SimGolf In The N.Y. Times

Tuesday, June 18, 2002 - 23:00

Check out this wonderful article about SimGolf from the N.Y. Times.

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For the Sims, It's Time to Play Outside in the Sun


SHOULD probably go outside, sit in the park and enjoy the nice weather, but I think my Sims need that more than I do. Trapped in their pokey little house, they look a little peaked and pale from just sitting on the couch watching television. How can I leave them there while I frolic in the park? Instead I'll take my Sims to a virtual beach where they can play virtual volleyball and build virtual sand castles while I spend hours sitting at my very real computer.

Sims: Vacation, from Maxis, is the latest expansion pack for The Sims, the phenomenally popular game in which you rule over virtual human beings as an almighty god, granting their wishes or blighting their lives. It is giving Sims everywhere the chance to get out, and giving Sims players yet another reason to stay in.

The Sims is an odd game, or perhaps more accurately an odd something-other-than-a-game, that combines the voyeurism of an ant farm with the charms of a dollhouse. You create people and decide whether they are more outgoing than neat, or more active than nice, and then watch them go about their lives. You monitor indicators of your characters' weariness or boredom and tell them what to do to feel better. Sims will actually make decisions on their own, but like most people, they make very bad decisions. Unlike real people, however, Sims welcome your advice.

While you may choose to make the goal of the game acquiring money or making friends, all that is really expected is that you keep your characters alive, and even that is optional. In fact, the game is a lot of fun to play badly. I remember when I moved five people into a one-bedroom house. Without enough beds, characters slept standing up or simply collapsed. The ever-occupied bathroom meant that no one could ever bathe, and garbage piled up everywhere. Finally everyone was too depressed to go to work, the money ran out and they all starved to death.

But you eventually form an attachment to your characters and want the best for them. As you watch them slaving at their jobs, trying to find a mate, growing jealous or getting bored, you begin to feel an obligation to make their lives a little better. And that is when you decide that it's not enough for your Sims to hang out in their houses reading the newspaper, and you run to the store and buy expansion packs that will give your Sims a richer, more fulfilling virtual life.

Vacation is the fourth Sims expansion pack, on the heels of Hot Date, which created a downtown section where you could try to pick up members of the opposite sex, or the same sex, for that matter, as Sims don't come with definite sexual identities. This latest addition is not fixated on romance, although your Sims can have long, meaningful conversations while soaking in a hot tub. Vacation is all about having fun. While peripheral characters like one in a shark suit prance about, your Sims can play volleyball, sail toy boats on the lake or have snowball fights. When my Sims went camping, I found one of them sitting at the campfire leading others in song, though I have no idea where she got the guitar. Sims are like that.

Packs like Vacation show just how ungamelike The Sims is. People pay $30 for it not because it changes the basic game but because it expands the universe they play in. One imagines that Maxis could continually create new expansion packs allowing the Sims to go on cruise ships, travel in Europe or even visit New York, where they could encounter residents wearing T-shirts saying "Welcome to New York - now go home."

While The Sims: Vacation gives you a place for which you supply the people, Sid Meier's SimGolf, from Firaxis, gives you completed people and some wilderness on which you can build a golf course. The Sims lets you lead people by the nose, but SimGolf expects you to create a happy place that those little people will want to visit.

In many games the goal is to build a popular amusement park or a zoo or a casino, but SimGolf is set apart from the others by its easygoing charm. Little people wade through shallow streams and past windmills, chatting about the game while dolphins play in the nearby lakes. Eagles soar above and the sky is full of blimps and hot-air balloons. The tenor of the characters' conversations is governed by how much they enjoy the course that you create: if they have a happy experience, their conversations will end joyfully and you will be rewarded with a burst of sprightly jazz.

To make these people happy, you have to give them a really great golf course, one that is challenging without being aggravating. There must be benches to sit on when the players get tired, attractive landmarks and flowers to keep them from getting bored and snack bars to keep them energized.

SimGolf makes it easy to know what your customers want. "I'm tired," one says. "I'm thirsty," another complains. "Why do I have to walk up this hill? Who designed this course?" Players will snap their little clubs in two, scream that they hate your course, golf and life itself, and storm away.

Satisfy them, and your little golfers will change their complaints to praise, talking about the pretty scenery and the imaginative holes, happy as can be. You might even attract important people like Ivana Richman, who will give you a decorative sundial if she has fun.

Once you've built your course, you can play on it. This is a simple system whereby you select a stroke and then hope for the best. Like a role-playing game, it allots you a certain number of points for luck, skill, strength and other useful golfing traits; make a lucky shot and your luck will go up, flub an easy shot and your skill will go down. While not especially challenging or difficult, playing your course is a very good way to see how well designed it is; if something annoys you, you'll want to change it. Make a good shot and you'll hear applause, although it is unclear who exactly is applauding.

Like The Sims, SimGolf asks little of the player. You have to make enough money to keep the course going, but if you're happy with a moderately successful course, you can stop building and just hang out playing golf. Or you can tweak each hole until it gets nothing but accolades. Or you can start a new golf course in another country, my favorite being a rugged spot in Ireland. Or you can work to get your course accepted for tournaments by the SimGolf Association, so you can compete with famous golfers like Nick Jacklaus and Tiger Forest.

While other games hold you in thrall with challenges that keep you playing until you kill one more demon or unravel one more puzzle, there is never any pressing reason to continue playing SimGolf or The Sims. Play on you do, however, hour after hour, mesmerized by the unfolding of virtual lives. But at the risk of sounding like someone's mom, it's a nice day and the sun is shining: turn that thing off and go play outside.


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