In 2004, a monstrosity was released into the gaming world—it was called Urbz: Sims in the City. Met with lukewarm reception from critics and less than decent sales, it was quickly deposited into the 10 dollar bin at Wal-Mart, which was where I had the great misfortune of buying it when I was a young bright-eyed lad eager to play any game I could get my hands on. I was too young at the time: I had the great misfortune of owning a Nintendo Gamecube in the sixth generation console wars, and subscribing to Game Informer I was woefully aware of how many awesome games I was missing out on thanks to my affiliation with Nintendo. So, a fun-looking third-party game for the Gamecube? “Sign me up!” I squealed, “Give me a break from Pikmin!”
Needless to say my youthful innocence was shattered. My first few hours of the game was absolutely hellish: between the dull gameplay, the uninspired setting and atmosphere, the lackluster customization, the grind-heavy job and socialization minigames… not to mention all the bugs that plagued the disk, I remember it being the first time I didn’t have fun with a video game. Which was a hard lesson to learn as a young gamer, that not every game will make you feel as good as Mario Kart or Soul Caliber ll. It’s not something I had really thought of until then, I just sort of figured that video games were GAMES, and they were ALWAYS going to be fun.
I’ve spoken at length in these articles about “fun” in games, and how that should be the first and foremost goal of any developer. But today I want to talk about a very particular thing I noticed in the Urbz—a trait I’d think would be unique to the game, but is rather unfortunately spreading through modern games.
The primary thing that bothered me about Urbz was the main goal/the reason you played. In the regular Sims games, your job is to manage the lives of your sim—like obedient little goldfish, you told them when to eat, sleep, go to work, watch TV, ect, and they mindlessly followed your commands, presumably because the Ministry of Love would get cross if they didn’t. That exists in the Urbz, yes, but another layer is added that REQUIRES, if you want to advance in the game, that you manage your Sim’s social life as well. You had to make sure they knew all the right people, say all the right things, were at all the best parties and wore all the latest clothes.
It sounds like it could be more engaging –the Sim’s games don’t really have objectives other than not dying, so adding a goal to aspire to seems like a step in the right direction. The problem is that it’s impossible to relate to the struggle of your character, or the difficulty of the task: when we encounter someone famous, or worth knowing, it’s because we’re told flat out “you should know this guy”. When you’re wearing the wrong clothing in the wrong distract, you could only know because they tell you flat out what you need to change into. So there’s no experimentation or inveistgation, it’s more follow the leader. But more damming than that is the fact that the Sims as characters just aren’t engaging. They communicate through pictures in bubbles, and how am I supposed to care about my characters grueling struggle up the social latter when we don’t even speak the same language? If a game is about making a character become a better fighter, you want to see how they fight, and how they improve. But this game is about making a character socially graceful, and since you can’t hear what they’re saying you don’t get to see growth, nor can you really get involved with that individual Sim’s personal live: which the Urbz was more centered on than any other game in the series.
When gameplay clashes with presentation in a way that makes both suffer and become less engaging, we have a problem: and I’ve been seeing that problem pop up a few times in today’s games. In Dragon Age ll, for example, the vast majority of the game is devoted to the ongoing clash between mages (who are imprisoned and controlled out of fear) and their jailers, the Templars. The Templars are oppressors, telling Mages where to go and what to do—and mages who resist or run are captured and usually put to death by the leader of the Templars, a vicious woman who has no sympathy for magic users. It’s supposed to be a dividing issue—but the problem is, Bioware extends its reach. Nobody sympathizes with oppressors and jailers, so to give the Templar’s side some teeth, they made just about every mage in the game a practitioner of Blood Magic, a cruel and wicked art outlawed even among their own kind.
In fact, through the story… unless you yourself are a mage, there’s almost never an instance in the game where a mage doesn’t either 1) practice blood magic, or 2) betray you. You save a cult of mages? A few years later in the storyline, they use blood magic. You try to find a man who ran away from the circle? Surprise, he wasn’t looking for freedom, he wanted revenge, and he’s gonna use blood magic to do it. There’s a serial killer on the loose, guess what? He’s a mage who uses blood magic.
And because of this over compensation on Bioware’s part, it feels silly to take any other side but the Templars. Which invalidates the entire conflict, which splits the presentation with the gameplay—the game itself is designed so a player can pick any path, but it so ruthlessly punishes people who choose to side with the mages that it’s not so much a moral dilemma as much as it’s a pretty simple choice of siding with the Templars or the backstabbing heathinistic mages. And when there’s no real weight behind the choice of who you side with, since it’s so obvious, the impact of the decision is gone, you lose part of the reason you even played the game in the first place.
Dragon Age ll is a game about making decisions—sometimes hard ones. Urbz is about helping some ugly guy or gal become the most popular in the city. But both games make the mistake of having elements within them that so soundly oppose the draw that they become less engaging over all, and I’d like to see games take greater strides into making sure that the reason we play a certain game or genre is taken into account, as well as making it fun.