In most games, we know who we are and who we aren't. In Mass Effect, we are Shepard - the story is told from her point of view, and we only control her. (Female Shepard is my canon. Sorry.) In RPGs where you create an entire party (like Icewind Dale), there is never really an expectation of identifying with any of them since they are all built at the same time. In strategy games, you are God or a king or Napoleon-but-not-Napoleon because he is also a unit on the map.
Roleplaying in The Sims is about the evolution of multiple consciousnesses. If you create a family from scratch, then you might have an idea who each of these people are from the beginning. But if, like most players, you start with a single or a young couple, then most of the time you are learning about your new family. But you also have to control them and help their consciousness evolve. You aren't quite playing a family. Sims that are out of your control - and in a family of five that is a lot of lost control - will do as they please once their queued orders expire. And, in my own experience, that first created Sim is still the "main Sim," the one that is used for wish fulfillment.
But identity is malleable, and few people are as adept at changing perspectives as gamers. We move from space marine to dragonslayer to race car driver from night to night, week to week. The Sims simply accelerates that, challenging you to understand what the computer creations in front of you actually want. You can only guarantee their needs by shifting from persona to persona, subtly answering the question "What would this character do in this situation?"
In many ways, The Sims is true roleplaying even if you don't consider it a roleplaying game. The Sims was originally pitched as a dollhouse game and the comparison is obvious. You move the dolls around your immaculately designed home, letting Barbie and Ken make woohoo under the sheets. But moving the dolls is the simplest thing you do. You also weigh their desires and their needs. You postpone the present joys for future glory. Or indulge in immediate opportunity and say "To hell with tomorrow." All the while, other personalities may intrude, compete for your attention, and clamor for your care. It's bigger than just a dollhouse; the player is like an only child in the backyard who must play every part of the action movie in his head, the Sims player has to either create or embrace the motivations of a myriad of characters.
The fact that The Sims can make this adjustment so easy and so comfortable is a tribute to its genius. You play a dozen lifetimes in the course of a single family unit and never notice how effortlessly it asks you to change roles or perspectives.
In that way, The Sims is the most ambitious RPG ever made.
Troy Goodfellow is a freelance journalist based in Maryland. He blogs about strategy games at Flash of Steel and host the strategy themed podcast Three Moves Ahead. He always names his starter Sim the same thing.