The thin fine line between virtual and reality in The Sims 4

Electronics Arts producer Graham Nardone shows us the reality behind the studio's newest life simulation

The life you're living right now is real. So do the Sims in their wacky world. Or so they think.

Electronic Arts' latest life simulator The Sims 4 is clearly crossing the line between fiction and reality. At least, that's what we gleamed from our conversation with its producer Graham Nardone.

We quizzed the man on how real does it get this time round, the controversy about removing certain well-loved features, life and death, and also the clear obsession with llamas in the game.

READ MORE: First Play: The Sims 4

How close is the Sims 4 to reality?

"In terms of the situations you get into, The Sims as a franchise just takes a really optimistic view on life so you don't get into a lot of dark or violent situations. We placed a lot more emphasis on the way the Sims behave by giving them emotions and depth of personality through personality traits. All these choices have a significant impact on how they behave once they're in game.

The emotion system we have this time around is really quite different from anything that was in the past Sims game because as you experience these emotions, different socialisation options with other Sims and interactions with other objects in the world are unlocked, so you discover a lot of gameplay paths that you can go down."

Real life inspirations?

"We like to look at some real world situations and then apply that information back into the Sims. If you compare one of the past Sim games with The Sims 4, you can see in the past that the Sims moved very robotically.

One of the really interesting things that we did during development is that we had these social gatherings between different developers where we would put cameras up and watch their behaviour: how they moved around other people, how they engaged in conversations and put that information back into the game to make our Sims feel more natural."

How have emotions evolved?

"Emotions used to be black and white in past Sims games. They didn't have any real subtlety. Either your Sim felt good and that’s a good thing, or your Sim felt bad and you want to get them feeling good as soon as you could.

The real big change is that there's no right or wrong emotion to be in anymore. So even if you're in an emotion that's perceived as a negative, there are still positive things you can do within that. Traditionally a Sim will mope around and not get much done, but you can actually channel that in very creative ways in The Sims 4. A Sim who’s an artist can paint a beautiful painting while he’s sad, or compose great music if he's a musician."

What about careers?

"We want careers to be a little more involved now so your Sim gets a few little tasks to accomplish at home that will help his work performance.

If painting is your career, it would make sense that a painter has his own art studio at home. While you can't build that initially, as you become more accomplished in that career, you're going to start unlocking objects that will allow you to build a realistic art studio at home.

Decisions you make in your Sim’s life can be reflected in their home environment as well so it feels more related to the game that you're playing."

And the all-time favourite - deaths

"Given how important emotions are in the game, there are new ways to die via some of those extreme emotions.

One example was that I had my Sim propose to another to get married and she rejected him. He was already feeling embarrassed as it was out in public and then my Sim couldn't get to the bathroom in time and ended up wetting himself right in front of all those other people. It just pushed him right over the edge and he died of embarrassment. That’s new but we still have a lot of the classic ones that players can expect." 

Like setting yourself on fire while cooking a meal?

"Fires are a little bit more dangerous now. They pass through walls and can go over foundation levels, so you kind of have to watch out."

More after the break...

So you took away the toddler life stage and pool-building…

"When we were making a base game for The Sims, we had to think about what we’re focusing on for the game and for The Sims 4, it was about bringing the experience back to the Sims themselves. So much of our resources and time went into making the Sims believeable by giving them personalities and emotions that bring them to life to create that strong foundation that we can continue to build upon in the future.

Fans reacted very strongly to the removal of those two elements and of course we listen to that feedback. I can’t discuss what's coming next, but if you look back at what we’ve done with The Sims franchise in the past we’re always very responsive to fans in terms of what they’re asking for and where they want the franchise to go."

So fan feedback is valuable to you guys

Our community is huge with us, more than any other development team that I can think of. You’ll find a lot of The Sims developers interacting with the community. There are 25 to 30 of us on Twitter. Not just producers, but designers, engineers, artists. A lot of different areas of the team are visible and people can just start having conversations with us. We’re really accessible.

We have to ask, what’s the fascination with llamas?

I joined The Sims studio about five years ago and the whole llama thing was already well established by then. I don't personally know where that came from originally but I think it’s Will Wright (game designer) or Tim LeTourneau (producer). One of them had a real fascination with llamas and they’ve featured in the game ever since.

That’s not an option for a pet, right?

No, it’s never been, but it should be. That would be a really fun one.

Are simulation games still relevant in today’ gaming landscape?

They’re more relevant than they’ve ever been in a long time. You see these really niche games come out and I think it’s great that there’s an audience for this kind of stuff. Even recently with that Goat Simulator game. There’s still a lot of interest around the simulation genre especially amongst the PC audience who really like that kind of in-depth experience that they can really sink their teeth into.

READ MORE: Goat Simulator: Live the life of a goat, in a Michael Bay film

What expansion packs are in the future?

There’s nothing I can get into talking about just yet. i think we will see some interesting stuff this time around because of the difference emotions bring to the game. That’s going to bring about new possibilities in how players want their Sims to engage in different themes in the future.

Do you think the game could ever get old?

(laughs) I don't think so. We’re coming up on our 15th year anniversary. When you talk about a subject as broad as a life simulation, there’s really limitless possibilities; not only where you can go with the game but what you can do in the game.

Whether it's exploring your creative side, making some really strange Sims, or building a funky floating home, there are just so many angles in approaching situations that there’s always something new to discover in-game.

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