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The Sims updates deus ex machina for the 21st century.



Of all the reasons to play videogames -- the violent satisfaction, the entrance into fairy-tale worlds, the challenge of a good fight -- The Sims created the one that unnerves me most: Playing God. Prior to this game, there were many that encouraged superiority and a slight deity complex in players. Yet there was nothing that so indulged human interest in controlling people, the world and entire lives. The Sims, based on manipulating the lives of characters (often hundreds or thousands), became a smash hit upon release, appealing to nongamers and gamers alike. In college, I played it for days, logging on to screw with my characters twice, even three times, a day. Now, The Sims' world domination theme has become a well-accepted videogame genre.

The Sims 2 (EA Games/Maxis -- PC, GC, Xbox, PS2, DS, GBA)

One of the world's most popular games has a sequel, and it's almost as solid as the first. Incredibly similar to the original, The Sims 2 is a lot like an expansion pack, adding several options but not generally improving graphics. One major difference is the ability to create custom neighborhoods by importing them from Sim City 4. This feature permits you to design a city and then live in it -- giving control freaks free reign to dominate entire suburban landscapes in turn. Furthermore, you can decide how the computer-controlled characters will act by implanting memories. Memories are based on past events such as family deaths, marriages, etc., and they slightly influence character behavior. There's also advanced game play in custom-designing character looks, which seems to be the one area that Maxis and EA never fail to improve on. Enter the creepy factor: The computer uses something similar to genetics combination to decide what kind of kid two "Sims" will make. So if you pair aliens and humans, don't expect benign-looking babies.

With additions such as aging and family retention, the Sims no longer have immortal children or eternal lives. This infusion of reality engenders the creation of Sim history and an entire family can play out their lives on your computer, controlled by you. I find this touch another step towards making these little buggers even more human, and the implications of allowing such control over simulated people, entire cities and time, is quite chilling. The average player, man or woman, is able to live out a dream of ruling the world, down to human interaction and memory. It's like a bad combination of The Truman Show and Dark City. And I can't say there isn't something malevolent about being able to remove the pool's ladder and watch your Sim drown or removing the toilets and watching them void on the floor. There is ample room for virtual cruelty and this is what scares me about the simulated Playing God.

Despite fantastic play on PC, the games set-up for consoles just aren't as high quality. Finally making it possible to play open-ended -- without a set story and goals -- The Sims 2 for consoles ushers one into that world of control, but is much more limited feature-wise. All the lovely added features in the PC version are either scaled back or gone, such as unalterable genetics. But who actually wants to be controlled by natural genetic limitations? Furthermore, interactions are less fun and the game just doesn't have the same opportunity for sociability that the PC version does. One could say The Sims 2 for console is a decent shadow, but a shadow nonetheless. If you want to be God, stick to the PC.

The Movies (Activision/Lionhead -- PC, PS2, GC, XBox)

Lights, camera, click: This game convinced me that rip-offs can be good. Even after borrowing wholesale from The Sims, The Movies managed to be an incredibly solid and absorbing game. Setting you up as a 1920s film studio executive, this copycat allows Godplay in Hollywood. You get to assemble the films and mess with the actors and crew.

Running a movie studio is fantastic fun and The Movies supplies a lot of fodder to work with: screenwriting, casting, directing, massaging talents and egos, and managing the studio grounds. Fittingly, plastic surgery and larger trailers can be used to patch problems.

The best part about The Movies is the ability to operate over a large span of time. Another is growing a major studio out of an upstart one -- that is if you're interested in toying around with the characters. There's no real pitfalls, so it's not like the game can be lost. You just deal with movie success and failure like any other studio would: make another.

Despite its incredible likeness to The Sims, The Movies differs in its goals, which are almost as enjoyable as those of the original.

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