When Maxis announced the newest Sims 4 game pack, it immediately piqued my interest. Called StrangerVille, the game pack would focus on unraveling the mysteries behind a new neighborhood — the rural desert town of StrangerVille — and unlike some of the previous game packs, looked to be story-based.
The mysterious desert town, combined with a distinct narrative element, made me specifically think of The Sims 2 games — but not the traditional PC games. Instead, StrangerVille reminded me of The Sims 2 for PSP. While The Sims 2 PC games had always been subtle in their storytelling, the PSP game went full-on RPG. Both versions of the Sims 2 contain a rural desert neighborhood, Strangetown — also full of unexplained, bizarre happenings.
Both versions of the Strangetown story worked and became some of the most memorable parts of The Sims franchise for me, so I was eager to see how StrangerVille would continue the legacy.
Ultimately, StrangerVille is caught somewhere in the middle. It doesn’t turn the town’s mysterious narrative into an implicit, friendly suggestion, but the storyline also doesn’t fully anchor the game pack — which makes it feel lacking overall.
[Ed. note: This article contains slight spoilers for The Sims 4: StrangerVille.]
The Sims 2 PC games remain particularly special to me because of how subtly, yet effectively, they tell stories. Each neighborhood comes preloaded with a storyline in place built upon the premade Sims’ existing connections, their own memories, and a few little hints here and there. There’s a full graveyard in one woman’s house, for instance, that contains the grave of another family’s missing mother.
The neighborhood of Strangetown is full of alien abductions, ghosts, serial killers, mad scientists, government conspiracies — but only if you want there to be. You’re totally free to ignore the storylines in favor of coming up with your own, one of the games’ best qualities.
Meanwhile, The Sims 2 for PSP has a very clear narrative approach. You create your Sim, they end up stuck in Strangetown, and from there, the adventure starts. You interact with characters, complete objectives, and unravel the mystery of the town. In addition to tying in typical Sims gameplay (keeping up your needs, decorating your house) to the narrative, the PSP version also has a host of quirky, colorful characters that guided the overall narrative: a barmaid-turned-werepug; a family of aliens trapped in a secret government facility; and of course, the infamous Bella Goth herself.
Unlike the old PSP game, The Sims 4’s StrangerVille game pack doesn’t lock me into the storyline when I load it up. To engage with the story, I must select the StrangerVille aspiration for my Sim, which outlines the necessary goals to advance; once I complete the goals, I can move onto the next phase of the mystery. (Note: if you navigate to the aspiration menu to see what comes next, you’ll essentially learn the full mystery just from the list of goals. So don’t do that like I did!)
Before I move my Sim into StrangerVille, I survey the neighborhood briefly. The Sims 4 base neighborhoods don’t come with nearly as many overarching storylines as The Sims 2 ones did, so I’m interested in seeing how this works for the very story-based game pack. The game pack does embed a bit more story than usual: There are four families already living in the town, three with bios that hint at a connection to the StrangerVille mystery. I am intrigued.
After I move my Sim into a cozy little trailer, she’s greeted by the usual welcome wagon of visitors, NPCs who introduce themselves to her. But for some reason, they all have jerky movements, and try as I might, my Sim can’t talk to them. They are unsettling and creepy, instantly establishing the tone for the game pack.
In order to explore the mystery, I need to take a look at my Sim’s aspiration goals. They tell me that I need her to talk to people about StrangerVille, buy something from the Curio shop, and examine a locked door in a secret lab. I send her into the town.
The neighborhood of StrangerVille is absolutely gorgeous. The attention to detail and rich, atmospheric elements is a strength of the Sims 4 games that goes beyond just the improvement of graphics from the first game to the fourth. The lighting of the desert town, the fact that you can see lizards and tumbleweeds, the little gnomes in front of my neighbors’ trailer — it’s all beautiful.
Three different types of townie Sims (the Sims’ name for NPCs) populate the town: Military Personnel, Scientists, and Conspiracy Theorists. When I pick the “talk to about StrangerVille” option, they do offer slightly different answers, but they’re rather forthcoming with their information from the get-go (also a kid tells me to check out a bar, which, okay sure).
I spot some of the premade family Sims and try to talk to them, imagining what their roles could be in the whole overarching narrative. Very quickly, I learn: absolutely nothing.
Everyone in the town is essentially interchangeable within their roles, and vapid with their answers. When my Sim planted a listening bug on the rich guy who has an evil personality trait and is supposedly mayor of the town (like, c’mon, that should give me something), all I learned was that his favorite color was blue. I eventually come to understand why these strange things are happening, but by not tying the interesting townies to the plot, the story fails to impress.
Still, playing through the mystery is fun enough. At one point, government agents come to my Sim’s house and confiscate her refrigerator. The possessed Sims are unsettling to stumble upon. The creepy plants around the neighborhood get bigger and more abundant as the story goes on. My Sim studies the StrangerVille archives so late into the night that she falls asleep in the library. She assembles a hazmat suit and breaks into a secret lab.
As with other Sims games, I imagine what this mystery means for my Sims specifically, who I’ve given a backstory in my head. I always put story into my Sims games; this pack makes it all the more concrete. Across the Sims community, others take this approach, be it inserting the old Sims 2 characters into this game or using their own characters. That is one of the benefits of having a pretty bare-bones storyline, similar to how the Sims 2 base games approached their story treatment.
StrangerVille’s problem is that it takes a middle-ground approach: Fully entrenching the story in the premade characters and world — like The Sims 2 on PSP did — would give it more closure and answers; but subtler plot points that encourage for a customizable experience, like how storylines worked in the Sims 2 PC, would create a different, yet fulfilling experience. But either way, without an anchor, StrangerVille’s mystery floats ephemerally.
In the end, there is potential — so much potential — to revisit and modernize the engrossing storytelling that The Sims 2 games did so well, that it’s disappointing to see the lackluster finish.
Maybe The Sims 4’s next story-driven game pack might build upon this potential. But I’m sad the homage to my beloved Strangetown wasn’t the nostalgia trip I hoped for.