Of course, as with real life a lot of the pleasure comes not from following a single path, but from the sidetracks you find along the way. The Sims 3 is packed with so much stuff to do that it would be foolish to even try and cover it all – and I suspect that after several solid days of play I’m still just scratching the surface. Needless to say, a lot of the action revolves around relationships, from finding a group of mates you can hang out with, to finding a significant other, to having kids and raising a family of new Sims who might one day take over from your main Sim in the game.
The conversation system, which works using a simple selection of subjects (e.g. friendly, funny, mean, romantic) and topics (e.g ask about day, tell funny story, insult, compliment), is incredibly efficient, and, though your Sims all speak a nonsense language known as Simglish, it’s easy to get a gist of what’s going on from onscreen thought balloons and status displays and simple pitch, tone and body language. The Sims has never felt closer to a fully interactive soap opera. Or maybe reality TV, with a few characters you can push in the right direction in the hope of comedy or drama.
That point of comparison seems all the more appropriate when you realise something else about The Sims 3. The first game restricted you to one household, and though subsequent expansion packs and sequels have thrown in neighbourhoods, parties, clubs and colleges, the game has never really made you feel that your Sims were existing in a living, breathing world. The Sims 3 achieves that. Your house is now part of a small town, complete with parks, beaches, beauty spots, businesses, shops, theatres, schools, hospitals and other civic buildings. You can walk anywhere you want or take taxis point to point, and the whole place is thriving with other Sims you can interact with, shops you can buy from and houses you can visit.
The illusion breaks down at certain points – it’s impossible to see what’s going on while your Sim is inside the supermarket, visiting the art gallery or taking a guitar class – but for the most part it works. Even the firefighters, the police or the repo men seem to have a life beyond just dealing with you, and it’s in the incidental encounters between Sims that the game frequently shines. The greatest pleasure of The Sims 3 is that you feel like you’re improvising a story piece by piece, bringing in a new character here, trying out a new plotline there. Play it straight or play it silly, but it’s always easy to have a good time.
And the really good news is that there’s more time to concentrate on your personal narrative, because The Sims has become a lot less demanding in terms of micro-management. OK, so you still have to make sure Sims have meals, shower regularly, clean the house and get their beauty sleep, but you can leave things like getting up and going to work or using the toilet pretty much up to them. Of course, things change should you bring an infant into your happy throng – the littl’uns need changing, feeding and cuddling if you want to avoid a nasty visit from Sim social services – but isn’t that just part of life’s rich pageant?