House-building is similarly layered. Houses can be constructed by selecting from a range of pre-furnished “rooms” that can be dragged to the size you want, or you can go in and construct rooms individually, carpeting and furnishing them yourself. You can’t build swimming pools anymore, which is a bizarre omission, and one of many features that probably should come in the vanilla game by now but don’t. But there are more than enough options here to build the house of your dreams. Or nightmares, if you're that kind of Sims player.
It’s when you switch from “build mode” to “live mode” that the problems begin to arise. Credit where it is due, EA have done a lot of work in making their Sims appear more like human beings. The different moods your Sims can either wallow or revel in, ranging from the straightforward happy/sad binary to much more nuanced emotions like focussed, energised, annoyed, bored, inspired and embarrassed, are all represented in their demeanour, and play into their personality traits. Naturally creative Sims will fare better at artistic endeavours while feeling inspired, and genius Sims will play Chess better when feeling focussed.
In addition, Sims can now multi-task, conversing with multiple people at once, and interacting with Sims while cooking or watching TV. They can’t play Chess while sat on the toilet though, I tested that. It all adds to the increasingly natural feel to the game. It is remarkable how well Sims are animated, how they cope with navigating rooms and interacting with the vast array of objects you can fill their homes with.
The problem is that most of this is surface detail, and when it comes down to it, there isn’t much granularity or indeed variety within the simulation. One could reasonably argue that the Sims has always been a fairly shallow game, a capitalist fantasy in which success is defined by products and promotions. But with each sequel the façade becomes increasingly obvious.
All those moodlets, all those personality traits, are merely variations in lives that are largely the same. Regardless of what they’re like as people, all Sim lives are a similar cycle of eating, sleeping ,working and dying, in a schedule so tightly packed with the everyday hassle of life that there’s very little time for your Sims to flourish as individuals. It would help if we could be with our Sims when they’re at work or at school, places where there’s a greater chance for challenges or conflict, but no doubt this has been sectioned off for another bloody expansion pack. You do get little notifications from those institutions that enable you to make a choice about how your Sim reacts to an off-screen situation. But I feel like, after four games, EA are capable of better than this.
It’s common to describe the Sims as a playable soap-opera, but its biggest problem is that it isn’t. Ironically, the work and school notifications possess the one feature the Sims needs generally, greater choice and consequence. For example, there’s a dialogue option to start a vicious rumour, but there’s no specifics regarding what the rumour is about, and there’s no real consequence for doing this.
I want my Sims to whisper about what Mr Smith and Mrs Jones get up to on a Saturday night, or what Old Man Jenkins has got hidden in his basement. I want a neighbourhood with a history, and I want to add to that history. When Emperor Palpatine declares his own granddaughter as his “enemy” I want that to mean something beyond making Kacy feel “annoyed” and filling up Palpatine’s “criminal mastermind” aspiration bar. In short, I want stories, not routines.
In the end, The Sims 4 achieves a technologically impressive yet still somewhat unconvincing approximation of how people communicate and interact with one another, like Schwarzenegger’s T-800 learning about feeling. For all its moodlets and multitasking, The Sims 4 still doesn’t simulate a community in the same way games like Dwarf Fortress and Crusader Kings do, and I really feel that by now, it should. Life is full of stories, and it’s about time the Sims started telling them, instead of merely showing how quickly and meaninglessly time can pass you by.