If there's one thing that Maxis' life simulation The Sims 4 captures better than anything else, it's that sense that life flies by all too quickly. Caught up in the details of the mundane, the prosaic, you can have your head down for far too much of it until, all of a sudden, it's your birthday and you're an Adult, or even an Elder. You've gained weight. Your hair is thin. The toilet is broken. While you will never find yourself in another part of the world or behind the wheel of a large automobile, you may at least ask yourself, how did I get here?
You travelled down a long straight road. Life in The Sims 4 can be routine and repetitive, a slow if comfortable accumulation of capital and possessions that act as a sort of consumerist compensation for the labour your Sim devotes to the unseen gods of employment, all resulting in a slightly bigger house, a slightly shinier kitchen, a slightly higher income. There's a lot that is prosaic along the way, although its Sims are also smarter than ever, more articulate and even a little bit moodier. Change has come, but not too much.
The series has always been a capitalist fairytale, a world where hard graft always wins out, where there is no privilege or prejudice or patriarchy and where everything can be earned in the end. While the fourth Sims game is still a fair one, it can also be tough. Bills are high, progress is slow and life can be short. Just a day or two into their final age bracket, apparently healthy Sims can croak with no warning. It takes time to build skills. It takes time to be able to afford that new oven. Hell, it takes time to finish breakfast. In Kevin Smith's film Dogma, the angel Loki suggests that all life is is a series of moments, moments to be seized. Seizing them in The Sims 4 isn't always easy. Everyday activities can get in the way.
In many ways, the game is a confident step forward. It makes the series look fresh and young once again, doing so with polish, style and even a little subtlety. The always-expressive Sims, never very nuanced creatures, are nevertheless both more diverse and more capable, while the world they live in is almost heavenly, certainly compared to a recession-hit, autumnal England. The sun always shines across its tidy, broad and beautiful neighbourhoods and the homemaker's catalogues are brimming with appliances and conveniences and dozens of wallpaper designs.
This makes homemaking tremendous fun. Offering the roles of architect, carpenter and engineer all at the same time, The Sims 4 has a wonderfully well-designed interface for house and shop construction. Rooms can be dragged into existence, reshaped, reshuffled and repainted with only a couple of mouse clicks. Like a superhero whose power is interior design, with one gesture you can boost ceilings, raise foundations, summon friezes or create a staircase wider than a bedroom. Roofs, always something of an eccentricity in previous games, are now easier to place and adjust, but still remain a little quirky and often seem to be levitating slightly above everything else.
Similarly, shaping very small spaces can be a little fiddly and it's possible to make silly mistakes without realising, but practice makes perfectionists and the detail-orientated will be delighted to discover that, after very carefully choosing the colour combination of so much of their furniture and fittings, many items can be very precisely placed. Wall lights and paintings sit at a variety of heights. Sculptures can be subtly offset. Everything can be just so.
The satisfaction this can give is not to be underestimated and, for a particular sort of player, the chance to indulge in endless readjustment is absolutely intoxicating. The same is true when it comes to shaping your Sims. Putty in your hands, these willing subjects can be stretched and squeezed and deformed in almost all the ways that your godliness might dictate. Bums are broadened, calves compressed, wardrobes discarded and even tiny facial details can be tweaked and tugged out. Then there are aspirations to choose, personality traits to add and even walks and voices to customise. All this gives the feeling of being an artisan, of finely crafting dollhouses and their dwellers.
For some people, playing with these creations will be a little bit less fun than making them. Here's the thing. The Sims 4 introduces several clever new concepts, new elements that change the way Sims behave, and it does an excellent job of integrating them. But while they're clever, and certainly well executed, they're not always compelling.
Sims have a lot more to think about now. Their personalities don't just nudge them towards certain behaviours, they help to define the moods and the whims that wax and wane as a Sim walks through their day. Some are more susceptible to particular emotions or desires and those feelings can present in-world possibilities. An artistic Sim who feels Flirty can paint a picture that expresses their feelings, while a frustrated Sim will have new conversation choices that allow them to vent. Anything from an awkward conversation to a well-decorated room can shift a Sim's mood, but not all these moods have a significant impact. Splendid as it may sound, doing an angry poop won't change the world.
The most impressive addition is the multitasking, which allows Sims to casually chat while stirring dinner, or to read a book on the toilet. Sims are still a little kooky, sluggish and awkward in their behaviours, sometimes performing very formal acts of choreography just to position for a hug, but now it's not unusual for them to carry out two tasks simultaneously and, particularly if conversation is involved, look the most natural that they ever have. It's one of the series' most remarkable changes and also one of the most transparent: it works so well that you start not to notice it.
Other clever alterations and smart subtleties pepper The Sims 4. Sims gain weight gently until, one day, you realise you haven't exercised yours enough. Their smartphones are now the centre of their social lives, bringing up contact options and travel opportunities. Career tracks are longer. The camera is no longer shackled to a lot and you're free to pan down the road to watch neighbourhoods busy with Sims crossing roads, enjoying parks and visiting communal gardens. It feels more social and much more alive.
While there are splendid steps forward and Sims now have more ways to do things, they don't necessarily have more things to do. They aren't significantly different and, left to their own devices, Sims still aren't terribly interesting characters. They may spontaneously argue with strangers or play video games for so long they wet themselves (we've all been there), but they're not going to make significant life choices without your input. Those life-defining moments will come from your planning and micromanagement, which is sometimes very necessary because they can take far too long to do some everyday activities. In spite of what John Lennon says, life won't happen when you're making other plans. Almost nothing will.
There are bugs. Sims sometimes struggle to walk from one place to another and, even in the familiarity of their own homes, behave more like Roombas than people, navigating awkwardly around furniture. Sometimes doors and windows disappear as the camera pans. Sims forget or ignore commands you queue for them. They talk to people through walls. One of my Sims still believes they're in a conversation with someone who came to visit a week ago, while another was apparently locked out until his wife returned to his lot. Fortunately, few of these bugs are game-breaking and sometimes they almost fit with the eccentricities of Maxis' doltish, dorky creations; melodramatic, heart-on-sleeve crazies who, bless 'em, think the only place that you can have sex is a bed.
What Maxis has created is an intelligent, mostly polished and very smart framework for a game that, once again, is a dangerous time sink. As the lives of your Sims roll by and as time writes its wrinkles into their faces, something similar happens in your own reality. There's always one more thing to buy, one more task to complete, one more aspiration to achieve or one more item to unlock.
There's surely more to be added into that framework. It's inevitable that many players will be focusing on what The Sims 4 doesn't have, particularly as it's not a cheap game. It doesn't have pets, pools, toddlers, large neighbourhoods or the wider world of its predecessor, meaning dedicated players won't struggle to fill it out. While it's generally a smarter game, it's a much slimmer one. Fans will know by now that each new Sims game is a reset and expansions are sure to follow. Some may bring significant changes, others only cosmetics. Most will cost.
It's a cliché to say that the experience of playing The Sims presents creepy parallels, with players making alter egos who themselves also escape existential fatigue by playing video games or browsing the internet, but there's another parallel that unites the game's celebration of consumerism with EA's own business model: more expansions will come and, though many players will complain about these, a lot of them will still buy them. Their solution to a dissatisfaction with The Sims 4 will be to buy more of The Sims 4 and they may never ask where that highway goes to, they may never say to themselves, my god, what have I done?
They may never need to. That shopper's satisfaction is itself a sort of beauty. It's the fantasy that forms the basis of The Sims 4, that hard work and spending money will always make you happy. Even if Sims lose their jobs or their lovers, their world is a bright one of new beginnings. Nobody in The Sims gets depression or signs on as unemployed or joins a riot to express their frustration. There isn't even a police force any more.
The Sims 4 is both fresh and yet also predictable, pleasant, comfortable and rarely overstimulating. It's wobbly, and you can still see some of its joins, or hear the creaks as new parts settle into place. It's not likely to win over any new players, but it will satisfy a lot of its old ones. For many of its fans, it will feel like moving into a new home. They'll settle.