The Sims 3

On the PC.

Once again, I’m engrossed in the imaginary lives of imaginary people. I’ve been playing with Sims ever since the first iteration of the game, nearly a decade ago, and it’s kind of embarrassing. I’m not even one of those players who use the games to construct elaborate buildings or design clothing, which would be more justifiable, I think. No, I just get a kick out of telling myself stories about the imaginary people, like a little girl with her dolls. Like I said: kind of embarrassing.

With The Sims 2, I would spin elaborate multigenerational sagas, which quickly grew so complicated that I drew up detailed interconnected family trees to keep track of everybody. I would hop from household to household, advancing the story lines step by step. If you’d told me I could only play with one nuclear family at a time, I would have been disgusted.

So I was skeptical at first about The Sims 3. The big gimmick of the new game is that the community is seamless, simulated all at once. All the Sims, not just those in the household you’re controlling, are advancing at all times: learning new skills, being promoted or fired from their jobs, marrying and having children, growing older and eventually dying. It’s possible to adjust the settings to stop that, but 3 isn’t conducive to household-jumping like 2 is. (Jumping is possible, but you lose a lot of game data each time you do it.)

No more massive family trees! I was shocked. Unable to micromanage the interlocking lives of dozens of Sims, I no longer felt like a demigod. What was the point?

I kept puttering, though. The seamless community is pretty cool. Traveling to “community lots” is awkward in 2—the clock goes screwy, and the load times are a drag—but in 3, Sims constantly move around their little village without any trouble. Without the old impediments keeping them virtually homebound, the Sims’ lives—and the stories you can tell about them—open up in expected and unexpected ways. Turns out it’s not just a gimmick after all.

But I didn’t really get into the game until I discovered how easy it is to copy game files and create new ones—and, more important, the implications of that. To save different versions or “reboot” communities in 2, you have to mess around with the files outside of the game—it’s complicated and awkward—but 3 makes it easy. I have one game file in which I control one family, one controlling another, one yet another. I’ve “spun off” parts of families—after a divorce or after a kid grows into adulthood—and created separate game files for each part. After a while, I started to see the beauty in it: parallel universes!

Now none of my Sims has a single destiny or even a single puppet-master. I watch how families that I control in one file develop independently from me in another and piece together what happened to them when something else was guiding their steps. Or if I can’t decide how I want a story of my own to go, I copy the game file and take the two versions in different directions. It’s intoxicating, actually, how limitless the possibilities are. I never have to choose between the two roads in the yellow wood. I think I’m starting to feel godlike again.