Creating a single Sim is a painstaking process. Even without all the clothing and facial customization features in the most recent edition, you are confronted with a wide array of traits that will determine how your Sim will behave, what your Sim will like, how your Sim will react to dangers and crises. Do you make a Sim that mimics your own life or do you create the kind of person that you always wanted to be? The process is more involved and more difficult than building your typical RPG character because it feels like you are giving birth to a personality - not a math equation.
We aren't used to seeing The Sims as a roleplaying game, even thought it has all the hallmarks of one. Usually defined as a strategy game (manage resources - usually time - efficiently to meet a goal) or a sandbox game (goals are user-defined and unlimited), it transcends even those wide boundaries. The game starts by focusing on a central character who must repeat tasks and complete small quests in order to improve him or herself. The characters have strengths and weaknesses and once you manage a household you will see the importance of specialization.
Why do we resist the RPG appellation for this genre-bending hit? A lot of it comes down to the personality thing. You aren't creating a character as much as you are making a person, someone with limited free will and whose reactions to other people and places are sometimes out of your control.
British game design student Robin Burkinshaw is one of those people who doesn't like the RPG label for The Sims. It's more an opportunity for story-telling and computer-aided improvisational theater. Burkinshaw's Alice and Kev stories, a series of short fiction based on the adventures of a homeless man and his daughter, is a poignant reminder of how easy it is to assume the role of a Sim.
Burkinshaw set out with a different goal from most Sims players. "I know a lot of people who like to play The Sims as wish fulfillment, just enjoying having an alternate life where they are rich and successful," he says. "I wanted to make my first experience with [The Sims 3] as much of a struggle as I could make it."
And a struggle it was. He committed to playing Alice unless she was in school or asleep, with her deadbeat father Kevin there mostly as someone for her to react to and against. This set up some troubling dynamics for Burkinshaw.
"Like the scene where I decide to try to repair the relationship between them after Kev hits Alice. Because I'm controlling Alice, it is she that tries to make amends, and it's she that tries to apologize. By limiting myself to only influencing one side of the conversation in that situation, I inadvertently recreated the behavior of someone in a real abusive relationship, and felt mildly horrified at myself."
Robin Burkinshaw sees playing The Sims more like story-telling than roleplaying. Like an author, he sees places the story "went wrong" for him.