From the makers of SimCity comes The Sims, which allows you to create and control simulated people.
It's an ingenious idea. But being a hands-on personal god who micromanages people's lives is a more difficult job than being a competent mayor of a virtual city.
The game's original working title was Sim Dollhouse. But the focus shifted during development from child's plaything to suburban neighborhood. The game begins with several houses already standing and you build additional ones.
Though they no longer live in a dollhouse, the Sims are still doll-like. Which makes them, in effect, a highly evolved virtual pet -- a sort of complex human version of Tamagotchi or Pokemon. Without your constant attention and help, a Sim will make wrong -- or no -- decisions and possibly self-destruct.
As with the other strategy games in the SimCity franchise, there's no right or wrong way to play The Sims. The game provides the tools and materials to build people and houses and leaves you free to do with them what you choose.
The game's goal is make your Sims happy. To do that, you've got to attend to their basic needs -- house and feed them, get them started on the bottom rung of one of 10 career tracks (such as professional criminal, cop, politician, actor) -- and guide them in their quest for satisfying family and social relationships.
To begin, you create a person by choosing from among various options -- gender, face and body type, clothes, skin tone (light, medium, dark), character traits (neat, nice, outgoing) -- or adopt a ready-made character.
Your Sim can live alone as a single or as part of a family that can have up to eight members. Each new household starts out with about $20,000, which must be used judiciously to buy or build a house and furnish it with necessities -- from a toilet to a sofa to a phone. There's space for you to erect perhaps a dozen new houses as you grow your Sim neighborhood.
There are Artificial Intelligence-controlled Sims already living in a house in the neighborhood. They are programmed to interact with your creations. They communicate by Sim Speak. The words are gibberish, but spoken in emotion-inflected tones. And the gist of what they are talking about is suggested by an icon that appears in a comic strip-style balloon above their head.
While your Sims can talk and move around without your guidance, they will inevitably say or do the wrong thing on their own. And since they need to make friends to be happy, you have to choose the appropriate response for them from a list of possibilities (tell a joke, for instance, or compliment the other person).
Falling in love involves a long-term courtship that may be rebuffed until your Sim does enough things right to rouse reciprocal romantic feelings. If all goes well, a prolonged hug and kiss results and the couple -- in an instant -- are transformed into bride and groom, and then into parents. A newborn baby quickly ages into a pubescent child.
Each time you create a new household, the game produces a photo album that you fill with snapshots using a virtual camera. This album, along with your notes describing the family and its ''story,'' can be posted at The Sims Web site (www.the sims.com).
The Sims ($50 from Maxis via Electronic Arts, for Pentium 233 Mhz PCs) is an extraordinary technical achievement. But I've got a problem with its underlying premise, about what it takes to make these virtual people happy.
Bliss, for them, is momentarily satisfying their insatiable consumer lust. They are happiest when buying the most expensive appliances and gadgets, such as plasma-screen TVs or even a high-tech toilet. (''Get 'em working and get 'em shopping,'' the manual advises.)
Its creator, Will Wright, rationalizes the unabashed materialism of The Sims by calling it a consciousness-raising game. He thinks it makes you more aware of the dynamics and contradictions in your own life to be helping these hapless people.
But after I'd been playing The Sims for a couple of days, Wright's rationale seemed lame. Despite the novelty of the game, I didn't much like the people whose lives I was responsible for. Rather than wasting time playing the game for weeks on end in expectation of a promised epiphany, it'd be more profitable to look to books, the Internet, professionals or friends for insight into how to manage one's real situation better.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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