The one computer game you couldn't avoid at the big Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles last week was The Sims 2. Its booth was front and center in the main hall, and it stood out like a Philip Roth novel atop a pile of Tom Clancy paperbacks.
After all, E3 is the insular annual confab of the video-games business, devoted to sound and fury and ever more realistic ways to annihilate the undead. (Resident Evil 4: Kill zombies with guns! Dead Run: Kill zombies with cars!) The Sims 2, by contrast, is a poignant, witty and fun interactive story about life, love and aging. Its high-scoring moments revolve around birthday cakes rather than body counts.
The original Sims sold more than 34 million copies and is by far the most successful computer game of all time. In that first version, players controlled the lives of miniature 3-D suburbanites. They were as willful and idiosyncratic as real children, yet as ageless--and ultimately static--as sitcom families. In this sequel, which is about a hundred times as detailed and animated, creator Will Wright has added the dimension of time. Your Sims grow from mewling infants to wizened crones in the space of an average 25 hours of game play, Wright says. The sudden arrival of birthday cake signals growth from one year to the next.
Along the way, you'll try to steer your Sims toward the life goals you chose for them (like raising a family or making a fortune) and away from their big fears (like being cheated on). Unlike us, the Sims get a final life score. But like us, they get to live on through children, whose features are an adorable random mix of those of both parents. They get to record the most precious moments of their Sim lives through in-game cameras.
So when you watch a home movie of your third Sim great-grandchild, then buy her toys to turn her into the genius you know she will eventually want to be, you get some sense of the game's unusual long-term emotional hook. Imagine those Tamagotchi virtual pets looking just like your kid brother and endlessly spawning new generations of themselves.
The Sims 2 ($49.99 for PC) hits shelves on Sept. 17, a full nine months after its original due date. Wright's team is also hard at work on a highly cartoonish city-dweller version of The Sims for Xbox, GameCube and PlayStation 2, called The Urbz, which is set to appear before Christmas. In The Urbz, your goal is even more elusive than living a good life. Basically, you're looking to rack up cool points and persuade gangs of punks, rappers or ravers to emulate your style. It's survival of the hippest. Zombie-killing teens need not apply, but with these new releases, about 34 million of us are about to have a blast.