The Sims 4 Review in Progress

Less is less.

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Some people treat The Sims like a god game. They create the homeliest and most emotionally troubled little computer people imaginable and trap them in rooms until their sims wet themselves, collapse in hunger, and ultimately die, presumably in a pile of their own feces. Those same people stand back and cackle with glee as they watch the world burn and their sim families burn with it, a destructive approach that recalls the alarming behavior of Toy Story's sociopathic neighbor boy, who enjoyed using rockets to blow apart his toys for his evil amusement. They're not here to simulate life--they're here to manipulate it, test it, destroy it, and create it anew.

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I'm not one of these people. I don't play The Sims to exercise my own cruel tendencies (which isn't to say I don't sometime suffer from such tendencies), but rather to project myself into a digital world and playact events and stories that I may or may not have access to in my real life. I will probably never have a child of my own, and so The Sims allows me to experience the delights and travails of parenthood, though on a very shallow level, and always on my own terms; such is the value of video games, after all. The series is occasionally derided by those that see games as a form of escapism, and wonder how a game that makes emptying your bladder a key mechanic can be fun for anyone. But boiling down The Sims to this level omits the joys of everyday fantasies. Some games let you fulfill your fantasies of being a powerful soldier or an important space traveler; The Sims lets you fulfill your fantasies of punching your snotty next-door neighbor or becoming a virtuoso violinist.

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Much has been made already of what is missing in this game in relation to previous games in the series. There are no swimming pools, or toddlers, or so-called rabbit holes like restaurants and grocery stores. There are no cars and no carpool, no bicycles and no schoolbuses; there is no create-a-style feature that lets you personalize clothing and carpets, and you cannot terraform the terrain. I'm deep into The Sims 4 at this stage and not ready to deliver a verdict just yet, but I can say that those missing features in turn lead to diluted storytelling. I'm not worked up over the fact that mechanics have been streamlined or removed; I am, however, worked up by how those losses inhibit the daily digital stories I used to be able to craft.

The greatest loss is that of the seamless neighborhood. In The Sims 3, I created a sim that developed a surreptitious relationship with a townie that lived far enough away that I would bike to his location, where we would play video games and canoodle, perhaps going so far as to woohoo (that is, to engage in carnal relations) before I biked back home, basking in the moonlit sky. The Sims 4 allows me to create the same story beats--the canoodling, the video-game playing--but those beats lack the connective tissue that made them special. There is no longer a bike ride during which to contemplate where this relationship might be going, just a loading screen that ends with my sim standing in a predetermined position, staring straight ahead.

Digital Kevin is not usually the life of the party. Neither is real Kevin.
Digital Kevin is not usually the life of the party. Neither is real Kevin.

And so it goes. I can eat meals with my wife, and I can serenade her on the guitar, but I can no longer take her out to eat at a fancy restaurant, and then make music for the locals on the sidewalk in front before heading home. My yard is so small that I don't have room for the starter telescope and all the plants that my green-thumb wife enjoys watering and harvesting, so I placed the telescope on a public lot, in front of the gym. The loss of a seamless and connected world means I am less likely to be spontaneous. I have to make a special trip to view the stars; I no longer happen to pass by it and stop to express my wonder of the Milky Way. My connection to work is essentially gone now; there is no mad dash to eat and bathe before the carpool leaves me behind. I just walk off the lot.

This isn't to say that there haven't been special moments, only that they lack transition, and thus sever the emotional connection I might otherside have developed. The manner in which sims multitask may be one of my favorite aspects of The Sims 4; my favorite laugh-out-loud moment thus far came when my child genius of a sim sat down on the toilet with her tablet and played games while pooping. Sadly, neither of her parents walked in on her, which might have caused all involved parties to be embarrassed, which opens up new communication possibilities and other actions, such as being able to talk to yourself in the mirror to calm down.

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I also appreciate that the condensed scale allows the game to run flawlessly on the three PCs I have played it on. I have heard terrible tales of bugs that cause babies to contort in disastrous ways, but I have yet to create a baby. And I certainly can't deny the charm that pervades The Sims 4--the jaunty tunes, the silly nonsensical chatter between friends, the way my resident cook throws a tantrum when he cuts himself while chopping salad. Such superficial delights are forever appealing.

The more involved delights, however, don't run as deeply as I would have hoped. Mind you, the basic are sound; The Sims 4 is a joy to interact with, and relationships take various quirky twists and turns as they develop. But these are stories I have already told, and the stories I most want to tell seem just out of reach.

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