Sims 3 (Mobile version)

imagesLately I’ve been thinking more about emergent narrative — in particular, the idea that a sandbox-style game can produce elements that the player then weaves together into a story that he finds satisfying. The story isn’t really a product of the game, and it’s not necessarily true that anyone else playing the game would perceive the same story. The onus is on the player to determine which of the many otherwise insignificant events contribute to the narrative.

I’m pretty skeptical about this idea. Or rather: I can see that some such thing does happen, in that lots of (say) Sims users construct elaborate stories with their characters, and share movies and narratives. But in general this is not what I would call interactive storytelling; it seems more like handing the user a really complicated dollhouse that happens to have built-in tools for recording and editing the best scenes.

Still, I thought I ought to put a bit more research into this topic before I dismiss the possibilities. It’s been a while since I had (and got tired of the grinding aspects of) the original Sims, so I tried downloading Sims 3 for my iPhone.

Alas, I find it a dead bore.

The characters spend less time in the bathroom and more chatting one another up, but still, the core of the game is about tediously managing daily life tasks and scheduling. There isn’t much challenge, but neither are the choices very interesting.

The mechanism that lets you pick personality traits does give different Sim protagonists different goals — but the variety provided there is shallow enough that you can explore the results within a few hours of play. Alternative personality styles such as Sleaze, Jerk, and Maniac each add one or two subversive activities to the player’s goals and behavior, but there simply isn’t enough payoff to make these very interesting. They’re not fun to do very many times by themselves: there’s a limit to how many trash cans you can kick over before the indignation of the owners stops being funny. (About .5, I’d say.)

And when you do accomplish a major goal for your Sim, all that comes of it is a cute little screen congratulating you on your accomplishment. What doesn’t happen: any significant development to the story or the options available within the game.

There are a couple of mini-games that I assume were added specifically for the iPhone, including a cooking scenario where you shake pots to prevent them boiling over, and a fishing scenario where you jerk the phone sharply upward in order to reel in a fish. (Then: feel stupid the first time you hit yourself in the nose.)

I have the feeling that the crew adapting the game for the iPhone were determined to do something with its tilting and acceleration detection, but didn’t think at all about the entertainment value of the fishing game after the first three times the player caught something. The game doesn’t get any harder, nor does the experience of fishing seem to change much as your Sim gets more skill points. You do catch more valuable fish with a more fishing-skilled Sim, eventually even allowing you to pull tuna out of the town lake. Your Sim can carry up to three of these at a time, which is a fairly comical idea if you’ve ever seen an actual tuna.

Unfortunately, fishing is an extremely lucrative activity. In an afternoon your Sim can catch hundreds of Simoleans’ worth of fish, considerably more than he can earn working all day at an entry-level job. This means that there’s a game-play motivation to spend a lot of your time on this tedious and unchanging task. (And: feel even stupider the second time you hit yourself in the nose.)

The mini-games involving cooking and repairing household objects are equally boring. Moreover, in order to make the repair mini-game show up frequently, the designers have made all your Sim’s household possessions incredibly unreliable: they’ll go on the fritz and start spitting sparks after about two days of ownership.

Probably in retrospect this isn’t a fair test of Sims 3. The mobile game is clearly cut down a lot from the full desktop version — missing are the tools for customizing homes and furniture, many of the variations to personal appearance, other kinds of life-long goal, and (as far as I can tell from looking at reviews) a number of public buildings and types of furniture. I’ve already unlocked all the furniture options in the iPhone version, so even the pleasure of boundless consumerism is likely to wear off soon. I just need to have my Vain Neurotic Jerk sell a couple dozen more of these freakish miniature freshwater tuna and he’ll be able to invest in that 1200 Simolean Modern TV.

There’s no onwards or upwards after that.

The frustrating thing is that I can imagine some of the mechanisms here being used to more narratively fruitful effect. Let the player pick personality traits and goals (as he already can); reward him in-game somehow for behaving “in character”; but have the game produce conflicts that create pressure to break or reconsider these long-standing traits. Perhaps the Jerk falls madly in love with one of the people he’s alienated, forcing him to rethink and revise his behavior. Perhaps the Nice Guy starts getting pressured and manipulated by people who take too much advantage of him. Perhaps even attempts to change bring on setbacks. The game is resolved when the Sim either decides to persevere as he is despite all odds, or caves to the pressures and experiences some kind of character change.

That kind of design would admittedly tend to encourage less self-insertion and shorter play arcs than is traditional for the Sims. But would this be such a bad thing in the mobile version? The game is already cut down so much from the full feature set that it’s hard to imagine anyone playing for hundreds of hours the way they do with the desktop game.

29 thoughts on “Sims 3 (Mobile version)

  1. Lately I’ve been thinking more about emergent narrative …

    I’m pretty skeptical about this idea. Or rather: I can see that some such thing does happen, in that lots of (say) Sims users construct elaborate stories with their characters, and share movies and narratives. But in general this is not what I would call interactive storytelling; it seems more like handing the user a really complicated dollhouse that happens to have built-in tools for recording and editing the best scenes.

    Still, I thought I ought to put a bit more research into this topic before I dismiss the possibilities.

    I’m not aware, Emily, that anyone would call the Sims interactive narrative; I hope you’re not dismissing interactive narrative on the weakness of using the Sims for that purpose, when, as you say, narrative doesn’t seem to be the purpose of the Sims game?


    • Interactive narrative != emergent narrative. I’m not dismissing interactive narrative as a whole, a field I consider quite large.

      The reason I’m looking at Sims and some of its relatives (other Sim-type games, Spore) is that Will Wright has from time to time made an argument that these model worlds provide the building blocks out of which the player can assemble his own story. So I’m playing with the question of whether this notion which is sometimes called emergent narrative has merit; whether (as Jesper Juul briefly argues in half-real) “emergent narrative” is so fuzzily defined that it is essentially a meaningless term; whether giving the player the tools to make his own story is something fundamentally different from interactive storytelling, or whether they are two points on a continuum; etc.

      But (as you can probably tell from my rambling) I am still at a very early stage of thinking about this question.

      • I’m thinking it over…

        Meantime, as a hypnotist, I was very surprised to see Wright mention neuro-linguistic programming in passing like that. Is this something game designers discuss?


        ps – Maybe you’d get more out of your Sims 3 game if you can find an add-on allowing you once a week to discover that one of your Sims is a Cylon.

      • I don’t know if The Sims and similar sandbox games are meant to elicit
        much of a narrative-minded reading, but I was interested to discover
        that some players take just that approach:

        (1) A pseudo-journal style story about a sims 3 game:

        (2) A dramatically styled description of a play through of _Dwarf

        (3) A less conscientiously narrated account of a playthrough of
        _Dwarf Fortress_:

        I find that these readings are a bit… insufficient as stories, but I
        also find that the authors usually convey quite a bit of enthusiasm
        for the stories and their experience in playing the game and
        discovering these stories. I suppose that I might be a bit naive not
        to at least wonder if they are intentionally written in a dramatic
        context to make an otherwise boring experience seem more interesting,
        but most of these accounts seem somehow sincere, even if I can’t
        precisely identify why they seem that way.

        I also cannot help but associate the more intentionally dramatic
        retellings (ex. 1 & 2) with the kind of improvised stories young
        children often come up with during unstructured play, though it is clear the players had to work hard on getting the expository framework right (the sims 3 player had to design the living arrangments and the dwarf fortress player had to kill or otherwise hurt most of the dwarf colony early on). I do wonder
        if it is common for people to desire or provide a narrative on sandbox
        simulation games.

      • Are you saying that you are unsure of the uses and correct manipulations of this form of pleasure, or that you are unsure if it exists at all, or are unsure if it exists in the Sims?

        I think players of games can be placed along an axis – how much of the narrative do they want to be left to them? At one end, you have something like Nobi Nobi Boy, at the other, you have Final Fantasy 7.

        I was trying to explain to a friend recently why I preferred Baldur’s Gate one to any of its sequels – I feel much of the pleasure of this sort of game is to be presented with an idea, a sketch of a character, and then left to think up what they were doing and feeling. The game’s job is to give its own ideas of who the characters are, and these must to come to the surface in discrete chunks and chafe and align and make friction with my own, to give me the pleasure of reshading my ideas to incorporate new evidence as often as I want that challenge.

        As often as I want that challenge will differ from player to player, which is where things could be related back to IF, and to the discussion of tenses from a few posts back, perhaps…

      • I’m sure many people do enjoy making up stories based on elements of games, and there is ample evidence that Sims provides fruitful elements for such development.

        What I’m less certain about is whether there is a continuum of interactive storytelling from “very unconnected and undetermined” to “very connected and highly determined”, with sandbox games at one end and, say, Photopia at the other.

      • What I’m less certain about is whether there is a continuum of interactive storytelling from “very unconnected and undetermined” to “very connected and highly determined”, with sandbox games at one end and, say, Photopia at the other.

        I would argue that there was, and that individual players tended to have a ‘sweet spot’ of maximum enjoyment somewhere along it. Pure undetermined sandbox affairs, such as the Sims, shade nicely into mostly-sandbox affairs such as sports management sims, followed by sandboxes with a story nevertheless mostly secondary, such as Black-and-White. Then you would have games like fire emblem, where the story is an undeniable narrative, but so light that the player must invent much of it of play with an empty head, and so on.

        What positions on the continuum do you think are vacant?

      • There’s a lot of wiggle-room in that question. If the designer completely understands the algorithm by which in-game plots are generated, and the game follows this algorithm, even though the designer didn’t expect this precise combination of elements — does that count? Is a semi-random assembly of pre-fab components enough? How complicated does the algorithm have to be before the outcome becomes surprising?

    • ..and what counts as a “well-formed story,” yes. I’m asking, if you were to apply to these terms reasonable, honest meanings, in your judgement, how would you answer?

      • No, because emergent narrative (as I understand the term generally to be applied) assumes that the narrative emerges from the game’s systems/world model without the story being specifically orchestrated. Other approaches might involve a more deliberate narrative planning on the part of the game. I don’t think, for instance, that I would describe Façade as featuring “emergent narrative”, because it is very intentionally structured around short- and long-term dramatic elements, rising action and resolution, etc., in the hope of structuring a specific type of story.

      • Cool,

        (And I agree with you about Facade.)

        However, it does seem that, if we had a game that did produce unscripted narrative as an emergent property of gameplay, that the stuff of narrative would be atomized and woven into the structure of the simulator somehow.

        Leaving it as a blank canvas, where the player can do anything he likes, won’t add up to narrative, I wouldn’t think, any more than a blank page or a handful of dolls add up to a story. Simulator behavior would have to add up to narrative logic.

        So, I’m wondering, how broken down does the narrative logic have to get for the resulting story to be “emergent” and “unscripted?”


      • Leaving it as a blank canvas, where the player can do anything he likes, won’t add up to narrative, I wouldn’t think, any more than a blank page or a handful of dolls add up to a story. Simulator behavior would have to add up to narrative logic.

        To me this sounds equivalent to stating that emergent narrative is just not a possibility: at most, you have a system that *pretends* to be a sandbox/life simulator of some kind, but is secretly doing some drama-management behind the scenes, even if it’s very “broken down”. (I’m not quite sure what that would even mean: it seems to me that any really effective narrative planner is going to have to be able to take in the long-term shape of the story, which would require broad access to the world state.)

      • I don’t know if you’re paraphrasing what you think I’m saying, or telling me what you think; but, yes, that does seem like the logical conclusion.

        My goal here is not to arrive at a conclusion, but to clarify what we’re talking about: How would we know if we had emergent narrative?

        You’re saying that, for it to be “emergent,” the micro-behavior at the simulator level has to add up to macro-behavior that we recognize as narrative. That’s probably correct–

        Personally, I’m not so strict. If we a program that had some sense of timing, and at certain times action-y bits were more likely — I’d be fine with that.

        But we’d expect that *none* of the narratives were scripted, and that it produced a respectable diversity of narratives. You’ll seee that this is where I was coming from with my question about the game narrative surprising its programmer.

        In my opinion…

        And I can’t prove any of this, but it seems likely to me…

        Plot is not the problem for computers; story is. Dreams do not have plot; but they have story. And stories sell plots; they convince us.

        Consider the various cheap rip-offs of Shakespeare — Shakespeare retold. They can be quite terrible, even though they have the same plot. We don’t buy them, because the story is not as convincing.

        And that is odd, because Shakespearean plots are often implausible. But his story-telling sells them. I wonder if it doesn’t happen in the nuance and the detail, if the skill of storytelling isn’t to con the audience into believing that the macro-effects of the plot arise because of the details of the story.

        Computers games can be convicing, in an A/V sense, and that might carry a plot. But I don’t think it will make it a narrative.

        To switch tracks, I don’t think it can be done in the simulator, because plots are artificial patterns imposed on human emotionality. Supposing we could get human emotionality ballpark-right in a simulator, what we would get is an emotionally realistic version of the Sims.

        It would be incoherent; like life. Human emotionality does not in nature add up to plot. Plot is an artifice. (If it were otherwise, we wouldn’t need narratives.)


  2. Interesting post. I haven’t played Sims 3 (my laptop would likely fizzle under the pressure) but I do have 2. There’s too much micromanagement in it for my tastes. It’s initially neat to watch my Sims go take a bath or cook dinner, but after the tenth time it turns into a chore. The more interesting aspects of the game – the ones outside the house, in other words – seem to sap motives and throw off sleep schedules. Most people I know abuse the motive cheats with abandon.

    As far as narrative, I was pretty impressed with the Alice and Kev blog that’s been going around, less for the writing (I’m not sure why that’s what people are praising. It’s sufficiently deadpan, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but the pictures work better) than for the mining of a decent, in my eyes, narrative out of the game. Some of it, the author stated, has to be done himself, with a lot of filling in of blanks, but some of it happens from free will events.

  3. Ah, I was going to chime in with Dwarf Fortress but I see I’ve been pre-empted. To me, this is an excellent example of something that is both a game (that dictates rules to you) and a toy (through which you can make your own game). The expanded narratives that I find myself telling through my DF games is massive – but to be fair the game does a lot of the work here. It doesn’t need me to fill in too many blanks as the level of detail within the software is enormous. It just requires that imaginative leap to go from basic (or even ASCII) graphics to a living, breathing world. In some respects this can be a strength – like a novel, or an IF game, having no visuals requires imaginiative investment in the work – which can then pay off dividends as a user-imagined world is far more engrossing than one you’ve forced on them.

    If you have the patience to learn it Emily (there is a large difficult curve to tackle), then I’d wholeheartedly recommend Dwarf Fortress as a top example of contributory narrative.

  4. The Sims 3 (PC version) certainly does have more emergent narrative than previous versions. The social-interaction system is highly contextual, with the available interactions depending on what has just happened. For example, if you have an affair with somebody, you get a new dialog option to confess your affair to your partner. If you go and visit somebody’s house, you get new dialog options to compliment or mock their home. There are hundreds of examples like this. The update rules (which decide how to respond appropriately to a social interaction, based on your specific personality traits) are defined as production rules, inspired by Inform 7. The socializing system was inspired by IF, Galatea in particular – although the final system is undeniably something of a compromise, because production wanted backwards-compatibility with previous Sims socializing experiences.

    People on the interweb are beginning to notice the richer narrative potential in Sims 3. For example: Alice and Kev ( is a blog about a pair of homeless Sims. The blog author mostly just leaves the two Sims to their own devices, and records what happens.

  5. i just purchased the Sims 3 mobile version, i think its ok as it is. but the one thing i just wanted to know is if you can get married or have children in this version. i know that the original has been cut down to fit our phones but still i just want to know if its still possible so i can just continue with what i have. thanks!

      • You can marry but you need to go through all the romantic junk first.

        When the other character becomes your friend then start to be flirty and then go ahead from there. You cannot do this with a best friend. You can also have romantic interludes with any other character. How to get them to live in the one house is a problem I havent sorted out yet.

  6. From some comments, I remembered how I find some games to be rather boring… but very, very interesting when my boyfriend tells his adventures with the game. Player enthusiasm can be fuel to telling a story within a game – even if the game itself wasn’t so deep developed.

    Also, I’m rather skeptical of games like The Sims… like you said, these are more toys, doll houses. While that’s good – I used to tell a lot of stories with my dolls – I prefer games that, while give me freedom and meaningful decisions, have a good story to tell me.

  7. Pingback: Various playing « Emily Short’s Interactive Fiction

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