Ask a thousand people why they play videogames and you’ll get a thousand versions of the same answer: to escape. Whether we prefer objective or narrative based games, or gravitate towards sad or violent games over happy or uplifting ones, ultimately the goal is to remove ourselves from the drudgeries of real life.
This premise, however, takes on a blurry and convoluted role when you consider The Sims. How do you escape “real life” when you’re playing a virtual version of it? In previous installments, the answer to that was some of The Sims’ more imaginative expansions. Escapism, after all, is often about living the life you don’t lead, and that means removing certain barriers and limitations we experience in reality. But The Sims 4, despite being four years into its release cycle, still isn’t nearly as much fun as The Sims 3 was. These days, it’s more about accessorizing a comfortable veneer of suburbia than it is about banging aliens and werewolves, aiming for the kind of life you fantasize about before finding out that adult life actually sucks.
I’m facing this problem a lot now that I’ve finally started playing The Sims 4. It doesn’t have the magic and fantasy of the Supernatural expansion, the transformative excesses of Island Paradise or Into the Future, or the depth and excitement of World Adventures. It offers a few rich experiences in small consumable bites, but nowhere near to the extent of of The Sims 3. So with nothing else to really do, my playthrough of The Sims 4 is reduced to tedium, and trying out features I avoided before. If you’ve got to live the domestic life, after all, might as well make the most of it.
The first thing I did was start a family. Boy was that a mistake. I wound up a single mother, making less per hour than the babysitter, without enough skills to advance in her career to make enough money to support her daughter. My Sim was perpetually tired, had no time to bathe and clean the house much less study for a promotion and, since I’d never raised a kid in a Sim game before, I had no idea how to take care of them. They got so hungry that child services threatened to take them away. The minute I was done reviewing the Seasons expansion I basically pulled a “going to the store for a pack of cigarettes” on the entire file and abandoned the whole thing.
On my next file, I was a bit more discerning in choosing my sexual partners, and waited until I met a guy on vacation that I was very attracted to. I thought things were going well; we were Soulmates and Best Friends in a Committed Relationship, so we seemed headed for the altar, but he rejected my proposal at the bar where we met, despite how well our date went. When I got home, he immediately asked me out again, and after having a romantic and lively conversation all evening, he told me the outing “sucked” and to never call him again. I expected him to break up with me but instead, he asked to come over three days later, playing videogames on my PC while I did chores around the house. He occasionally got up to give me a kiss on the cheek and grab a cocktail from the fridge, and he left before we could WooHoo.
And that’s when it hit me: this is why I still prefer The Sims 3 to The Sims 4. The Sims 3 was a magic fantasy free for all smorgasboard of human indulgence. The Sims 4 is basically real adult life and I fucking hate it. I don’t like having to eat salads and yogurt and workout on an empty stomach so my Sims’ butt doesn’t get big. I don’t like busting my ass studying on my days off to get a $10/hr raise at work. I don’t like having to scrape by to get days off and take a vacation, I don’t like that the vacations are the only enjoyable part of the game, and I don’t like how easy it is to slip into the same slog and routine that comprises my real daily life. There’s got to be more than this.
I was discussing The Sims 3 with some folks on Twitter once and I remember talking about one of the later additions to the game, the washer and dryer, which I never wound up using. At the time I had no interest in adding yet another maintenance ritual to my Sim’s daily routine, but also, as I told my fellow Sims fans, it was almost an act of defiance. I have no desire to do laundry in real life, why would I do it in a Sims game after so many years of not having to at all? Now I think of the little content packs on the storefront page, with names like Laundry Day, Toddler Stuff, Kids Room Stuff, Perfect Patio, and Cool Kitchen, and sigh under the sheer weight of feeling that same sense of obligation I’m already trying to escape.
It’s not that I think The Sims, which is literally a life simulator, shouldn’t be like real life. That wouldn’t be the point. It’s that I need more options for escapism. The game used to be so complex and now it feels as if going through the motions of domesticity are the only available options. The funnest part of the game used to be all the inventive and mischievous ways to act out or blow off steam, which is really what we’re all looking for on both a macro and micro level. The Sims is really at its best when it’s letting me live my best life. And right now, this ain’t it.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.