Last night, the tiny island of Prospero suffered a great tragedy – everyone under the age of 33 mysteriously vanished, not only from the town, but from the memories of their friends and family. It was as if they had never existed.
Cassie Cardelli, the town’s oldest resident and owner of the local supermarket, was left alone in the world without her beloved daughter Jordan, an aspiring professional party guest. Country musician April Larrea was the youngest survivor, but her parents (both retired superheroes) had no memory of their other 3 children, or of her father’s secret other child (the daughter of April’s boyfriend’s sister). April’s brother August and his girlfriend Luna had been expecting their first child in day’s time – now the young family was wiped from existence, never to be seen again.
All in all, 17 souls were lost. They live on only in my memories, and also in the overly complicated spreadsheet I used to keep track of them.
I speak, of course, of the tragic corruption of my neighbourhood in The Sims 2. Because I am still playing The Sims 2.
Didn’t that game come out, like, 15 years ago?
The Sims 2 came out in 2004, and now I have been playing it for literally half my life, and I am still not through with it. I’ve installed it on almost every computer I’ve had during that time. In high school, I was excited to send my sims off to live it up at university; in my awkward early 20s, I made them driven professionals who knew what they were doing with their lives.
Now that I am a boring adult, The Sims 2 has become more of a town management game. I’ve branched out from living vicariously through my sims. Now I prefer to reconstruct society to my liking.
I enjoy building small but prosperous towns which start with a handful of people and grow to become pleasant communities. Unlike that guy who ‘beat’ SimCity 3000 by constructing a totalitarian hellscape, I am a benevolent ruler. My sims’ lives are occasionally dramatic, but not tragic. I keep their needs met and their aspirations satisfied. The adults always remember to call their parents, and the children excel at chess (because it builds the Logic skill and they’re not going to waste time playing video games). Everyone is happy and healthy.
I have bought The Sims 3 and The Sims 4, but only played them a little bit as none have ever quite scratched the same itch for me. My main gripe is that both are too happy to carry on letting your sims do their own thing when you’re not actively controlling them. Ostensibly this is so the neighbourhood ages in sync – in The Sims 2 you can play one household until everyone dies of old age and their neighbours won’t change a bit – but I hate it. I don’t want my sim’s kid to move out of the house and suddenly change her hair or have a baby while my attentions are elsewhere. I want to be there for every tiny moment of their lives, because we’re going to do things my way, god dammit.
The Sims 2 is a glorious sandbox where you can create whatever you want and live your life with total freedom. This is not what I want. I want to restrict and micromanage as many aspects of play as possible to create a balanced ecosystem.
A few years ago I stumbled across the Build a City Challenge rules, and have been playing the game in the same spirit ever since. The core of the challenge is:
- Play every household on a schedule to keep everyone in sync.
- Careers and other perks can only be unlocked by the neighbourhood or individual sims reaching a certain state.
I don’t follow the challenge rules religiously – for example, I find its 2000-word-long section on mortgage regulations impressive, but also kind of terrifying. But I do like managing my sims on a community level, rather than just as individual households. The resulting neighbourhood feels much more cohesive.
The other appeal of the challenge is that it helps me to wring even more enjoyment out of a game I’ve already spent a horrendous amount of time with. At this point it’s pretty easy for me to start up a new family and make them wildly successful. The restrictions of the challenge force me to play in ways that I normally wouldn’t. I have to work harder, but I also have more goals to meet, and that makes it more satisfying.
I keep track of my progress in the challenge using a complex Google Sheets spreadsheet, which I sometimes show people when I want them to question why they are friends with me.
I also start with several families rather than an individual sim because I found this was too slow a start. I initially rolled these up randomly following the Prosperity Challenge neighbourhood generation rules, but then I wrote a simple sim randomiser web app to do this for me. Because when even a spreadsheet can’t help you enjoy video games, then maybe programming will.
I’ll be back
Prospero, my corrupted neighbourhood, wasn’t the first town I’d played in this way. But I had sunk a fair bit of time into it (400+ sim days), so it does hurt to lose it like this.
While writing this post, I fired up the game again to take some screenshots of my town, and discovered all the remaining inhabitants had also vanished (along with most of their houses and several businesses). So it looks like my tiny utopia has been irrevocably destroyed.
I’ll take some time to lick my wounds, and then I’ll probably do a fresh install of the game and start up a new town. Maybe I’ll refactor my sim randomiser app to randomise other aspects of the neighbourhood as well. Maybe I’ll retreat into one of my other wildly overplayed I-control-the-world games (Civilisation and Animal Crossing). Maybe I’ll finally buy Stardew Valley.
But I refuse to call it quits with The Sims 2. I have asked so much of this game and it has almost always delivered. It has been a constant in my life for so long – an endless fun machine that lets me pretend to be an architect, a suburban mom, or the director of a soap opera. On my worst days, I find myself firing up The Sims 2 for comfort. It’s my security blanket, old home movies, a bowl of mac and cheese on a rainy day. If I need a spreadsheet and regular save file backups to cling on to that magic, then so be it.