The developers of life simulation series The Sims know that you like to kill and torture your Sims, and they think it's hilarious.
Azure Bowie, an associate producer that worked on the Grim Reaper character in the game and who is intimately familiar with all matters pertaining to Sims mortality, told me that sometimes the developers are even impressed with how creative people get with the little hells they build for the digital characters.
She told me of one instance where a player created a large maze with a bed at its center. Every morning, the Sim would wake up, and start making his way to work, but the maze was created so by the time he reached the exit, it'd be the end of the day, and time to go back to bed. His whole life was an endless march from the beginning to the end of the maze and back again.
"And mind you, while this is happening the Sim is passing out, using the restroom on itself, it's miserable, and it only gets more miserable because all he's doing is walking out to the curb and then walking back," Bowie said. "That one to me was like, wow. It's just so much effort."
These stories about the dark side of The Sims have been around since the first game released in 2000. It quickly became one of the best-selling PC games of all time because of its broad appeal. Unlike most games, it's appropriate for all ages, and isn't marketed exclusively to men. And yet, despite being a family-oriented game, the The Sims never panicked about players who burned their Sims or left them to drown in swimming pools.
A shining example of this depraved behavior is this Reddit thread, where players share their darkest Sims secrets, like burying Sims alive, burning down orphanages, and banging Sims to death. The developers, Bowie told me, share this stuff they see on forums and Reddit internally all the time. It's funny, but also an essential part of the game.
As Bowie explains it, death and sadistic players serve two very important roles in The Sims. The first is that having a bunch of sadistic players makes the simulation better for everyone. Bowie explains that, generally, there are four types of Sims players. There are builders, who like to build houses, decorating them with all the best furniture. There are storytellers (like Bowie), who like to play their Sims like they were characters in a show or a movie (The Sims 3 even introduced a video editing and sharing tool for these players).
And then there are the experimenters, who like to push and prod at the simulation. These are the people who build the hell mazes, or those who discovered that you could drown a Sim by building a pool, waiting for it to get in, then removing the ladder. This particular method of Sim murder was such a big, silly loophole, that the team eventually closed it. Now, Sims can climb out of the pool even without a ladder, though Bowie told me you can still build walls around the pool if you want to drown them.
The point is, the developers needed the sadistic players to point out this obvious flaw. They need players pushing the simulation to its weirdest extremes to see where it strains and breaks. For example, the ease with which these players figured out how to burn down the house while cooking, taught the developers that players needed the ability to build smoke alarms and sprinkler systems.
They want fire to exist as a possibility in the game to maintain an element of realism and danger, but they also want the player who cares about his Sims and wants to be cautious a way to keep them alive. Not all players are going to explore the dark reaches of the simulation, but those dark possibilities have to exist to make it interesting.
Which leads to the second, more philosophical reason for why the Sims must die: it gives life meaning.
Sims could die in accidents since the first game, but it was The Sims 2 that introduced aging, which players can turn off if they want. Instead of creating and playing with one set family, players could look after lineages, watching generations come and go.
Bowie told me how this new feature really changed the game for her as a player and a fan of the series, before she joined the development team. She would play with a core family, and had one Sim paint a portrait of each member that joined it. As the Sim years rolled by, the portraits of different generations in the family lined a giant hallway Bowie had built in their house.
"I've played with aging off before and it's like every day my Sims go out and do their things, and they get a big house, but what makes it special?" Bowie asked. "I don't play with aging off anymore because what makes that particular Sim special in that moment with their family is that they're not going to be there forever."