When Jimmy Stewart peeps through his telephoto lens into the apartment across the courtyard, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Windowbecomes not just a suspenseful mystery but a study of voyeurism and a riff on the meaning of watching a movie. Now imagine that Hitchcock is alive and well and making computer games. His Rear Window might be a lot like The Sims (Electronic Arts, for PC, $49.95).
The foundation for The Sims was built more than a decade ago, when Will Wright engineered the urban-planning game SimCity, which in turn led to a phenomenally successful line of spin-offs (SimEarth, SimAnt, SimCopter). But where the previous titles were variations on a macrocosmic theme, The Sims is a microcosmic advance: It provides a Peeping Tom’s-eye view into daily life while offering the chance to play God in the bargain. And, like Hitchcock’s masterpiece, it ultimately becomes a computer window onto your own life.
The main screen of The Sims presents an overview of a single house; a panel at the bottom lets you build and furnish it and control each Sim’s movements. On top of feeding, paying bills, and getting your Sims to work on time every day, you’ll have to clean up a lot of fly-ridden garbage, repair the toilet, and provide fun time so that Sim Bachelor doesn’t get totally bummed out. Partying with neighbors becomes a necessary, but rewarding, chore — in fact, that’s how Sims find time to get hitched and eventually have Sim Babies (who may be remanded to social services if they’re not cared for properly).
Once you’ve mastered basic Sim life — the closest thing to winning in this game — you build your own family, choosing everything from astrologically inclined personality traits to wallpaper. Playing The Sims becomes a kind of mouse-and-keyboard dance, where you constantly click from one Sim to another, adjusting comfort zones, fostering social interactions, and monitoring bladder levels so no one pees on the living-room carpet. Luckily, Sims aren’t completely helpless: They learn to autopilot some of their minor chores (like eating) so you can work at finessing a kiss from a fellow Sim or making more moola at the office — and if you play long enough, superpower-style options (like the ability to career-hop) become available.