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The Sims 3

Lifestyles of the wretched and infragrant.

No, no - I can't go out tonight. I have to finish writing this article. Even though I'm too tired and bored, and keep getting distracted by playing videogames. Yes, I know it's sad. I won't be doing this kind of thing forever though - honestly, I'm working on that novel. It's just taking so long, and there always seems to be something better to do with my time.

I can't think of any game I've ever played that's made me feel worse about myself than The Sims 3. Its inevitable but expert extension of goals, activities, employment and personality traits over the first two games means sims are no longer vague simulacrums of people you know - they now behave like people you know too. I made me, as every good little egomaniac does in a Sims game - and he ended up behaving like me, living the life I lead. The game's jumped from the abstract wish-fulfilment dollhouse of the past into a strange, sprawling thing of character-simulation/assassination, the out-and-out fantastical (sim-me eventually escalated from jaded hack to best-selling author, before expiring and then haunting his old house), and community-created content.

For all the changes, it's definitely The Sims. You'd never mistake it for anything else - the way the characters move, talk, wet themselves, their crazed pinging between joy and despair... You'll spend your time trying to increase their skills, their income and their relationships - tiny numbers slowly growing. This is no break with tradition, and yet some of the tiniest changes prove the most profound. Crucially, adjustment of the various happiness factors means your sims aren't trapped in quite so rapid a plunge towards misery and discomfort. They now have the time to make much more of the day than working, eating, sleeping and ablution. And even if cooking pancakes does still mysteriously take an hour, at least you can grab a taxi to work and turn up late.

Four hotdogs does not a successful party make.

Which brings up the major change to the game - that it's now set in an open world, rather than every location being an isolated cell you teleport between. Wherever you go, you'll find other sims bimbling along, ready for a chat, scrap or impromptu game of chess. It's all a little too neat to feel truly like a living world - those sims remain very much simulations - but it allows for so much more anecdote-fuelling randomness. I also found it a useful way to indulge more sociopathic tendencies - a grumpy itch could be scratched by harassing some poor pensioner in the park, rather than upsetting an existing sim-relationship.

Of course, depending on how high you've set the autonomy option (on a scale of stand-around-usefully to repeatedly-order-pizza-even-though-the-fridge-is-fully-stocked), your sims might fall out anyway. Personality traits rather than arbitrary likes/dislikes define their behaviour - so a sim with the Mean-Spirited trait will be prone to insulting people for no reason, or writing poisonous invective on the internet to pass the time. Interestingly, picking a slew of negative traits doesn't trap a sim in the emotional cul-de-sac you might expect. It's always possible to charm another sim, or keep a lid on their public freak-outs - this is a forgiving game, the many options for mischief or cruelty there as optional entertainment rather than crippling handicaps. They're also there to better parody your friends and loved-ones, of course - tag a chum as insane or a kleptomaniac, wind 'em up and watch 'em go.