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How The Sims 4 connects to Anton Chekhov and A24’s Past Lives

Past Lives director Celine Song talks to us about her innovative production and her new movie

Nora laughing, as she gazes at Hae Sung, who ducks his head down. Image: Twenty Years Rights/A24
Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

Even if you aren’t familiar with her work as a staff writer on Prime Video’s The Wheel of Time, director Celine Song — whose directorial feature debut, Past Lives, hits wide release this week — might spark with you for a different reason. Back in 2020, in partnership with the New York Theatre Workshop, Song made the news for staging a production of Anton Chekhov’s classic play The Seagull within a Sims game.

Appropriately dubbed The Seagull on The Sims 4, the virtual production ran for two evenings in October 2020, clocking in at about six hours. Including those who viewed the archival footage, which was hosted on Song’s Twitch page for some time, close to 10,000 people watched this innovative staging.

Celine Song playing The Sims 4 as the characters of The Seagull Image: Maxis/Electronic Arts via Celine Song/Twitch

The show happened at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when live performances weren’t possible in person, so the theater world had to innovate. Song looked to the video game world for inspiration.

“My little sister is a video game designer, so I kind of know the video game world,” Song told Polygon. “I was watching a lot of Twitch, a lot of live video game playing — streamers — during COVID. [Streaming] is like a durational live performance.”

Song was particularly compelled by how long streams can be, and how streamers often ad-lib what they’re talking about and adapt to what’s going on in chat or their environment. Her production of The Seagull wasn’t just a staging streamed via Zoom, but a full process involving casting (character creation) and directing (audience participation in the chat), as Song guided her Sims to enact the events of The Seagull.

The life-simulation game was a natural choice for Song, even before she decided what play to produce there. She grew up playing Sims games (her favorite generation is The Sims 2, where the chemistry system makes for particularly compelling relationships), and the latest installment in the franchise became an obvious venue for staging her favorite Chekhov play.

The Sims 4, I always felt, was very Chekhovian as a game,” says Song. “Because it’s about just living, right? It’s about drama between people, and also just like Chekhov, you have to go to the bathroom. […] There’s an interesting thing where it really is about the really extraordinary things that are happening in the mundane [lives of the characters].”

Nora and Hae Sung on the subway, staring at each other as they hold the center pole. Photo: Jon Pack/A24

Storytelling highlighting little details and everyday moments has always been an integral part of the Sims experience. And while Song’s debut directorial feature, Past Lives, isn’t specifically related to the video game franchise, she certainly emphasizes the mundane moments in the lives of her protagonists, Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo).

Past Lives follows the two former friends, across three separate eras in their lives, considering the impact they had on each other and how they’ve grown as people over the course of decades. Like in The Sims, the most evocative moments in Past Lives come from small, everyday details — from the ringing of a Skype call when Nora and Hae Sung reconnect to the reflection in a hotel window on a rainy day.

The use of reflections, in particular, repeats throughout the movie. Many shots are through windows, or seen from mirrors or other reflective surfaces. It almost feels like the audience is peeking in from another reality — or a past life. It’s a choice Song says was essential to the language of the film, for a reason that connects Sims games and Chekhov’s work.

“The movie is about the way that life reflects upon itself,” she tells Polygon.

Past Lives continues its theatrical rollout and will enter wide release on June 23.

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