Soon, I started seeing even more similarities: cheeky censorship (The Good Place’s forking and The Sims’ woohooing); the fact that the first season takes place in a contained, impossibly beautiful neighborhood; and the assignment of points to actions (Sims games usually given some sort of numerical value to actions that Sims want to do, while doing something “good” or “bad” in The Good Place changes someone’s numeric worth). I couldn’t escape the connections each time I watched an episode: This is just like The Sims! I laughed in my head.
The two became linked in my mind. It wasn’t just the aesthetic similarities, but the components of Sim gameplay that I began to see pop up in The Good Place: the idea that this neighborhood was just a save file, manipulated by someone working behind the scenes. Even though they were just living life, there was clearly something else going on. It was all a very loose idea — till the end of season one.
[Ed. note: This post contains major spoilers for seasons 1 - 3 of The Good Place]
At the end of season one — the moment Michael hits reboot on the neighborhood — all those pieces floating around in my head about The Good Place and The Sims clicked at once. Holy shirtballs, I thought. This IS just like The Sims.
When I say The Good Place is like The Sims, I don’t mean that The Good Place is like life. I mean that The Good Place is like the actual experience of playing The Sims — specifically the actual experience of playing with premade Sims. While a big component of The Sims franchise does involve playing with player created characters, there have always been premade sims, some of whom continue to reappear throughout the series, albeit with slightly different storylines and alterations in order to fit each generation of the Sims series.
Let’s take Sim icon Bella Goth, one of the most popular pre-made Sims who is likely familiar to even casual fans. In The Sims 1, Bella Goth is married and has one child. In The Sims 2, while her family is there and older, she only appears as an NPC in the mysterious desert community of Strangetown, after being abducted by aliens. In The Sims 3, she’s just a child. In The Sims 4, she’s married with two children.
The games all supposedly take place in the same timeline, but they don’t have to at all. In each version of the Sims, you can choose to play out her story anyway you want, basically, following the loose plotline Maxis hints at or going rogue and making Bella a mystery-solving mermaid. This is especially true with story progression in The Sims 3, which means that I don’t even have to load the Goth family household for Bella to just do her own thing, be it divorcing her husband, reaching the top of her career, or randomly generating some really weird outfits.
Where does The Good Place come in? Let’s start at the beginning — with season one and the first two generations of Sims games. Much like in The Sims 1 and 2, The Good Place starts off in a contained neighborhood. Save for excursions to sub-neighborhoods like “Downtown” or “University,” Sims in the early games were confined to just one ‘hood for their short lives.
The neighborhoods all seem like idyllic places, with parks, amenities, and colorful NPC characters. The brilliance of the Sims games was always including soft underlying hints to an overarching storyline that you never really have to follow. If you’re playing one of the premade families, the suggested storyline can guide how you want events to fold. Let’s take Bella’s adult daughter Cassandra in The Sims 2, for instance, who’s engaged to the town casanova (who may or may not have been involved in her mother’s disappearance). I can choose to have her marry that man, leave him for the artist who’s in love with her, or just totally ignore both men.
The Good Place starts off putting Eleanor in a similar position. She’s a Sim, and Michael is pulling her strings as a player. She wakes up in an idyllic neighborhood with parks, amenities, and colorful residents. She’s given a storyline she doesn’t really understand, but nonetheless plays it through at Micheal’s prompting. It’s a loose version of a Sims playthrough, though with just one iteration, it doesn’t quite click.
And then Michael reboots the neighborhood.
Now Eleanor’s memory of the past playthrough is totally wiped. She starts off back in the neighborhood. The story continues differently this time, but the constants are our premade Sim (Eleanor) and the neighborhood. It’s different from restarting a branching narrative RPG, where the main storyline more or less stays the same; in the Sims it can literally be anything or nothing — which is how the first rapid-fire iterations of the neighborhood reboots in The Good Place’s second season play out.
In one version of my Sims 2 game I played as a kid, Cassandra Goth broke up with her cheating fiancé and married her neighbor. Next time I had her marry the town casanova. Another time, she became a witch and brewed potions and spells and never got married.
In each successive reboot of the neighborhood in The Good Place, the story unfolds a different way. It’s still the same Eleanor Shellstrop and the same neighborhood, but this time her soulmate is a hunky firefighter. This time there’s black hoods and some sort of cult. Next time there’s a glowing red, floating obelisk. Another time Jason realizes that they’re in the Bad Place. Yet another time Eleanor and Chidi run off to the Medium Place and declare their love for one another. Michael deletes each save and reboots, displeased with the results.
It’s the third season where things get funky; we’re not just restarting our save file here, we’re getting an entirely new game. At the end of season two, the Judge and Michael decide not just to reset the four humans’ time in the neighborhood, but totally reset their time on Earth, right from the moment where they died, essentially spinning off a whole new timeline. It’s like switching from The Sims 2 to The Sims 3 or Sims 4 — you still have Bella Goth, except now the settings and circumstances have changed. Unlike merely rebooting the save file, this time the same characters are in different situations. The story still plays out, but instead of the confined neighborhood of the first generations of Sims games, there is now a whole world to explore.
In this timeline, our four premades (Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason) could very well meet, much like how the premade characters who reappear across SIm games who had connections in previous games could very well never interact. But Michael, the player, wants them together, so he goes out of his way to actually “play” their households, instead of letting the random course of events unfold.
The fourth and final season of The Good Place premiered on Sept. 26. The third season finale set up the stakes: our main characters find themselves in a version of the neighborhood they first met in. Only this time, Eleanor is in the position of the player. There is a new set of premade characters, just as there are in each new game, but one character — Chidi, but with his memory rebooted — returns. Playing The Sims 2, one of my favorite characters was bad boy Dustin Broke who lived in a little trailer with his single mom and younger brother; he appears in The Sims 4: Get Famous, but as an NPC, as a character I can’t interact with the same way, as a B-list celebrity (implied to be a streamer?!) who’s got a bad reputation. So close, yet just out of reach to me. I watch the NPC Dustin bop around my new neighborhood — just like Eleanor must now watch Chidi’s story unfold without her as this season unfolds.