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Why Sims 4 understands pets better than any other game

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How a new add-on changes the way animals behave

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No one tells you about the puppy blues.

The first few hours of life with a puppy are pure bliss. But then the puppy breath wears off. The reality of the situation rushes in quicker than many expect. Fans of their own pets don’t tell you how much you’ll cry during the first week, and definitely not much the animal will cry, or how much time you’ll spend consoling your partner after your new puppy tears apart their most prized possession. You’ll think you’ve prepared by buying enough disinfectant to mop up the buckets of pee.

You’re in charge of a life now, and that’s scary.

Games often simplify the complex emotions of everyday life. The Sims 4’s new expansion, Cats & Dogs, certainly does its own version of simplification, while still maintaining a unique form of complexity. Pets can’t have jobs anymore, as they did in The Sims 2, and players can’t control their actions, like they could in The Sims 3. The unpredictability and lack of control in Cats & Dogs has an uncanny way of mimicking the messy, rewarding chaos of life with a furry companion. They are their own bosses now, for better or worse. Just like your real cat or dog.

I’ve had Major, my extremely long Bassett Hound–mix puppy, since July. I’ve been a kitten mom now — my cat’s name, conveniently, is Puppy — for a little over two years. I realize these names could get confusing as the story goes on.

We’re all past the puppy/Puppy blues, though everyone gets each others’ nerves at times. That stress of the first week, which includes the unrelenting fear that I would let down the other life that’s literally dependent on me, has passed. It returned when I played the Cats & Dogs expansion.

They kinda look alike
EA/Nicole Carpenter

Cats & Dogs, released on Nov. 10, puts cats and dogs back into the game for the first time since The Sims 3 introduced its own pets expansion in 2011. Cats & Dogs adds, well, cats and dogs; more than 125 dog breeds, while leaving out Bassett Hounds for some ridiculous reason. And there are nearly 50 cat breeds in the content pack. That’s leaving out the different mixes that can be created by the player.

Animals act more like animals in Cats & Dogs. Your new virtual pet is going to pee on the floor at some point, and then try to lap it up as if it were milk. They’re going to claw your furniture, sneak bites from your dinner plate and if you’ve got a real troublemaker, get into scuffles with your neighbors and their pets, leading to complaints.

But your animals are also going to cuddle up with you on the couch, bring you presents (somehow, cats have learned how to wrap gifts and tie bows) and lick your face. They’ll bring you their ball to fetch. They’ll learn to pee outside and to use the litterbox. You will be very thankful for these small gestures of affection.

Decision-making in The Sims 4 is pared down to pointing and clicking. If you suspect your dog is ill, you click on the little guy and ask what’s wrong. A thought bubble will pop up above the pup’s head with a clue. If he’s sick, you’ll see one icon; if he’s got to poop, you’ll see another. When my Sims-version of Puppy came down with Lava Nose —an in-game ailment that gives pets a shiny red noses — panic set in. Now a black cat with a radioactive nose, Puppy clearly needed a vet.

EA

The first time I brought my actual Puppy, who is a cat, remember, to the real life emergency vet it was because she’d eaten a small stretch of string. I saw her playing with the string in one instant, and it was gone in the next instant. The online advice wasn’t good, and it felt awful to have put a loved one at risk because I hadn’t quite cleaned up well enough.

I packed Puppy into the car and drove off towards the vet, trying to drive safely while crying. After a few minutes of waiting the vet unfolded a piece of paper to reveal a seven-inch piece of rose–colored yarn curled up like a slinky that Puppy had thrown up.

“Does this look familiar?” she asked. My sense of relief was huge, and it’s hard to imagine that this would be a situation I’d want to relive in a video game. But you don’t fear losing something or someone unless you love them.

The situation in the game with the lava nose was similar. Can she die? Am I a bad cat mom? The thoughts never stopped.

That anxiety stems from wanting control, something that you rarely have in real life and that the Sims allows you in small doses before taking it away for dramatic effect. The sheer number of actions and decisions that are possible in the game makes it next to impossible to control everything.

You’re just clicking stuff on screen, not solving puzzles or testing your reflexes. The way actions stack up within the fast-paced timeline mimics the way time feels to run through the horrible situations that could happen as you’re waiting for your cat’s diagnosis. Everything moves way too fast in those terrifying moments, but it’s at the very least a remember that you’re alive, and you have those in your life you care about deeply. Even the game reminded me to care for my virtual and real animals before something terrible happened to them. The good days were right now, even if that could be hard to remember.

And it’s all part of an illusion, at least in the game. Though it feels bad when your pet gets sick in Cats & Dogs, animals won’t die of anything other than old age. And when they do die, they’ll often become ghosts that can be revived with a special treat. It’s upsetting, but not finite—it’s the most obvious avenue where realism was not considered. The Sims 4 is a game after all, often considered a children’s game or a source of comfort, and it’s clear that EA Maxis wanted the game to be more fun than sad.

I Googled “anxiety and puppies” after logging off from Cats & Dogs. I found pages upon pages of information, from personal blogs to specialized websites. The selfish feeling of needing alone time, the self-doubt … it was all there. Sure, my days of the puppy blues are over, but the illogical part of my brain had once taken over and it would always be there. The game had reminded me how little it takes to bring it back.

It’s not all emergencies and vet visits in Cats & Dogs, but taking care of an animal will always be chaotic. Like the pet expansions of yesteryear, Cats & Dogs lets you train your animals.

Training in The Sims 4 takes much less time than it would in real life, but the way it’s implemented mimics how you’d attempt to train a real cat or dog. Basic instructions like sit and lay down are the starting point, each learnable through lectures and from training sessions. Pet needs are displayed similarly. Just as with deciphering sickness, animals use thought bubbles to communicate. It’s not far from how you speak with your animals in real life.

Your pets won’t always bring you joy, but they do often enough to make the hard times worth it. We often see the struggles of pet care in media as jokes, when the reality is that many people rely on their animal for love and support. Life is too short to judge others on what they use to get through the day, as long as they’re not hurting themselves or others.

The game helps you realize that control isn’t everything, and that anxiety isn’t always bad. Feelings are normal, and it’s nice to have a game that reinforces that fact. I’m not the only person who has cried due to finding pee on the floor after a long day. My Sim did the same thing.

EA

Players have wanted cats and dogs for as long as this series existed. Companionship is companionship, regardless of whether it’s digital or “real.” The addition of pets adds another element of chaos to an already chaotic game, but The Sims 4 is better for it.

The stakes are low in Cats & Dogs, but the game makes them feel like they’re high. There are consequences for not caring for your animals, but the tragedies are purely emotional. Cats and dogs will run away if they’re feeling neglected, but they’ll always come back to at least try again. It’s EA Maxis’ way of mimicking the emotional attachment we have for our pets, but ultimately ground the scenario in play.

The game itself can be frustrating or repetitive. Sometimes it’s broken or unfair. But companionship is the reward, and anyone who’s snuggled with a furry creature knows how sweet that can be, even on a computer screen. These situations may not be perfectly realistic, but they do enough to communicate that warm feeling of having a furry friend in your life. And that’s what we’re paying for. A bit of the joy with a little less of the risk.

Puppy, Major, and I have earned our relationship. There are few things I love more than the sound of Major snoring in my ear or Puppy knocking something precious to the ground. And I think that if Sim Nicole could say anything other than “smorph blorf,” she’d agree. This is one of my favorite gaming expansions in a long time.


Nicole is a writer from Massachusetts. Follow her on Twitter at @sweetpotatoes.