In the history of video games, there are few titles that are as ubiquitous as Pac-Man and The Sims. Two gaming powerhouses that have become synonymous with gaming, attracting the attention of hardcore gamers, casual players and even those who have no interest in video games whatsoever. Each generated millions of dollars for their respective companies, drew newcomers to the wonderful world of gaming, and impacted on the development of the industry. By enticing those who were once outsiders, each of these games played a role in expanding greater social interest in video games.
Pac-Man’s greatest strength was in its simplistic, but perfectly executed design. At the time of its release, most arcade games encouraged the player to kill anyone or anything in sight, requiring knowledge of relatively complex controls and an interest in weaponry. Pac-Man took a pacifist approach, demanding the player use clever techniques and avoid enemy contact at all costs until the timing was just right. The premise and controls were simple; anyone could step up to the joystick and immediately know what to do. But the simple premise didn’t compromise the game play which was challenging, and therefore addictive.
In the thirty years since its release, the core mechanics of Pac-Man have remained the same. An impressive feat, in an age where gamers yearn for constant innovation, people are still more than happy to play the same game they were playing thirty years ago. While he’s had a fresh coat of paint here and there, and a few challenges/objectives have been introduced, the basic premise of maze navigation and survival have remained the same. The central premise of Pac-Man went on to influence multiple corners of the games industry, including John Romero, who cited Pac-Man’s maze navigation as a key source of inspiration during the development of Wolfenstein 3D.
While its impact on the industry was grand, its impact on society was immense. Along with encouraging new people to enter arcades, Pac-Man is seen as being influential in the increase of female gamers. It became such a hit among women that a female version, Ms. Pac-Man, was released in America, generating the same frenzied response as the original. The global response was so big that Pac-Man became the first video game mascot, with his identifiable wokka wokka sound etched into the brains of young people across the globe.
Pac-Man took a simple idea, made it all inclusive, addictive and rewarding. You could consume it in small bites, or dedicate your time and effort to beating everyone’s high scores (including the elusive AAA). But it was restrictive, anyone could pick up and play, but they had to play Pac-Man’s way. The Sims took a similarly simplistic approach to its core design, and used it to introduce players to Bob Newbie, and an almost limitless world.
Like Pac-Man, the core element of The Sim’s is simple; your task is to control a person. With this in mind Will Wright and the team at Maxis were able to create their own all inclusive product that started with no goals, no objectives and essentially no point. Gamers had to make their own fun, and in doing so, had to invest themselves in the experience, enhancing the potential rewards. No longer were we provided with the simple satisfaction of completing a challenge or beating a high score. Players were now being offered a personal sense of achievement that came from completing simple day to day tasks, based on goals they set themselves.
You could take the standard route, help your sim find a job, a partner, and gradually build a home and family. Or you could let your sim be an unemployed slacker, living from pay cheque to pay cheque on a steady diet of pizza and soft drink. Anyone who played The Sims shared the same sense of achievement when they had saved up enough to buy the Meet Marco computing powerhouse, or the sense of dread when they received the angry phone call from their boss after missing a day of work. Just like life, you had to set your own goals, and reaching them felt like a true milestone.
But The Sims never really attempted to simulate life, opting instead to give you the opportunity to play out the lives of others. This was the core of what made the game so much fun, whether you wanted to improve or ruin lives, the game let you play out a role that you felt most comfortable with, placing you in a zone that you created and therefore enjoyed the most. Everything in the virtual world made you feel domesticated, particularly the soothing, informercial-esque tunes that you enjoyed while casually browsing the furniture section of the games catalogue. Each element felt like a genuine emulation of life, recreating the emotions people feel when they complete a building project, or the sense of sadness and indifference after failing to play a song on piano. Maxis humanized their virtual world, and did it with their tongues firmly in their cheeks.
In many respects, The Sims had the same impact on the society as Pac-Man. It introduced millions of people to the wonderful world of video games and became immensely popular among women. Like Pac-Man, the game was gender neutral, and kept itself apart from other games in this respect, by offering female characters that were genuinely female. The female characters were able to complete the same tasks and fulfil the same roles as men, but they did it in their own way, rather than sharing the mannerisms of typical male video game characters. There was even the option to engage in same sex relationships and live with a partner of the same gender.
Part of the reason for each games success is the drive for survival. While the vast majority of games require the player to stay alive, it’s how they present said aspect that makes a game addictive/rewarding. Pac-Man and The Sims didn’t encourage you to take lives, they encouraged you to keep yourself alive, and it was the rewarding aspect of keeping their character, whether it was an incomplete yellow circle or a middle of the road doctor, alive that made people come back for more. Because as long as the player is alive, the game can keep on going, and at their core, the only objective is survival with no end except one.
The sense of achievement you get from completing a game like Pac-Man can be immense, but is grounded in a single point. The Sims added a sense of personal achievement that was based on creating personal goals, without bogging things down in the overly complex narrative of life. It’s deep, yet simple, it’s complex, but easy to digest. It allowed long term commitment, but didn’t require it. Each game influenced the industry in its own right, but The Sims set the wheels rolling for the make your own fun model, the same model that’s at the core of Minecraft.
And the winner is …
Being able to say “this is your world, do as you will,” isn’t for everyone, but for those who embrace it, The Sims is an undeniable turning point in the history of video games.
So The Sims takes round 1 in the Money Makin’ division of our Video Game Face Off Tournament! What are your thoughts on the decision? Chime in and let us know in the comments below!
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