Success Without the Threat of Failure

March 16, 2015

Yes, this is another Sims article. Shut up.

The Sims 2 was the best Sims game. Okay, so that’s a bit of a polarizing opinion,  but for the purposes of this article, you need to understand that I really strongly believe that the Sims 2 was the best Sims game so far. Yeah, it had a lot of issues that the next two games in the series improved upon, including but not limited to, time not being synchronized between lot transitions, NPCs being generated from templates and a hardcoded limit on the number of skills the game could have. But the solid concepts were there and it was a stable, enjoyable game.

A Knowledge sim going through Aspiration Failure with Professor Volleyball.


It was also one of the most rewarding to play. Unlike its predecessor, sims had more to their lives than just surviving. The Aspiration mechanics gave sims things that they wanted to do and things that they definitely did not want to do. Fulfilling these wants would fill the sim’s aspiration meter while realizing fears would decay the meter, which would decay over time anyway if you didn’t do anything. The state of the sim’s Aspiration meter was an indication of how fulfilled they were with their life at that moment. If the meter got too low the sim would begin to go through a mental breakdown. Romance aspirants would start snogging a mop head, family sims would start cradling a bag of flour as if it were a baby, and so on.

It was an interesting mechanic and it expanded the goal of the original The Sims from just preventing your little virtual people from keeling over in starvation but also to stop them from going mad with unfulfillment. Something, something Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

But for Sims 3 and 4, EA just kind of… just did away with all that. Not with the wants, (those were kept in as Wishes and Whims respectively), but with the fears. Essentially the aspiration system of Sims 2 was altered to have absolutely no failure state. Oh sure, with Sims 3’s negative moodlets and Sims 4’s emotions, it’s certainly possible to have your sims feel like shit, but all of that faded over time. With no outward input, a sim’s mood would essentially just default to happiness.

More or less, a sim’s overall happiness with their life equates to ‘Well, I’m not on fire or starving and no one has died in the last few days so my life must be awesome.’  Which, if you ask me, is a pretty pessimistic outlook. It’s also all rather shallow. If a sim’s mood is entirely determined by whether or not they’re surviving  and sims have no need of actual fulfillment. Getting what they want is more of a bonus than a requirement for your simulated people to live a full and happy life, and, as someone who’s both dealt with issues to my own mental health and has read a lot about it, that feels a lot further from actual simulation than The Sims 2 got. Sure The Sims 4 sims can get angry and sad and embarrassed and whatnot, but these seem purposefully balanced to not last as long as more positive emotions. Disappointment is momentary, happiness is forever.

There’s a rose-tinted problem in the Sims community, and I can’t deny that. I’m probably extremely susceptible to that myself and my claims that TS2 was just inherently better than later games should be open to challenge. Go look at archived complaints from forums and livejournal communities from around 2006 or so and you’ll see that the complaints that players had back then are more or less indistinguishable from the ones they have today. But people will insist again and again that the days of The Sims 2 and The Sims 3 were the glory days where everyone was happy and EA did not own Maxis* and video games physically fellated you when you played them.

But that doesn’t mean that the differences between games should never be criticized, especially when games made ten years earlier than The Sims 4 manage to do simulation, the main point of the series, just better than it does. And don’t think that The Sims 3 is exempt from this criticism; in fact I think it does worse than the Sims 4 when it comes to the possibility of failure. When did we go from just struggling to survive in The Sims 1, to also needing to fulfill a sim’s mental and emotional needs in The Sims 2, to struggling in The Sims 3 and 4 to find ways to make the game more challenging, because otherwise it’s just not as interesting to play.

I’m not saying that games with no failure state are bad or “aren’t games”. I enjoyed Gone Home immensely and even like to load up my old Dogz for the GBA cartridge sometimes when I want to relax with a cute children’s game about raising a puppy. But the Sims games do have a failure state. Death, poverty, losing children to social services are all failure states that can be obtained in any Sims game. But for some reason the ability to  fail when it comes to making your sims feel happy and fulfilled with their lives was forgotten about sometime after 2004. And making it impossible to fail, makes succeeding pointless. When the only option is long term happiness, happiness doesn’t matter anymore. And that is the problem with success without the chance of failure: it’s meaningless and shallow. And most importantly, it’s boring. Most video games rely on the chance of the player failing to get most of its excitement. How interesting would Mario be if there were no pitfalls and invincibility mode was on all the time? Bioshock has an amazing story and environment design but how would have kept your interest if there were no enemies? And the Sims really isn’t any different. Most of the interest in the game is making sure your sims eat enough or can pay their bills, all mechanics that have survived the series through every installment.

So why is this particular kind of challenge being ignored by The Sims Studio?

*No one in Sims discussions can seem to figure out when exactly EA acquired Maxis and any era where the person speaking enjoyed the Sims games more than they do now is determined to have been before the Evil Armpire bought up the studio. Spoiler alert: EA bought Maxis in 1997, three years before The Sims 1 was released.