It’s no surprise that settings can be, and often are, important parts of a story told through a movie/book/show/whatever other fictional form. But so far, video games (or computer games, or digital games) have not been classified as fictional forms until very recently, and their status as ‘fictional forms’ has been neglected and even rejected. But what players often point out when comparing different renditions of The Sims games – The Sims (2000), The Sims 2 (2004), The Sims 3 (2009), and The Sims 4 (2014) – is the differences between the stories these games tell, and the extent to which they incorporate these stories into the game.
A particular set of stories in a video game (as well as other types of cultural texts, such as books, movies, or analogue games) is called ‘lore’. Lore is by no means a new word – it’s a pretty old one actually, and Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “traditional knowledge and stories about a subject”. That’s why we have the word “folklore”, which is “the traditional stories and culture of a group of people” (as well as one of Taylor Swift’s best albums!). Lore in the context of The Sims games is used to describe the collection of stories that the games tell through the characters, the relationships between them, their memories, world structure, and in-game descriptions of households etc. Fragments of the lore can also be found in paratexts such as tweets and other content published by people officially associated with the franchise (e.g. the so-called “SimGurus” – @SimGuruFrost, @SimGuruGraham, and others on twitter).
A signature thing about The Sims games is that they tend to tell the stories of a number of Sims who re-appear in the different renditions of the game, only at different points in time in the lore timeline. For example, a Sim named Bella Goth is present in the first The Sims game as an adult living with her husband Mortimer and child Cassandra. In The Sims 2, Bella is not present in the game, but her family is – only now Mortimer is an elder, Cassandra is a teenager, and there is also Bella’s second child, Alexander, who is a child. Bella is still present in the storytelling of The Sims 2, as the story goes that she went missing from Pleasantville, where she had resided with her family, and some mysterious sightings of her have since happened in another neighbourhood called Strangetown. In The Sims 3, Bella appears again, only this time the timeline has gone back – she is a child and her name is Bella Bachelor, which is her maiden name. In The Sims 4 the timeline is somewhere between that in the first and second game, as Bella lives with Mortimer and their two children in a world called Willow Creek.
The timeline and storyline are not always consistent between all these games. Add to that the console editions of The Sims, and there is a bunch of information that sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t follow the rules of logic. This lengthy intro has hopefully explained some ways in which The Sims games perform storytelling, and now I can talk about what I came here to talk about, which is the role of architecture in the telling of stories in The Sims 2.
Sure, you could say that the digital, 1-0-1-0 (binary code!) buildings made by players in a video game are not really architecture. And you may be right. But I needed that word to make you think like the world in the game is a real world, and so buildings in that world can actually be considered architecture. Anyway, you know what I mean. How can houses tell stories through the way they were built?
The Goth family house – 165 Sim Lane, Pleasantview
The exterior looks like it’s made of shingle, a popular exterior covering option for houses in North America in the 19th and early 20th century. While the Goth house doesn’t have a roofed porch – which is a shame since because of that the house looks a bit empty (though no less iconic) – the intricacy of existing details may suggest that the house could have been built sometime in the 19th century (in Sim time, obviously; though time in The Sims is somewhat frozen, I’ll write about this one day). The house doesn’t look Queen Anne. It doesn’t look Eastlake. If anything, it gives a slight flavour of the Shingle style. Maybe it was designed by the Sim equivalent of McKim, Mead and White? Like, maybe it lacks the horizontality (William G. Low House, 1887), but it sticks to the similar range of 90 and 45 degree angles and a modest colour palette kept in the browns.
There are Goth-ic elements to the Goth house in The Sims 2, but it’s certainly not like the entire house is Gothic (or Neo-Gothic, more appropriately). But it’s not like it was possible to make a fully Gothic house in The Sims 2, anyway. The Build Mode in TS2 was pretty advanced, but not advanced enough to be anything like The Sims 4, where you can change the shape of the roof from concave to convex; the extent of the roof overhang; the height of house foundation; the height of walls; build basements without using tragically complicated tricks and cheats, etc. The Goth house in The Sims 4 is a lot more Gothic (if Gothic has a scale?) – see image below. The two houses have little in common, but what they have in common, you could say, are the grey brick exterior; chimney; railings and fences that are more on the intricate side; more old-looking windows, with many divisions of the glass pane; and that neither of them is particularly pretty. On the interior, they have more in common – they feature expensive, regal-looking furniture and stick to darker colours, whether that be black, dark red, dark green, dark blue, or dark brown.
There is a small cemetery behind TS2 Goth house. Combined with the old willows and the general ‘old look’ of the house, we find out that the family who lives there (=the Goths) has probably been here for a while. The house has certainly been there for a while, since it is old, the big willows outside are old, and there’s graves… because you know, you don’t typically find graves at a freshly finished house, I guess.
The Caliente and Lothario houses – 170 Main Street & 150 Main Street, Pleasantview
Images of both 150 and 170 Main Street lots come from sims.fandom.com articles for the lots. These articles claim that these houses, together with three other neighbouring houses in Pleasantview that look similar (same shape, looks, and the presence of palms… in a presumably temperate suburb?), are referred to as “the Condo District”. I have not seen this term, or any other reference to them being “condos”, myself. Condos are most often understood as building that consist of several residential units with some jointly owned common areas; however, there can also be “detached condo(minium)s”, which resemble detached, single-family houses, but are considered condos because the external facilities (such as streets, yards, exteriors, etc.) and/or recreational facilities (e.g. swimming pools, tennis courts, etc.) are jointly owned and maintained by a community association, i.e. an association of owners of the condominiums in the complex. The term comes from Latin condominium, which combines the prefix con- (together) with dominium (dominion, ownership). Not something I’ve thought of before, but it makes complete sense now! The condo residents own their own flats/houses, BUT they own some facilities together with other condo residents.
Still, it’s not like I can justify the use of the word “condo” for these lots – but also, I don’t have access to The Sims 2 at the moment, so maybe I’m missing something from the other lots’ descriptions?
When it comes to the residents… Dina and Nina Caliente are daughters of Flamenco Caliente (who was potentially Spanish/Latino) and Nighat Al Mahmoud (who was potentially of Arab descent). (Note that the Caliente sisters’ family tree looks different in The Sims 4, where their mother is Katrina Caliente. Katrina’s maiden name is unknown, but we know that she likes Don Lothario, potentially romantically, just like her daughters). (Also note that any discussion re ethnicities in The Sims 2 is only dependent on ethnic connotations of name as if they existed in the real world; Sims have no in-game system of acquiring or inheriting ethnicity, nationality, and other cultural identities – anything like that is given by the player independently of the procedural gameplay).
Don Lothario is the town’s Lovelace – a fit man, allegedly of personal charm and visual valour. He’s engaged, but truly, his Life Aspiration is Romance, so living alone in a trendy modern single-household house suits him better, as it’s a perfect place for luring potential lovers into and showing off. Same goes for Nina and Dina Caliente, really. Nina also has the Romance Aspiration, while Dina’s Aspiration is Money, so a modern, trendy, and not-cheap-looking house suits them well and responds to their desired lifestyles of hedonism and material comfort.
The Broke family house – 55 Woodland Drive, Pleasantview
The 55 Woodland Drive is home to the Broke family: Brandi (nee Newbie), Dustin, and Beau. Dustin and Beau are sons of Brandi and her deceased late husband Skip Broke. The house doesn’t look neglected as such, but it certainly looks like whoever lives there might be low on money – the house is fitted with cheap, cheap-looking furniture, particularly the fold-up garden chairs and table in the kitchen. The oddity is that Brandi’s red bedroom looks out of place here, as her bed is from the more expensive side than the rest of the house.
While the house isn’t a trailer, it certainly bears resemblance to it with its elongated shape and single-storey-ness. From the outside, it also looks like it was made of the cheaper materials, potentially some plastic horizontal siding and raw slabs of cement as the foundation. The landscaping isn’t rich, and the path leading up to the entrance stairs is also cement tiles, which could potentially be associated with more ‘grungy’ or ‘shabby’ neighbourhoods (I’m putting the apostrophes here because personally I grew up amid lots of concrete and I’m hesitant when it comes to attaching classist interpretations to building materials – but that’s what I’m doing here anyway). Overall, the house looks like pretty good match for the “Broke” family (who’s literally broke), and the odd red bedroom suggests that there’s something… well… kind of special about the relationship between Brandi Broke and her late husband Skip. Why is this bedroom so red and extravagant? It is up to the player to fill in the gaps in the story.
The Pleasant family house – 215 Sim Lane, Pleasantview.
The house at 215 Sim Lane in Pleasantview is a large detached home with a steep roof and a facade that makes it resemble a “Stockbroker Tudor” type of house. A “Stockbroker Tudor” is a term coined by architectural historian/cartoonist Osbert Lancaster (1908-1986), used by him to describe a style of house that employed pastiche Tudor features on the facade – hence “… Tudor” (see below). The “Stockbroker” part comes from the fact that this style was initially limited to well-off citizens – such as stockbrokers – as it was expensive to produce such a house.
This style became popular in the first half of the 20th century in Britain. However, it has since also appeared in the United States and other Anglophone countries. In his 2015 book The Tudor Home (illustrated by photographs by Paul Rocheleau), Kevin Murphy wrote that the style was “equated with stability, venerability, and success in society and business, due in no small part to the notoriety of the ‘stockbroker Tudor’ neighborhoods in New York City’s toniest suburbs” (Murphy 2015, p18). This is what’s significant for the storytelling of the Pleasant family – the family is to be viewed as one that’s successful, a fulfillment of one’s dreams about building a family, a house, and material wealth. After all, the mother in the family – Mary-Sue (though this name can also mean a lot…) – works in the political career (even though she is only an intern, level 2 of the Politics career – I guess this emphasises that she has little time for activities other than work, which relates to the epitome of career success in the conventional Western society). Her husband Daniel, on the other hand, is on level 8 of the Athletic career, working as Assistant Coach. This means he earns an impressive 1,488 Simoleons per working day (working 5 hours x 3 days per week). Because of his career level, the family earns a substantial amount each week, so their earnings could match the house’s worth, which is just over 100,000 Simoleons.
If we want to read more into the social meaning of the (Stockbroker) Tudor style, we may mention its function as recalling a sort of “escapist fantasy“, distancing the inhabitants of such house from the modern, industrial, conflicted world (Murphy, in Vanderbilt University History of Art Blog, 2018, para2). Tudor homes could “give the impression of being more established, not be so much nouveau riche as old riche”, or to distinguish the house owner from non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants to the US, particularly New York City suburbs (ibid, para3). Now, there would definitely be reason for Daniel Pleasant to try and impress other people – he has the aspiration of Romance, and a developing affair with the housemaid, Kaylynn Langerak.
The Dreamer family house – 195 Main Street, Pleasantview
There is little remarkable about this house. And the Dreamer family is hardly remarkable – the inhabitants of the house are pretty low profile. There’s Darren and his teenage son Dirk, living just the two of them since Darren’s wife and Dirk’s mother Darleen died. When the player first enters the lot, the following notification pops up:
Darren Dreamer wants to paint for a living, but does he have the skills to pay the bills? Those past-due statements are starting to pile up…
I guess Darren isn’t a remarkable artist, the same way that the house is not remarkable at all. It is a sort of a blank canvas, ready for the player to take to new heights (or in the opposite direction) along with Darren’s career. The future of Dirk isn’t certain either, as he’s only a teenager with no particular storyline to him.
Here are just some examples of how buildings created in The Sims 2 by the game’s producers relate to the storylines of the Sims inhabiting them. Like the Sims 2 reality, the buildings seem strongly embedded in the United States tradition. Although the game is relatively old – compared with other popular titles on the video game market – and is celebrating its 18th birthday this year, its capacity to tell stories was no weaker back in 2004 than it is now, in the game’s fourth rendition, The Sims 4 (2014-).
Pleasantview isn’t my favourite neighbourhood in TS2, it’s actually Strangetown because of how strange its stories are (aliens, ghosts, spectres, and all). Pleasantview has to do for part 1, though. Stay tuned for more Sims-analytical content on my blog.