It's a moment of strange and joyous freedom. I've created my two Sims, the lovely married couple of John Walker (lazy, slobbish, neurotic - and in the game!) and She-Hulk (athletic, flirtatious and a kleptomaniac - guaranteeing me outrage from Shulkie fans for my out-of-character characterisation). They're in their house. All is well. It's The Sims.
And then, with a scroll and a click, I send She-Hulk running across the road to start seducing the neighbours, while John watches helplessly. It's something that I've wanted to do ever since laying down my first piece of virtual furniture, and something that all Sims games have prevented me from doing with their my-home-is-my-level system where all the places in town were their own little places, requiring tedious loading to get between. With Sims 3, the camera pans back. Of all the changes in the game - and there's really a lot of fun technical stuff here, involving sharing content and all that - it's this which excites me most. It's no longer a life simulator that believes the house is the atomic level; it's a life simulator that believes the town is.
Assistant producer MJ Chun doesn't quite agree with the life simulator argument. "For me, The Sims is more inspired by life than a life simulator," she laughs. "You should get off your butt and live your life. It's ultimately a game... just not a zero-sum game. It's more about - and especially Sims 3 - who you are as a player rather than the game itself. So it doesn't come to life until someone starts playing it. Maybe they're a griefer - that's what we call someone who likes to mess around with their Sims. Or maybe you're really into the creativity and customisation. Maybe you want to take video. And ultimately it has to have really compelling gameplay.
"Sims 3 I love because it's a little bit directed, and it feels strategic playing it - because my Sims will go, 'I want to go to the park!', and I can fulfill that wish - which takes time - or not. And then there's their moods - as in, they may be hungry. A little peckish. And I'll go, 'I'll have you work out for a little longer, and in the long term it's a big payoff.'" This is, of course, wisdom the portly Eurogamer staff have never truly grasped. Picking up from The Sims 2, it's the character's desires and objectives that give the game its strategic direction. Depending how you create your character, you have a life goal - but you also have those transitory desires you can choose to pursue or ignore. "For me, it's like New Year's Eve," says Chun. "Everyone has that long-term resolution, 'I'm going to get fitter this year.' Or maybe it's a life goal. And the medium term goal is, 'I want to run a marathon.'" Eurogamer, of course, only goes as far as, "I want to eat a marathon."
In terms of actual Sims' nature though, the core of the game is the personality traits, which replace the statistic-tweaking of the first. "I spend a lot of time talking about the personality traits, because I think that's the heart of Sims 3," argues Chun. So rather than spending points in characteristics, with you ending up as Lazy or Energetic depending how many you spend in the category, you choose up to five attributes, each of which has a distinct effect on a sim's personality. Rather than the fuzziness, things now have clean edges. "The cool thing is that we're not making value judgments about anything," says Chun. "You can be evil, and not feel bad. That's something which is very Sims. We're giving the same level of importance to being Friendly or Lucky, being a Snob or being a Vegetarian.
"One of our favourites is 'Never Nude'. The Sim will never ever be totally nude. Or there's [being] a Perfectionist. And now we can have a friendly, lucky Vegetarian who's Never Nude and happens to be a Perfectionist." In other words, if you want to make a superman, go for it. If you want a freak who never leaves the house or changes his clothes, knock yourself out. Each choice will lead to a different experience. "Some people are going to be totally trying to min/max their characters," says Chun. "As in, this is the long-term gameplay I want, so I'm going to go for the charismatic, the genius. And some people are going to go for the storytelling." By which she means stuff for fun's own sake.
"We wanted the traits to make sense," she says. "It's really frustrating for me as a player to play a game where there are constraints and rules which don't really seem to make sense. You'll never be able to pick someone who hates children and likes children. But we do have neurotic. It doesn't make sense for someone to be contradictory. And the best part, it's really holistic. We'll play the game and give feedback.
We can tell our designers that it's really weird that there's a vegetarian sim who autonomously eats hotdogs and he'll go, 'That's a bug.'" Or an accurate model of the usual no-really-I'm-a-vegetarian.
Traits open up behaviour options. For example, flirty sims have many more seductive behaviours accessible from their special menu. Neurotic sims have similarly neurotic options - I particularly enjoyed offending someone by telling them about my suspicion that they were descended from llamas. And then there's being evil. "Evil sims can troll on forums," says Chun, not knowing anything about the Eurogamer comments threads. "They can steal candies from babies." Then there's She-Hulk's aforementioned kleptomania. "It's one of my favourites," says Chun. "The first time it happened, I'd sent my sim to a party and I wasn't paying attention. And all of a sudden she's playing the guitar. And I'm like... I didn't buy you a guitar. She's playing someone else's guitar. And she's fairly good at it, because she had been playing on her own. And she had a wish to return the guitar... and I was, 'I'm so ignoring your wish.'" Which makes you suspect it's not just Chun's sims who are evil.
The open world simply keeps the whole town loaded in at the same time, allowing your character to run - or drive - around. While some buildings are "rabbit holes" - as in, places your character disappears into when they're doing their working day - others are recreational places which you can follow inside, like the theatre. It proves entertaining just to go to the park and see who's there - it's people-watching in a game world. "It's still your open world, and it's still your town," says Chun, "and you have complete control over who lives here. You can evict people if you want to. You can move new people in. You can shape and mould the story of the town depending on how you want to play. It'll be ultimately your town, but you'll be surprised... 'Those two sims got together and had a kid! I wasn't paying attention!'"
When EA says "story of the town", it's what the team's using to describe the basic simulation of the city. "It's the beat of daily life. It's not like on week three... DUN, DUN, DAH! It's more like there's these everyday people who are living their lives. They happen to live in your town." It changes the scale of the game. "In Sims 2 you were simulating the needs of the sims, and now we're simulating the story of the town. They all go to work. They have their own work schedules. They progress in their careers. Ultimately, the player doesn't have to make all decisions." In other words, there's less worrying about whether you're going to have something akin to a fatal bowel hemorrhage if you don't pay attention. It's more about where you do act. "There's nothing truly interesting happening like the spectacular successes or devastating failures unless the player pushed them in that direction," explains Chun. "It's not a neutral game. Things will maintain, so the weeds don't choke your town."
When it's a series of games that's been as popular as these have been, it's somewhat insane to wonder whether this will be the Sims which turns around the naysayers. Yeah, Sims fans are going to adore it - the level of customisation on everything in the game in terms of colouring is openly hilarious, and you can turn on and off aspects of the world (aging, or the town's "story") which don't appeal. But as it's trying to minimise the basic human functionality bits and push towards other parts of the human experience, complaints about having to locate the nearest lavatory all the time may vanish - and make those who are turned off by that stuff play.
Does Chun think people will get it? "I hope so," she says, "We want to introduce people to The Sims. Because the players and community are so important to making it come alive, it can't just be insular - 'We're sims players - we want more of the same.' We want to push the game in a different direction, and in a way that makes sense for the game. I think we've moved beyond needs, and when I play I look at relationships, skills and their inventories; I rarely look at needs. I focus on their moods. And it's how I live my life. I'm not sitting here and thinking about how I lack Vitamin C or that I have low blood sugar. It's not beep, beep, beep, low on blood sugar. It's, 'I'm Grouchy... I would like some food.' You live your life, generally, saying, 'I want to be in a good mood.' Unless you're a loner, at which point... you really don't. But you can be a loner if you want to."
With The Sims 3's release, no matter what traits I choose in-game, I suspect in the real world I'm going to find myself a loner, at least for a while.
The Sims 3 is due out for PC on 5th June.