Yesterday, for the first time in almost four years, I fired up The Sims 3.
It was something of a surreal experience. I used to play obsessively almost every day for years. I’d played the original as a teen in high school, the second as an adult agoraphobic. By the time the third rolled around, I was a full fledged member of games media and eventually, with dwindling time and resources (not to mention a newfound ability to criticize game design), I lost interest all together.
But one project I’d be preparing for before my departure was an epic, Alice in Wonderland themed mansion. I’d bought various sets and content packs and dozens of items in the Sims shop to pull it off; I got everything that looked even remotely related to the theme, from pieces of Alice-like art, to chess and card-themed furniture and decor. The plan was to make a Victorian style dwelling, with a beautiful Wonderland garden, complete with a rabbit hole, an outdoor life size chess game, and a Mad Hatter table setting. I also wanted to have the house act as a dormitory with at least one character representing each of the many new Sims types introduced by Supernatural and other expansions: Werewolf, Witch, Ghost, Fairy, Mermaid, Vampire, Genie and Alien. There they would live in magic harmony. After years of enjoying the delicate process of designing and decorating my own home in a fantasy setting with zero conflict and no budget limitations, this would be my magnum opus.
Before I could get to it either an update to the game or my slowing hardware caused a graphical glitch that made playing a fresh file on the newly released Island Paradise expansion a nightmare; everything was too slow and I couldn’t access any menus. One day I just kind of stopped playing altogether and didn’t look back.
This week, however, after all this time, I finally came back around. My sister and niece have been visiting for the holidays, and playing lots of The Sims 3 on their laptop and my daughter’s gaming PC. I told them about the plans I had all those years ago to make an Alice in Wonderland mansion, and they lit up with excitement and insisted that I should. After all, Sims content is expensive, did I really want it to go to waste? I agreed. Since I’d played The Sims 3 I’d even had a PC upgrade, so maybe there wouldn’t be the same issues that had caused me to quit playing in the first place. Why not?
It wasn’t long, however, before popping in that I realized that while I did indeed lose interest all those years ago because of slowing graphics and epic loading times, there was more to it then that. I’d been avoiding painful memories.
When I first got the Supernatural expansion, I was actually in the process of reviewing it for the blog I worked for. It seemed a fortuitous opportunity, one of the only times in games criticism that I actually got a “free” game, in that, it’s one I would have purchased anyway. At that kind of site, reviewing a game you’d otherwise have bought was the closest you got to being paid. I was pumped to start a new file, not only because the expansion was one of the more creative that EA Maxis had released for The Sims 3 so far, but also because I had what I thought was a super cute idea: I was going to make a big duplex where replicas of all my coworkers would live together, each one an exact copy of their personalities and appearances, carefully paired with one of the new supernatural Sim types. Then I would write about what the experience was like and how they played off of each other. Since the brand and its returning fanbase was more or less built on the strength of the personalities showcased on the site, it was a smart, fun way to represent them while having fun with my review.
Or at least, it was fun until it started to work. Within five minutes of pressing the Unpause button, I realized I had done well. Maybe too well. They looked, and responded, like the real thing, interacting with one another in ways that were predictable, but eerie. Of course, due to their personalities and professions, most of the time they worked long hours and fought over the computer. The social butterfly of the group and I spent long hours chatting about boys on the lawn.
After the first few hours, if my gaming rig had been a Macbook, I’d have dramatically slapped it shut. Even as a well-meant experiment, it was a bit much. Preparing for the inevitable review, I started snapping photos of how the Sims looked, with multiple photos for the outfits I’d picked for each. In any other workplace it might have been odd, but here it made sense to play paper dolls with my coworkers.
A few days after that, I got fired. I hadn’t seen it coming and I took it really hard. I’d recently spoken up about some of my experiences with sexism in the gaming industry, and my employer, skittish after some recent bad PR, dropped me like a hot platter. Since I’d come to see the site as my family (and with my unstable childhood), the firing, in many ways, felt like rejection, even abandonment. I think at the time I still deeply longed to be understood and loved despite my difficulty bonding with other people, so I took it much too hard. Afterwards I fled to the woods on my native Whidbey Island, hiding in my old neighborhood to recover for several days while I tried to get past my grief and embarrassment. I didn’t game for weeks.
Coming back to my computer after that brief hiatus was torture. There were casualties strewn across my PC. There, in the Videogames folder where I kept all my headers, were my former coworkers. Happy, posing, standing in their swimsuits and jammies, arms around each other in the file thumbnail I trimmed from the screenshots. People who I thought were my friends, but had only been colleagues, folks whose approval I’d desperately wanted but never got. It was never their responsibility to give me the self esteem and value I couldn’t find for myself, and yet, I had needed their kindness so badly. Even taking the few seconds necessary to dump the photos in the trash seemed too difficult. The brief flash of their faces on my screen each time I hit Upload was as much as I could handle. They hadn’t even said goodbye.
The pain faded a bit with repetition and time, but soon, it was out of sight, out of mind. I upgraded my rig, which let me avoid dealing with the screenshots altogether. It was my first time building a PC on my own, so my partner Alex stepped in to help. It was he that actually insisted I have additional room to include my old harddrive. Without his input, I might have skipped it, but it sounded like good advice. I wouldn’t have to worry about losing anything. I could have a backup for retrieving old game files and photos and that way, nothing I’d ever saved was truly gone.
But part of the appeal was that I wasn’t ready to move on. There were valuable memories stored on that harddrive, things I couldn’t bear to remember but refused to forget. I wanted to keep the pain open and waiting for the minute I chose to access it again. It was as if I installed a digital grave into the guts of my PC.
Last night after my niece went to bed, I dug up the Island Paradise expansion file I quit on all those years ago, curious as to where I’d left off and if the bugs had been fixed since I last played. Was it still glitchy and slow? Was I still interested in the characters? I doubted I would remember anything at all. Boy, was I wrong. Watching my duo descend the steps of their beach bungalow was a kick in the crotch. One Sim was clearly a version of me, a Witch with a pinched, upturned nose and auburn hair, wearing a smart, well-cut jacket. The other was a Werewolf, a Moody Writer with Commitment Issues and a familiar dark beard and glasses: my ex-boyfriend. Apparently, when it comes to games, shitting where I eat is one of my favorite things to do.
I’m not sure what to do with these phantom Sims files. You’d think, now that time has passed and I’ve moved on, I’d be eager to get rid of them. But oddly, I still want them around. In a way, dumping them into the Trash bin feels too much like erasing my own memories. And while even a year ago I might have gladly taken up the offer to simply wipe certain scenarios off my mental map and lose them forever, now I’m not so sure. I don’t want to forget the lessons that made me who I am now. Maybe it’s good to hold on to some things, even as you let go. I suppose my motivations and perspective have shifted, even if my conclusion has not.
As for my Alice in Wonderland file, it’s developing nicely. I’m currently building a hedge maze accented by red rose bushes, with a courtyard for the outdoor chess game. There are vintage street posts lighting the walkways leading out to the White Rabbit’s garden hole at the base of a beautiful grove of trees. Nearby, the Mad Hatter’s tea party is coming together with grand upholstered dining chairs, and long banquet tables with checkered patterns I’ve carefully afixed with the Style tool. My niece made a Sim for everyone in the family, and I’ve imported them through the Game Launcher, so we can all be together even in fantasy. The next time I revisit my virtual memories, it won’t be a shoebox stocked with hidden mementos of all my personal failures. It’ll be a photo album of my family.
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.