Yesterday I set fire to my new oven and simultaneously pissed myself, shortly after dragging my weary, starving carcass through the front door at 5am. Iíd been chatting up a young blonde Doctor at the beach all night, and rather than attend to my increasing need to defecate, eat and sleep, I instead asked inane questions about fishing, pulled funny faces and stammered through awkward conspiracy theories. None of this endeared me to the lady, who I eventually found was a devoted family woman with a husband. So I finally let her go, crawled home, and then fell apart.
Of course, none of this is ever likely to happen in the real life of your correspondent (although it is eerily similar to a story his Uncle told after returning from university). There are no beaches here, the lady Doctors mostly look like Vikings, and a certain young brunette Sales Assistant would certainly want to know where Iíve been all night.
However, The Sims 3 has taken a strange hold of my evenings, to the point where when I say to Mrs LEC she has to ask
Iíd never played a Sims game in my entire life. They always looked like an extension of Barbie toys, exclusively catering for the fairer sexís need to hoard and nurture. I admired their place in gaming, especially how they gave many women a suitable portal into an often impenetrable hobby. I could absolutely understand why my computer graphics workstation was now loaded with filenames with Ikea in them, and why getting the Mrs to engage in any kind of housework was becoming increasingly difficult.
Many a night I ate dodgy leftovers while a simulated version of me (minus the wacky hair, take Sim Me) was meticulously washed, fed and put to bed in what looked like a luxuriant studio flat straight out of a Dulux brochure.
The dramatic waste of an expensive CG workstation, and the steady decrease in clean socks soon prompted me to intervene. The going was tough. Sheíd wake in the night covered in sweat mumbling about her job as a Roadie, or asking whether her adopted toddler needed her nappy changing. Only after forcibly uninstalling the PC version as if I was disposing of used needles, did our real lives return to normal.
Horribly, her father just bought her the PS3 version, and now Iíve lost another expensive Man-Gadget to her manicured clutches. It was too much, and I resigned myself to the age old adage. And now Iím bloody addicted too.
And itís taken me all week to see why. The game is about as dull as an array of steadily increasing numbers can be. No matter what activity your Sim is doing, either gazing at the stars, playing computer games, writing a best-selling novel or chatting up a stranger on the beach; youíre just watching the numbers get bigger (or rather, abstracted progress bars, but thereís hardly a difference).
I came to realise this when my Simís job required a skill in Gardening, which I considered much more boring than writing my sci-fi novel. But the game had immersed and tricked me up to that point.
Before then, I was furiously scrabbling through each day. Eat some quick cereal at breakfast otherwise you wonít have time to shower before work. When you get there, make sure youíre set to Kiss-The-Bossí-Ass mode because youíre inviting him around at the weekend to ask for a raise. Make sure you run across to City Hall when your shift is over to deliver that report. Youíve nearly finished your sci-fi novel so youíll do good to hammer out the last few pages later, but remember youíll be hungry by then so youíd better make something nice to... oh great! Your mateís ringing you. Better cancel the call, you havenít got time to talk when youíve got every single white good in your house to tinker with Ė gotta make sure everything is self-cleaning since youíre such a mardy bastard when the first motes of dust hit the worktop... Woah there! Better play a few video games too Ė youíre strung so highly, you twang in the wind...
I slowly started to realise what was going on. The game has appeal in the same way that has appeal. Both are fuelled by base needs and desires. If you need a pee, you go for a pee. If you want a new games console, you work until you can afford one. If you enjoy cooking Carbonara, you eat it every night.
Your brain gets into a natural and comfortable rhythm because it has been operating along those lines since you were old enough to need or want something. You donít have to learn the game mechanics Ė they are written large in your sub-conscious already. The Sims 3 is not a strictly just a game. Itís more a basic mechanism for real life.
The game generates familiar emotional responses when pretty much anything happens. Being told I had to learn Gardening made me resent my job, because I hate Gardening and it would take away valuable time from doing the things I enjoy. Thatís exactly what I would have done if my real-life Boss told me to buy a shovel and some seeds because next monthís Team Meeting is hosted by Alan Titchmarsh.
Burning and ruining my stove was the same: I panicked first, fumbled for my phone, feared for my life and my possessions, felt a wave of pure relief (and shame and embarrassment) when the Fire Engine turned up. And then that sombre empty feeling when the drama is over and youíre left with a blackened, ruined kitchen. I even baulked at the insurance payout: practically a third of what Iíd paid for the oven. Typical.
Of course, the beauty of it being a game means youíre free to experiment with the what-ifs of life without any real detrimental effects (providing you can stop playing for long enough to go to work ). Hence why I spent all evening on the beach chatting up a horrible bitch, and didnít mind too much when I soiled myself later. Tomorrow Iíd just try something different.
And this perhaps is where the gameís appeal is nailed. Not only does it simulate a basic but oddly accurate version of real life, but it also allows you to tinker with the variables. You are in almost total control of your Simís life, much more so than you are in control of your own. Thereís a dangerous amount of appeal to that, one that makes you stare at rising progress bars with your full attention, clapping when they reach their peak, and then grimly turning to the rest of the activities that demand attention in your limited time.
There are some niggles that pull your immersion back out to the real world, but this is perhaps a good thing depending on how you think about it.
Realising you can take "Karmacaine" (thereís a Karma Power that pushes all of your Needs up to maximum) actually jars the game because it feels like cheating. What was the point in struggling to meet all of your Needs when you could just press a button and be reset to 100% happy? Thereís no real-life analogue for that. Class-A drugs have major side effects in the real world. In The Sims 3, you can be a regular Karma abuser without consequence.
The AI Ė the gameís most pivotal feature Ė is often under enough strain that cracks can start to show. Deleting your houseís stock trash can and then replacing it later can cause them to forget where the rubbish goes (so they chose the floor). And thereís a worrying trend of accidental child abduction by babysitters. Nothing nefarious Ė they just forget to put your baby back. Also, itís probably not AI-related, but my Sim often woke to find a free pizza had materialised on the kitchen floor. certainly never happens in real life.
The interface into your second life is by far the biggest barrier though. I can see how EA have struggled to cram all the PC options into a gamepad, and they should be genuinely applauded for their efforts. But there are just far too many screens within screens. Too many buttons change their function depending on where you are in the interface, and while their purpose is always clearly defined, it prevents your brain from recording any muscle-memory.
And I certainly canít see anybody but the most devoted and patient of people bothering to decorate, tweak and landscape every element of their house. Not only is the interface at its worst here, but the daft amount of wall coverings, carpets and house bricks, with an online repository for user created content, makes it a pretty daunting task. Better to dip your toe in every now and again (which happily coincides with the shocking price of renovation).
And thatís the final issue I have with The Sims 3 Ė the balance of custom content. There are a stupid amount of colours and patterns to adorn your walls, but key areas like hair-styles, clothing and appliances are pretty scant. You and I are both cynical enough to understand why this is the case Ė EA are going to sell the DLC later. But to our wives and girlfriends, who are arguably The Simís target audience, itís a bit of a let-down. They arenít necessarily going to understand or even care about the underpinning reasons why they canít give their digital boyfriend a set of dreadlocks yet.
Anyway, Iíve got to go. My Simís due a promotion, and I met an attractive single Bookstore clerk the other night who I need to schmooze after Iíve fixed the toilet and