There are some games that resist explanation, eluding our impulse to define or categorise them. Obsession with genre is an affliction that the gaming world shares with pretty much every other art form around, and when a game or a film or a book comes along that defies our strict notions of what it should do we often turn to generic classifications to help us decipher what it’s trying to be. If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, but isn’t a duck, then what the hell is it?
Will Wright’s games have often appealed to this human propensity to micromanage and manipulate, offering virtual playgrounds where it is possible to control even the smallest minutiae of the game world. Wright’s seminal enterprise-em-up SimCity, for example, was a sandbox game in the truest sense, tasking you with constructing an entire urban metropolis out of nothing, maintaining its infrastructure, providing electricity to its residents, and plausibly, defending it from alien invasions. There was no real victory condition in SimCity (though there were certain scenarios where you had certain targets to hit), the satisfaction in playing came from the pure joy of meticulously tweaking every single detail of your bustling megalopolis. SimCity would go on to spawn a whole franchise of simulators, from the country bumpkin animal husbandry barndance SimFarm to the downright bizarre tunnel-em-up SimAnt.
Calling your town Volcano City is kind of asking for trouble in this game.
By this point Will Wright’s game-making company Maxis had been bought by publishing behemoth Electronic Arts, and Wright had the full financial might of EA behind his titles. Wright would take interactive meddling technology to unprecedented heights of popularity with the sublime life-wrecking dramedy sim The Sims, which put you in charge of the everyday activities of virtual people leading their normal lives. With its mixture of relationship management, wealth accumulation, Grand Designs-lite house-building, and basic survival mechanics, The Sims is one of the most compelling game experiences I can think of. There was something simple yet subtle about the way in which you could dictate the every action and activity in the lives of these gibberish-mewling minions, usually molded in the image of you and those you knew. If maybe sometimes the game wasn’t always used for its intended purpose, then it’s only because the design principles of the game were so open-ended that they allowed scope for player invention. Or base cruelty, depending on how you look at it.
You know what this room really needs? A hot tub.
Something about The Sims really struck a chord, because the game was a phenomenal hit. As of February 7, 2005, the game has sold 16 million copies worldwide, and like Wright’s other brainchild, SimCity, it birthed a sprawling and expansion-laden franchise that has sold over 100 million copies. Integral to the gargantuan financial success of The Sims as a gaming institution is the fact that women have really dug it, making up 60% of the people who play it. Gaming is notoriously (though often erroneously) considered a male-dominated world, and this kind of success with the ladies was considered pretty unusual for the industry. I don’t know, maybe there’s something about manipulating every single detail in the lives and relationships of other people that really appeals to girls.
I suppose there’s a name for the kinds of games that Will Wright makes, and that is: god game. Maybe I’m being too literal, though, because I never got the sense of being particularly celestial when playing these games. In SimCity I saw the player more as some kind of all-powerful municipal boss of something, and because The Sims sort of took the Tamagotchi concept and took it to the next level, I thought of my Sims more like virtual pets than beings made in my own divine image. The games of Wright’s similarly-minded contemporary Peter Molyneux, like Populous or Black & White, seem more like proper god games because you’re an actual almighty presence with the power to move mountains and strike down foos from the heavens, compared to the relatively mundane toilet commands and feeding rituals of The Sims.
Nothing says integrity like a Katy Perry tie-in.
It’s hard, then, to categorise exactly what these games are; they are often called “simulators,” inverted commas, but I wonder what kind of real-world experience exactly they’re trying to simulate? As any matchmaker will attest, forcing two human beings to copulate and start a family is a lot harder than it’s made out to be in The Sims, and I’m sure they don’t get to tell people when to pee. What I think Will Wright makes are games that skillfully combine open-ended, sandboxy management mechanics with a humorous, playful tone that gives it accessibility. Wright’s focus is clearly on player control; he provides the player with a world they can intricately influence, and then sets you loose in it, free to shape it as you see fit.
Wright pushed this to a point that could be considered epically creepy with his next big IP, the Darwinian species nursery Spore. Whereas in The Sims you were free to interfere with the emotions and bodily functions of your avatars, Spore let you fool around, on a molecular level, with every aspect of a fledgling species from single-cell organisms to highly-evolved, space-faring galactic emperors. The scenario sounds like one that must plague the nightmares of creationists: able to modify the genetic progression of your species, you see you little amoebas grow into advanced googly-eyed lifeforms capable of colonizing the far reaches of space. It’s a game that just keeps getting more and more expansive as you play it, and Wright’s influence of the game design is felt in your ability to micromanage even the DNA of your alien race.
Spore was Will Wright’s last big game, and in 2009 he left Maxis to be a part of Stupid Fun Club, a think-tank looking to “gamify reality,” so it seems that Wright’s ambition to let you control everything now extends to real life now. So if a rotating green diamond materializes above your head and you suddenly start to talk to people or go to the toilet against your will, you’ll know that Wright and his team have fulfilled his life’s work.