and Jack Derrida, were going well. The brunette was going well. Foucault was doing, you know, whatever. And it was at this point it began to dawn on me – the endless cycle, again and again, over and over – clicking, responding, achieving, unlocking – it all began to weigh heavily on me like an eternally repeating burden. What was the point? Even the hollowness of Randian achievement became apparent – I was only doing this so I could progressively furnish room after room in Nietzsche’s trademark kooky, edgy style (a Romanesque bust with a black top hat!). In between, it was endless trips to the toilet, like my charges were Sisyphean shitters. Sure, they could ‘Pee like a champion’ now and then, but who was there to witness the achievement, much less celebrate it?
Digital life became a bore, levelling up another skill and another career. Nietzsche had moved on to writing mysteries, science-fiction, laundry lists (hey, a ‘what is an author’ joke! Ah, just google Foucault Nietzsche laundry list); but I could never read them. Worse, this was no small government paradise – indeed, now that my house was so impeccably furnished, taxes were killing me. 7854 simoleons, 13562 simoleons, 15514 simoleons. Nietzsche started donating to the Koch Brothers, out of desperation. Sexual attraction between Nietzsche and whatever her name was dropped quickly; both were so busy working on their careers that they never made the time to rekindle it.
I glanced across at Foucault. He was free. Not striving, not trying – eating when he felt like it, busting in on conversations when he pleased. Actually he seemed to have managed pretty well, making it to a mid-level position in the Sims version of the National Security Agency in one of the milder ironies of my playthrough. Foucault knew what time it was. What was I doing with my life? It was time to set Nietzsche free, to let him get on with his life and stop playing out my fantasies of a well-appointed home, children who were historically significant philosophers (but not as significant as me), a girlfriend who’s name and hair-colour I had forgotten in real life. It was time to turn off The Sims 4. Would Nietzsche continue on, in some parallel digital universe, without me to see and direct him? It was a deeply philosophical question, and one I didn’t really give a shit about because it was time for the next episode of Project Runway, and I’d bought a bottle of gin the other day. I returned to my vocation, my favourite pursuit – drunkenly heckling Zac Posen for his stupid mis-matched suit-bowtie combinations and his terrible schoolyard witticisms.
IV – In Which We Conclude and Retain Receipts.
So there you go, The Sims 4. I think most of us pretty much know whether this game is for us or not, so this review is largely pointless. However, past the 3,300 word mark I can claim the purchase cost of the game as a tax write off for business purposes. And that’s 3,387 – so we’re done here. May your Sims escape a horrific death by Cowplant! Or not – you know, whatever you’re into.
Rating: Three and a half stars.