A lot has changed in 20 years, but there's still something endlessly sad about the Sims

The tragedy of The Sims was that its characters had no future. The tragedy of The Sims 4 is that few of its players do.

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There’s something unavoidably tragic about the Sims. As far as the original game, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this week, is concerned, its innate melancholy comes from the agelessness of its simulated human beings. The adults never die – the babies are adopted, cared for three days before transitioning into endless childhood.

The original Sims’ lives could only end in failure – children who are neglected are taken away by social services, while kids who skip school are packed off to military school, never to return. They can’t change, fall in love for the first time, or have children of their own.

Adult Sims, too, remained perpetually grounded in an endless middle age – they could work and accrue ever larger sums of money, but to no real end. The only reward for toil was more toil. Their children, no matter how well fed, remained locked in perpetual youth.

Perhaps that’s one reason – that and the fact I was ten at the time – that I took so much delight in killing off my Sims. Only death gave them any meaning, and there were so many ways for a cruel Simmer to kill their Sims: telling them to enter a swimming pool then deleting the ladder so they couldn’t get out, so they would eventually succumb to exhaustion and drown. Surrounding them with fireplaces and waiting for their sofa to set fire until they, too, burned to death. Electrocuting them by making them fix a broken computer or television while tired or standing in a puddle of water. Starving them to death. Letting them slowly waste away having been bitten by a guinea pig. Because they were otherwise immortal, the original Sims’ lives could end in two ways: failure and stagnation.

That all changed with The Sims 2. Sims could, for the first time, grow old and die. Their children, instead of being a series of premade faces, took and passed on the genetic traits of their parents, and themselves grew up, and in later expansion packs did properly grown-up things like go to university, run their own businesses and eventually retire. The tragedy of potential endlessly unfulfilled – of Sims that could neither flux, flow, wither or change their state – was replaced by the tragedy of Sims whose potential was limited by the passage of time.

The real bathos of actual death – a beloved grandfather dying of old age in the downstairs toilet, a young mother being crushed to death under a falling satellite – is a different sort of tragedy, but it added a depth and a meaning to the Sims’ lives. Perhaps symbolically, by the time of the Sims 3, you could no longer kill your Sims by removing the ladder from a pool: like a real human being, Sims could now lever themselves out by their arms.

Granted the definition of a finite lifespan, by the time that the Sims 2 rolled around, I had stopped killing my Sims for sport. Also, I had grown up a bit, and had moved from being a sadistic child to a deeply self-involved teen. Instead of killing my Sims, I engaged in an odd-imagined idea of what adulthood would be like, making myself as a teenager, falling in love, finding a job, getting married, having 2.4 children, buying a home, and building a dynasty of descendants, who would live in ever-increasing levels of opulence. (One way that the Sims is a great deal like real life is that making money is fairly difficult when you start out but it is very easy to keep making it if you are born into it.)

Now as an adult I have a job, a flat and a marriage, and while I don’t even have 0.4 per cent of a child – but I do still play the Sims 4. Sim Stephen is long dead now, having lived to see his three children grow up, move into their own dazzling houses – building the homes is a central part of the joy of the Sims if you ask me – and have six grandchildren, one of whom he lived to see go to university.

His descendants live lives of well-remunerated security, thanks partly to their own hard work but also to the fortunes they inherited. (My eldest granddaughter is a celebrity chef who owns three restaurants, largely paid for thanks to the royalties on Sim Stephen’s books.)

I am of the generation for whom the Sims has gone from being a childish idea about a future that was near-guaranteed to arrive to escapism about one that is near-guaranteed not to: my hypothetical children are highly unlikely to be wealthier or healthier than I am, although if we’re not very, very lucky they will certainly be a great deal warmer.

The chances that I will die on the toilet are still troublingly high, though.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.