The Sims series has always been an entirely flexible experience: Do you want to ruin your Sims’ lives or help them flourish? Do you want to raise a successful family or build lavish mansions? Depending on the type of player you are, the Sims games can be used for many different things.
For me, The Sims games — specifically The Sims 2 — are a fantastic way to tell stories.
A big part of The Sims 2, highlighted in the gameplay manual and the tutorials, was its storytelling capabilities. Players were encouraged to create their own stories to post on the official (now defunct) Sims 2 website. While some players used their own Sims for their own original stories, lots of others were built upon the game’s preexisting canon.
The Sims 2 expanded upon the world of the original Sims, skipping forward in time 25 years and adding two more neighborhoods. Maxis gave brief backstories for the previous game’s pre-made families and hinted at even deeper things in the pictures included in each neighborhood’s storytelling album.
But the most brilliant thing the developer did was not making every character’s secrets explicit.
Take Sim icon Bella Goth. In The Sims 2, one of the big overarching stories in Pleasantview (the updated name of the original Sims neighborhood) is Bella Goth’s disappearance. There’s hints about it sprinkled throughout the memories of the pre-made families and the included photo albums; among them are her family’s memories of alien abduction (this does happen to Sims in the game, but they always return) and town casanova Don Lothario’s memory of being rejected by her. But there’s nothing that explains specifically what happened or what will happen to Bella.
Yet Bella actually isn’t completely gone from the Sims universe. Perhaps most strange is that she shows up wandering another neighborhood as an NPC. In The Sims 2, cross-neighborhood gameplay was impossible without the use of mods, but players quickly made it a mission to reunite the Goths in-game.
If that didn’t work, we’d all just share our own versions of how it happened. We could follow the game’s clues carefully, use them as loose inspiration, or just throw them to the wind and come up with our own takes.
These original Sims stories are like fan fiction, but with some key differences. For one, they’re told both with written words and screenshots. There’s no set story mode in The Sims games, which allows any interpretation to be considered “canon.” Of course, this can lead to a lot of tropes — the bad girl Lilith Pleasant secretly being misunderstood, while her preppy twin was a raging bitch; Bella Goth’s daughter Cassandra being hopelessly oblivious of her fiancé’s cheating; the femme fatale Caliente twins becoming evil masterminds — but as the community evolved, so did these cliches, which became more subversive.
For instance, Dina Caliente, often villainized as a gold-digger who was behind Bella’s disappearance, found a new life as a bubbly, opportunistic, would-be Cinderella in one story. Pretty soon, softer interpretations of her expanded across the Sims storytelling community.
That all of this happened outside of the game and on the internet was crucial. The Sims 2 was not the first game in the Sims franchise to cultivate this specific type of storytelling, nor would it be the last, but it came at a very pivotal point of internet culture. Specific forums were giving way to broader sites like LiveJournal and WordPress. Instead of getting buried in forum threads, stories were now curated on each individual’s account. LiveJournal especially was a hub for this, since it maintained forum-like comment sections but had more blog-like user pages. Sims players could easily share their stories and interpretations of the Sim world and receive feedback from fellow fans.
The year I got The Sims 2 was also the year I started to go online, and I quickly discovered, and fell in love with, these storytelling communities. Through them, I’d find players who wrote behind-the-scenes blogs about which details they picked up from the games, and what their interpretations were; which details they left out; and which confusing ones they tried to reconcile (while some of are brilliant, there’s definitely a lot of inconsistencies in The Sims 2). These offered insight to a part of the writing process that stumps a lot of people: seeing how ideas, sometimes the same ideas, transition to a unique, final story.
Witnessing that passion inspired me. I never contributed my own content then, but I followed these stories and LiveJournal accounts, eagerly waiting for the next updates. I read about other ideas players had that they wanted to include, turning gameplay mechanics into story ones, their interpretations of the characters and their identities. I read about their collaborations with other writers, the ideas that they tossed around and workshopped together. And I read about writer’s block, and the real-life issues that got in the way of story updates. All were valuable lessons to take away as a young writer, giving me an intimate view into the writing process that I had never gotten before.
These avid Simmers have transitioned from LiveJournal to Tumblr now, and from The Sims 2 to The Sims 3, and then The Sims 4. It’s become harder to play old Sims 2 discs on an updated computer, after all. And real life gets in the way of writing stories, which then sit around unfinished. But the LiveJournal pages are still up, and it’s easy to lose oneself in a nostalgia tunnel by just click on Chapter One.