Lately I’ve been thinking more about emergent narrative — in particular, the idea that a sandbox-style game can produce elements that the player then weaves together into a story that he finds satisfying. The story isn’t really a product of the game, and it’s not necessarily true that anyone else playing the game would perceive the same story. The onus is on the player to determine which of the many otherwise insignificant events contribute to the narrative.
I’m pretty skeptical about this idea. Or rather: I can see that some such thing does happen, in that lots of (say) Sims users construct elaborate stories with their characters, and share movies and narratives. But in general this is not what I would call interactive storytelling; it seems more like handing the user a really complicated dollhouse that happens to have built-in tools for recording and editing the best scenes.
Still, I thought I ought to put a bit more research into this topic before I dismiss the possibilities. It’s been a while since I had (and got tired of the grinding aspects of) the original Sims, so I tried downloading Sims 3 for my iPhone.
Alas, I find it a dead bore.
The characters spend less time in the bathroom and more chatting one another up, but still, the core of the game is about tediously managing daily life tasks and scheduling. There isn’t much challenge, but neither are the choices very interesting.
The mechanism that lets you pick personality traits does give different Sim protagonists different goals — but the variety provided there is shallow enough that you can explore the results within a few hours of play. Alternative personality styles such as Sleaze, Jerk, and Maniac each add one or two subversive activities to the player’s goals and behavior, but there simply isn’t enough payoff to make these very interesting. They’re not fun to do very many times by themselves: there’s a limit to how many trash cans you can kick over before the indignation of the owners stops being funny. (About .5, I’d say.)
And when you do accomplish a major goal for your Sim, all that comes of it is a cute little screen congratulating you on your accomplishment. What doesn’t happen: any significant development to the story or the options available within the game.
There are a couple of mini-games that I assume were added specifically for the iPhone, including a cooking scenario where you shake pots to prevent them boiling over, and a fishing scenario where you jerk the phone sharply upward in order to reel in a fish. (Then: feel stupid the first time you hit yourself in the nose.)
I have the feeling that the crew adapting the game for the iPhone were determined to do something with its tilting and acceleration detection, but didn’t think at all about the entertainment value of the fishing game after the first three times the player caught something. The game doesn’t get any harder, nor does the experience of fishing seem to change much as your Sim gets more skill points. You do catch more valuable fish with a more fishing-skilled Sim, eventually even allowing you to pull tuna out of the town lake. Your Sim can carry up to three of these at a time, which is a fairly comical idea if you’ve ever seen an actual tuna.
Unfortunately, fishing is an extremely lucrative activity. In an afternoon your Sim can catch hundreds of Simoleans’ worth of fish, considerably more than he can earn working all day at an entry-level job. This means that there’s a game-play motivation to spend a lot of your time on this tedious and unchanging task. (And: feel even stupider the second time you hit yourself in the nose.)
The mini-games involving cooking and repairing household objects are equally boring. Moreover, in order to make the repair mini-game show up frequently, the designers have made all your Sim’s household possessions incredibly unreliable: they’ll go on the fritz and start spitting sparks after about two days of ownership.
Probably in retrospect this isn’t a fair test of Sims 3. The mobile game is clearly cut down a lot from the full desktop version — missing are the tools for customizing homes and furniture, many of the variations to personal appearance, other kinds of life-long goal, and (as far as I can tell from looking at reviews) a number of public buildings and types of furniture. I’ve already unlocked all the furniture options in the iPhone version, so even the pleasure of boundless consumerism is likely to wear off soon. I just need to have my Vain Neurotic Jerk sell a couple dozen more of these freakish miniature freshwater tuna and he’ll be able to invest in that 1200 Simolean Modern TV.
There’s no onwards or upwards after that.
The frustrating thing is that I can imagine some of the mechanisms here being used to more narratively fruitful effect. Let the player pick personality traits and goals (as he already can); reward him in-game somehow for behaving “in character”; but have the game produce conflicts that create pressure to break or reconsider these long-standing traits. Perhaps the Jerk falls madly in love with one of the people he’s alienated, forcing him to rethink and revise his behavior. Perhaps the Nice Guy starts getting pressured and manipulated by people who take too much advantage of him. Perhaps even attempts to change bring on setbacks. The game is resolved when the Sim either decides to persevere as he is despite all odds, or caves to the pressures and experiences some kind of character change.
That kind of design would admittedly tend to encourage less self-insertion and shorter play arcs than is traditional for the Sims. But would this be such a bad thing in the mobile version? The game is already cut down so much from the full feature set that it’s hard to imagine anyone playing for hundreds of hours the way they do with the desktop game.