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Every action, or inaction, has a result. Or at least that's the case in The Sims, the micro-level "domestic strategy" game from SimCity creator Will Wright.

Although there hasn't been a game of this exact breed before, The Sims shares genetic material with Maxis' Sim series, as well as with the Tamagotche family and games like Mindscape's Babiez and Creatures, in which you satisfy the needs of sentient beings to make them prosper.

In The Sims, you oversee a neighborhood of simulated people, making decisions to guide them along the road to a career, family, friends, and romance, making them as functional or dysfunctional as you please. Characters can become anything, from a criminal to an astronaut. After five years of development, the game is still a ways away from release (alpha is still two months off) but GameSpot checked in with designer Will Wright to get the scoop on The Sims.

"There are several levels of gameplay. At the lowest level you're dealing with minute-to-minute time management. You decide whether your characters are better off taking a bath, calling a friend, or heading off to work.... you spend less time at that level and go on to the economic level - buying more objects." Success, according to Wright, lets you buy out of the minute decision making, letting you focus instead on the emotional realm. Once you have some money, you can move into a more luxurious house, install party toys (pool table, hot tub), and get down to making and sustaining friendships, hunting for a mate, having kids, and so on.

If your character is like Mike, the demo character shown by Maxis' reps at E3, an unemployed, lazy slob, you must work with him to change his situation. The interface is point and click: Click on a newspaper to check out the want ads, and your character might complain that he doesn't want to get a job, that even thinking about it makes him depressed. From there, you have to coddle him until he's in a good mood and ready to tackle job hunting. This coddling can include showering, resting, feeding him, and so on.

Lots of things can happen, as most objects and characters have a built-in potential for failure: A fire can break out, wayward characters can go to prison. If you don't pay your bills, a repo man will come and take your stuff away. People can lose their jobs, there can be deaths in certain scenarios, marriages, affairs, jealousy ... everything you'd expect to find on an episode of Melrose Place.

According to Wright, there's a lot of latitude in character design: "You can redraw your character to get someone who matches the way you look; you decide on their personality ... you can put in a crude representation of your family." A skin editor was released at the end of May, so testers can create their own skins, or download premade ones, such as Quake skins, from the Internet.

Designing houses is also part of gameplay - structures can be customized in the game or adapted from templates. While there won't be a standard multiplayer environment, saved houses generate HTML home pages, so others can browse and adopt your homes and characters. Each house is a different "game."

Action takes place from a zoomed-in isometric perspective, but if you're imagining something like a programmable Saturday-morning adult cartoon, you're off the mark. Character interaction is mainly based on body language. Hundreds of recordings were produced for The Sims, but they translate into the game with an effect similar to the garbled voices of adults in Charlie Brown cartoons. Wright says that 80 percent of character interaction takes place in the nonverbal realm, and users gradually learn to read the body language of characters. Occasionally, you'll see cartoon bubbles filled with dialogue above a character's head.

"I'm interested in studying things at the intersection of psychology, architecture, and time efficiency," said Wright, who could just as easily be describing an Anthony Robbins workshop. But while The Sims might not seem to have the escapist qualities that make gaming enjoyable for so many, if interest at E3 is any gauge, it should do very, very well.

Something happens when you start playing The Sims, says Wright. "You start looking at your own life and seeing how much of it is based on microeconomic decisions... will I spend my evening partying, reading, or resting?" Or will I spend it playing The Sims?

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