I can't figure out why Emily is dancing in her bikini. I've just turned on the simulation for all the Sims I've made of my coworkers, eight in total, and they're congregating in the living room, where I placed the stereo. Someone turned the radio on, and now they're all dancing. Sims tend to do this. When their Fun need is low, they often pick a random "fun object" to raise it. Dancing raises fun, and conveniently, Sims can also talk to each other and replenish their Social need at the same time. Eventually, I see that my Sims are hungry. I get Emanuel, my managing editor, to make a big salad. Soon enough, everyone is sitting around the dining room table, eating and talking. Something in my chest stings, looking at it. Emily, inexplicably, is still in her bikini.
It's been months since people started quarantining in their homes in the US because of the global pandemic. I live in New York City, the epicenter of that pandemic in the states. My friends are having their birthday parties through Animal Crossing. My favorite Simmer, Lilsimsie, held her college graduation in the game rather than in real life. When I made seven of my coworkers in The Sims, I wasn't actually sure what I was missing out on. To tell the truth, I needed a story, and I know that fucking around in The Sims often generates ideas for me.
I asked my coworkers at Motherboard for three selfies, three traits they wanted their Sim to have and the aspiration they wanted. Some stayed fairly true to their own character. Emily Lipstein, Motherboard's social editor, was game right away, and I made an incredible likeness of her (if I don't say so myself). Sam Cole went a little bit more fantastical—in my save, she's a vampire. Jason Koebler, my boss, asked for the trait "child of the ocean," so I decided to make him a Mermaid. He loves it.
There wasn't a specific thing I was trying to capture. No one was having a graduation or a birthday. I just missed them. I was, I am, so lonely.
I joined the Motherboard team in January. I came into this position as someone who mostly wrote about video games. Tech journalism would be a new venture, though I would still be writing about games. I was excited, nervous, heartbroken about my old job, eager to meet my new coworkers and to see Emily again—we were both fleeing the same sinking ship. I felt like I was embarking on a new period in my life. My boyfriend and I were all set to move in when my lease would be up in May, and my parents loved him. That same month I started to read a few news reports about a mystery virus in China. As time went on and we learned more about it, I got a little concerned. It spread asymptomatically, and symptoms varied wildly. I remember thinking that if it ever got to the Americas, we'd be in deep shit.
As time went on, the cloud of that virus grew overhead. In February and into March, friends of mine would tell me that a friend of theirs said that everyone should stock up on food and water. My roommates held a house meeting, split up what we needed to get. I am so grateful that we got a first aid kit and stocked up on over the counter medicine.
On Instagram, my friends started participating in a trend going through the Instagram Stories feature: Last Normal Photo
I don't remember my last normal days too clearly. I was panicked. I was afraid to die. The images come in fits and bursts. A cool, drizzly night, me in just a hoodie as I shiver at the Marcy JMZ platform. I carry home two big bags of groceries. I see my favorite brand of granola at the store and grab it, and then grab another package. The last day I documented was when my roommate and I went canvassing for Bernie Sanders. In the one photo I took, I'm squinting in the sun, wearing pink lipstick, camera aimed over my shoulder to show the enormous crowd. It was a beautiful sunny day. Good things still felt possible.
On Instagram, my friends started participating in a trend going through the Instagram Stories feature: Last Normal Photo. It's exactly what it says on the tin—you share the last picture of yourself from when things were "normal." The word "normal" is doing a lot of work in this phrase. It implies that someday there may be a return to normalcy, back to offices and movie theaters and dine in restaurants. But "last" is always where my brain pauses. I posted my picture of myself canvassing for Bernie, not sure when I'd ever be in a room with that many people ever again.
Some of the people in the Motherboard House in my Sims game are not people I have met in real life, or people that worked in the office with me. I introduced myself very briefly to Edward when he was in the office one day. I had been eager to meet him as I'd been following his work about how casually inhumanely gig workers are treated, a situation that's only gotten worse with COVID-19. Lorenzo I've never met, but when Lorenzo saw his Sim sitting at the dinner table, he said that the game must know he's Italian. His Sim, which has bright blue hair that Lorenzo requested, was gesticulating wildly. I'm probably arguing about pizza, he said.
When you have eight Sims in a house, you don't really control them so much as try to make sure nothing gets set on fire and no one pees themselves. When I play with the Motherboard House, I tend to take control of one Sim for a day and then switch over to whomever has the most interesting event happening in their life once things get boring. Overnight when everyone else is sleeping, I take Sam out to bars and nightclubs to feed. Most bartenders in town hate her for snacking on their regulars. Emily and Emanuel both worked in the critic career, until Emanuel triggered an event that got him fired—he was instructed to give a positive review on something he hated, but he defied the order. It seemed in character for him. One day I took Lorenzo and Jason to the beach together in Sulani, the Hawaiian inspired world from the Island Living expansion pack. They both have the Child of the Ocean trait and I wanted to get the positive moodlet for going to the beach. Jason met another mermaid, swimming with her under the moonlight. Lorenzo fell asleep on a beach chair. Edward stole a guitar from work and is now, much like the IRL Edward, teaching himself to play guitar. Janus is always feeling flirtatious, but knowing her she's alright with that. My next goal is to find her a cute girlfriend. My self sim mostly cooks everyone dinner, a silent observer in a similar way to what I am doing in real life: looking at this mess of humanity from a distance.
My coworkers' Sims live in a neighborhood where I've put a lot of other Sims I'm fond of, including other Sims I've made of my friends. At the karaoke bar I made for the neighborhood, modeled after Duet (a halfway-shitty favorite of Vice editorial director Tim Marchman's), my friend Dylan wandered into and out of the bar all night long. He was wearing a shearling jacket I had picked out for him, the familiar long bangs of his brown hair falling into his eyes.
I saw him and I missed him, missed Duet, missed sweaty venues where you end up covered in everyone's sweat and spit, missed basement shows, missed the now closed Greenpoint Baby Grand karaoke bar—basically a long hallway with a tiny stage, a perfect place now gone—missed seeing the Hell Yeah Babies, Meg and Mike's New Years Parties, meeting up with my friends from the group DM at the bar, parties in general, humanity in general. I missed it, and was so grateful that there is a version of it I can visit anytime. The facsimile is imperfect. It's also all I have.
Right now, The Sims 4 is the only place where the old world exists. I turn that thought over in my head and can't quite internalize it yet. There's a part of me that thinks I'll someday wake up and be in a world that's not just before COVID-19, but before most of the major pieces of trauma that have shaped my life. I'll wake up before the 2016 election, before I went home with the man who assaulted me, before I chose a career in media. I wake up before 9/11, a child who truly believes that America won't be at war in her lifetime. Maybe the last normal photo is my 5th grade first day-of-school picture. In it I wear a cloud blue tank top, and I've reached my full height of five feet and two inches. My hair is in two neat braids and I'm grinning, excited about a new year. In that picture, I remember not feeling hopeful about having good experiences, but confident that they would come.
All the change that I have lived through only makes The Sims 4 more important to me now. The world of The Sims is one of normal photos, of good times and safe times. I open up the Motherboard House and I see us all sitting around a dinner table, talking, laughing, smiling with each other. I will continue to believe that I'll see these people again.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.