The Sims 4 is a quirky take on life, but developer Maxis is cautious about what it wants to make a game of.
Like previous titles in the series, players tailor tiny people to their liking, tweaking their look, personality and more, before living out their lives. Sims can slouch around the house, get jobs and even get married and have kids, if players choose. The Sims franchise is considered progressive by many for its inclusion of same-sex relationships, and that's an assessment the developer agrees with.
Speaking with Polygon at a recent event, associate producer Graham Nardone said that Maxis strives to find a balance between being fun and being respectful. Finding this line is a big part of why the series hasn't included non-binary characters — people with gender identities that don't fit with the binary of male and female — so far.
"You don't want to trivialize somebody's life by making it a gameplay feature," Nardone told Polygon. "You have to have the right respect for people and who they are, and I think that's one of the most core things that's important about The Sims — being respectful about people's lives."
The idea is to make fun of life without making fun of lives. Many players choose to recreate themselves and turn their experience into a personal one. According to Nardone, Maxis has no plans to consult external sources on how to include those characters; however, it is a topic that's being discussed internally and with the community.
"We've been [hearing] directly from our fans and having those conversations with them," he said. "We have such a diverse community, and they bring all those experiences to us.
"You don't want to trivialize somebody's life by making it a gameplay feature."
"We've heard lots of stories from them about how important it is that we do offer that in our game, and that [inclusivity] has been a staple of the franchise for so long. It is something that's always on our radar to think about."
Inclusivity isn't the only topic on Maxis' discussion list; the team also decides what feels appropriate for the franchise. The Sims 4 will add a few new deaths for players to explore, but they're always meant to fall on the "comical mischief" side, Nardone said. It should never feel gratuitous or violent.
Perhaps one of the stranger ways to kick it this time is death by emotion — whether that's from laughing or getting too angry. But not every emotional state will end in a Sim's demise, and for good reason.
"Something that wasn't appropriate for The Sims 4 would be to do death by depression," Nardone told Polygon. "That's not an area that we're interested in taking the game. As much as it's a life simulation, it's a light-hearted, fun take on life. We try to keep that in mind when we're deciding what features go into the game."
The same goes for the game's omission of natural disasters like floods or tornadoes. There's a line Maxis doesn't want to push beyond, because it dips into something far too intimate: people's personal experiences and trauma.
"To those people, they want to play a fun game," Nardone said. "We're always going to lean on the side of humor in those situations."
In the Sims 4, the humor of death is in large part from death itself. The Grim Reaper will show up to take your Sim to the afterlife, but first he'll scroll through his tablet to make sure he's found the right person. Once he's done, he could poof away immediately or hangout to watch TV. In one case, Nardone recalls the Reaper showing up to collect the life of a parent, but changing the baby's diaper before he left. He's a fun character, rather than an omen of grief.
"Your Sim has this sudden, unexpected tragedy, and the reaper shows up and there's kind of that rush of excitement," the developer said. "He's that fleeting experience that comes maybe once a month in The Sims."