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The Found Poetry of "The Sims" and Other Video Games

"Babies will no longer be born to single parents," and other gems from the three-plus years of updating "The Sims."
January 27, 2014, 9:00pm

Compared to movies, literature, and music, the prose stylings of many popular video games can seem terse and ineloquent. There's a valid reason for that: Writing in video games usually has to suit many purely functional purposes, from telling players where to go in some level to giving them a rundown of technical glitches that have been resolved with a new software patch. The people who make these games don't always have the luxury of devoting themselves to lyricism as a result.

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As with all writing, however, the question of a particular sentence's artistry is often a matter of context. This is particularly important when it comes to games because so much of how a work is perceived is a matter of the player's volition. No matter how many times you read a novel, the words will still be there, in exactly the same spot that you left them. Games are always approached from countless diverse perspectives, on the other hand, which makes the writing therein at once far more demanding and esoteric.

Last week, Kotaku compiled a list of notes that have accompanied software patches for The Sims 3, the latest installment in Electron Arts and Maxis's hit series. Viewed outside of their natural habitat, they end up striking entirely different chords in the reader. Think of them as found poetry.

A full list of game updates that have been released since The Sims 3 first came out in 2009 is available on EA's website for the game, but here are some of my favorites:

  • Babies will no longer be born to single parents.
  • Sims no longer have the rare chance of getting permanently stuck while socializing.
  • "Become Enemies with Child" wish no longer appears.
  • Fixed an issue where ghosts could become stuck in vehicles under certain conditions. Ghosts will now properly exit vehicles after arriving at their destination.
  • Pianists will no longer continue playing pianos that have been detonated.
  • Toddlers can no longer get fleas.
  • Sims who are on fire will no longer be forced to attend graduation before they can put themselves out.
  • Fairy children will no longer stretch into adult size when using the "Talk to Plant" interaction.
  • Sims will no longer occasionally flip or stutter when trying to walk through doorways.
  • Sims can now relax on floor tiles.
  • The Murphy Bed has been made less lethal.
  • Fixed an issue that could cause a teen to be trapped in a child's body when traveling to the future at the exact moment of a birthday.

The Sims belongs to a sub-genre of strategy games known as "life simulation games," so a lot of the notes highlight the comic absurdity of its attempts at realism. Anyone who's ever messed with a sim by, say, removing the ladder from a swimming pool or making a toilet suddenly disappear can tell you that the real joy of the game comes from exploiting these gaps between its realistic and game-like moments. But games like The Sims aren't the only ones to offer unexpected moments of poetic beauty.

Last month a widely circulated image showed how elegiac the Nintendo "quit screen" message "everything not saved will be lost" can seem when it's printed on a page instead of a screen in a Mario or Zelda game. A review of the latest Call of Duty on the PC gaming block Rock, Paper, Shotgun, meanwhile, showed how frenetically crazed that game's player directions sound when posted one after another.

As The Atlantic wrote today, it was only a matter of time before someone turned The Sims 3 patch notes in their own piece of writing. Taking a suggestion from journalist Andrew Losowsky, writer Joel Dueck used EA's patch notes to assemble a found poem.

Dueck's work is clever, but it's no different than something like the in-game images that some GTA Online players have begun to assemble into its own form of war photography. As is often the case, the rare and lucid moments we call "art" in video games arise from the exciting confrontations that occur between players and the games themselves.