an illustration of the sims 4
Illustration by Alyssa Tarry, University of Michigan, Stamps School of Art & Design
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an illustration of the sims 4
Illustration by Alyssa Tarry, University of Michigan, Stamps School of Art & Design

The Sims 4 has lost its way, but High School Years may set the franchise back on track.

Beginning with the release of its first installment in 2001, The Sims has achieved icon status in the gaming industry. Up until the lackluster release of The Sims 4, the franchise’s popularity and success appeared to be well-deserved. Then, countless bugs, broken features, uninspired gameplay and overly expensive expansion packs made The Sims fans wary of any promises EA made for the future of the franchise. Why has The Sims 4 fallen so far from the legacy of its predecessors, and who is to blame?

The Sims 2 was a masterpiece; it included zodiac signs that influence the Sims’ personalities, a “romantic chemistry” system that determined who your Sim is attracted to, wants and fears, and hidden cut-scenes that were triggered by playing out storylines in the proper sequence. Similarly, The Sims 3 featured an innovative open-world system where your Sims’ entire town could be explored without waiting on endless loading screens. You could watch cars come and go, run errands, jog down the street or ride a horse through the countryside. Players had the ability to create towns from scratch, sculpt them by hand, build neighborhoods and upload them for others to enjoy.

The Sims 3 famously featured a “color wheel” where players could customize the colors and patterns of nearly everything — you could uniquely customize your Sim’s hair color, skin tone, furniture and more in a way that had never been possible before. (The Sims 4 does not include this feature.) The Sims 2 and The Sims 3 were creative, wacky and innovative; they gave players complete control over their gameplay experience. In comparison, The Sims 4 is flat, one-dimensional and limited at every turn, to the extent that players often call the fourth installment a “young adult simulator,” referring to how gameplay is depressingly empty for every life stage besides “young adult.”

Simmers have turned to their community to fill in the gaps. Independent modders are the backbone of The Sims 4. Without mods, many people would find the game unplayable. There are mods like “Wonderful Whims” that introduce an attraction system, where Sims are assigned traits they find attractive (for example, a Sim might be especially attracted to women with brown hair and green eyes) and will randomly develop crushes on Sims who possess those traits. There are mods that add more clothing and hairstyles, mods that fix bugs the development team could not be bothered to fix, and mods that modify annoying gameplay features like the tendency for Sims to wash dishes in the bathroom instead of the kitchen.

Some modders create traits to add more personality to their Sims. Traits are sorely lacking in The Sims 4; currently, the game has released 11 expansion packs and 12 game packs (which are the same as expansion packs, but smaller and slightly cheaper) yet Sims can only choose from 57 traits, while The Sims 3 released 11 expansion packs and contained 63 traits. For a game that marketed itself based upon the ability for Sims to experience “emotions,” it does not offer players the ability to see how traits might influence Sims’ emotions.

This speaks to the lack of quality. Who is making these decisions? I would like to have faith in the developers who are actually doing the work. Perhaps they have big dreams but were stifled and overworked by corporate, leading to shoddy bugged releases and unimaginative gameplay — EA has a history of heinously overworking its employees, after all. Yet, after seven years of disappointment, my faith in The Sims team continues to waver. The expansion packs aren’t getting any cheaper, yet the quality continues to decrease. One of its most recent releases, My Wedding Stories, was so horribly bugged that it was literally unplayable for most users, and some users experienced a severe bug that made it impossible to save their game. That headache cost players $20.

Upon its release in 2014, The Sims 4 base game was priced at $60 USD, yet the game didn’t even include basic features like swimming pools or the toddler stage. The Sims 2 and The Sims 3 had baby, toddler, child, teen, young adult, adult and elder life stages. In The Sims 4, Sims had babies that immediately aged into the child life stage. Imagine giving birth to a baby and watching it grow directly from a baby to a child with no toddler period in-between.

In retrospect, it’s shocking that players found this acceptable. Toddlers were not added to the game until 2017, and even then, they were rife with bugs and glitches. One infamous glitch caused toddlers to gain a romantic relationship with their parents, while another caused toddlers to transform into grotesque monsters. A more recent glitch causes all toddlers to be born with the exact same face, regardless of their parents’ genetics. Furthermore, the Sims team is notoriously slow to respond to community complaints — one glitch that caused mirrors to reflect images behind the mirror was not fixed for nearly a year. This should not be happening in a $60 game.

The Sims has an amorphous, quirky “it” factor that is completely lost in The Sims 4. It’s not just a life simulator or a virtual dollhouse. Sims are weird and dramatic, live rich wacky lives and die strange humiliating deaths. Players can direct their Sims to ruin marriages, have literally hundreds of babies, grow gardens of man-eating Cowplants and Plasma Fruit, become rich and famous and so much more. Even now, so many years later, the Sims 3 intro that plays upon start-up sends excited shivers down my spine. Is nostalgia clouding peoples’ memory, or were the previous installments of the franchise just that good? Regardless, The Sims 4 has failed to measure up.

The Sims 4 is like a beautifully decorated padded cell. Sims rarely die unless you force them into dangerous situations; in contrast, Sims in The Sims 2 could die by being attacked by a swarm of flies that would appear if they let their house get too filthy. In The Sims 3, Sims could perish by receiving a “Mummy’s Curse” on vacation in the Sim version of Egypt. The lack of possibilities has been the defining fault of The Sims 4. There are rarely random acts of terror. For example, the risk of getting your house burgled by an intruder wearing a black and white striped shirt was a constant threat in prior releases, but The Sims 4 still has yet to add that feature.

Although The Sims 4 has a negative reputation overall, there is no denying that it has made some leaps and bounds regarding the ability to customize your Sims’ gender. The Sims 4, unlike its predecessors, allows players to choose things like pronouns, designate whether your Sim is capable of getting pregnant and to choose between a “masculine” or “feminine” frame that is not tied to the gender of the Sim. For the first time ever, the clothing your Sim wears is not tied to their gender. In previous games, female Sims were limited to the feminine clothing category and male Sims were limited to the masculine clothing category, but The Sims 4 does away with this rule entirely. While this system isn’t perfect, it’s a step forward.

Additionally, there are refreshing gameplay aspects that were not present in prior releases, such as the ability to recycle and make a direct impact on your Sims’ community by making it more “eco-friendly.” Your Sims have the option to live “off-the-grid,” limited to cooking meals with foraged ingredients and gathering rainwater to bathe with.

Lot traits are a new feature, impacting things like how clean an establishment is, or how many stray cats appear at a certain lot. The Sims 4 allows you to create your own personalized holidays on a calendar, and there are festivals constantly happening in the various worlds, such as the Romance Festival where Sims drink pink tea and get flirty, or the Flea Market where Sims can buy and sell used goods and crafts. These features have their bugs, but the vision is there.

Despite all of the drama and disappointment, Sims fans are hopeful for the future of the franchise. Its most recent game pack introduced werewolves to the game, and although some players disliked the cartoony style of the wolves, there’s no denying that the gameplay is a breath of fresh air compared to previous game packs.

Fans are eagerly anticipating an upcoming expansion pack scheduled to be released on July 28 titled High School Years. There is rumored to be a boatload of content geared toward teens, including a high school where you can accompany your Sims to class, a thrift store or a boba shop, along with the ability to grow and shave body hair and post to a social media app similar to Depop where Sims can buy clothes and show off outfits.

Sims fans are also fervently awaiting the implementation of a “wants and fears” system that will make Sims desire or fear certain events like failing an exam or asking a Sim on a date, as well as a new attraction system and sexual/romantic orientation mechanics. Fingers crossed that the release of High School Years is not nearly as disastrous as My Wedding Stories.

As a longtime player of The Sims, I sincerely hope the developers are able to turn their reputation around and start producing innovative and imaginative content that remains true to the core vision of The Sims. For several years, The Sims 4 has felt overwhelmingly stagnant. As a player, you often find yourself asking, “What should I do now?” In the previous releases, that was never even a question; the drama and excitement would come directly to your door. The upcoming High School Years expansion intends to reignite the spark that The Sims 4 is missing, and all fans can do is hope that it is successful.

Writer Profile

Maria Merlo

Eastern Michigan University
English with a Creative Writing Concentration

Maria Merlo is a fourth-year English major at Eastern Michigan University with a variety of passions: unhinged female protagonists, Fiona Apple lyric analysis, and talking through movies. Oh, and writing. Lots of writing.

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