One deadbeat musician boyfriend won’t commit. His scientist girlfriend wonders whether to dump him or plant watermelons. Two happy couples engage with their delightful, Pat-a-Cake-obsessed toddlers. Meanwhile, two dogs race about digging up money. Two cats do the same while remaining aloof from their owners, at least until a hug is offered. Another scientist and his artist wife contemplate adding a child to their family. But where should the child sleep? In the shrine area where the samurai mannequin is displayed? Meanwhile, a couple who just met the other day are now dating. Though he’s a scientist and she’s a real estate manager, they have the same work starting time, so that’s an advantage. But the musician has been showing up at the home of the real estate manager, whispering sweet promises in her ear. She’s tempted to listen. My suggestion? She should plant potatoes or watermelons.
What on earth am I going on about? The Sims™ FreePlay. (Sorry, Hamlet fans. The title is all you’re getting of Shakespeare’s play. And you hoped this blog was a class act. Don’t worry. There is a method to the madness. Um, okay yeah that would be another Hamlet quote.) You probably recognized the scenarios above if you have the game on your phone or tablet. You have to keep your sims (the people who populate the game) happy and inspired by fulfilling their needs (food, sleep, social, bladder, etc.). You provide housing for them, jobs, toilets, and potential dates. They earn money (simoleons) by working or gardening. Along the way, you go on quests to gain the ability to marry, have a baby, turn said baby into a toddler, acquire horses, etc.
I love the toddler aspect, since my job involves writing preschool and kindergarten curriculum. Also I am around a lot of toddlers. In fact, the other day, a little boy who will be three soon came up to me and said, “Ima draw a picture for you.” (His exact words.) I seldom say no when a toddler offers to do something for me. Here is the picture he drew:
So sweet. But I digress. The actions in Sims FreePlay are done in real time (20 minutes means 20 actual minutes), unless you use a suggested number of life points to speed things up. Playing the game has been a lesson for me on what makes a story compelling versus what makes a story seem rote.
Characters. As I mentioned earlier, the object of Sims FreePlay is to meet all of your sims’ needs. But in a novel, a character whose every need is easily met isn’t the most interesting character to read about. Much of life involves conflict, which often helps shape character. Conflict makes a story compelling.
Relationships are important in the sims’ lives as they are in real life. The decision to allow your sims to date is made by the click of a button: Be Romantic. Keep clicking that button and two sims will eventually have a status change to Dating. It’s that simple. So chemistry has no part to play in dating. And since the characters can date any of the other characters, there’s no mystery. (You can also click Be Nice if you want two sims to be friends.) And even the “tension” of someone who refuses to marry someone else boils down to the player’s refusal to pony up the life points for a sim to buy a decent ring.
In a novel, friendship and dating need more friction and chemistry to keep readers engaged. Also, if all of the characters could date any of the other characters in the story, where’s the tension in that?
Quests. Many compelling stories, like those following the hero’s journey, involve characters on quests. These quests, fraught with dangerous thresholds, make us turn pages. But in the Sims FreePlay, some of the thresholds involve actions like standing at a stove baking a birthday cake for 24 real-time hours or talking to a statue in a park for 24 hours (a one-sided conversation for the most part). I don’t know about you, but neither action seems exciting, especially when you think about reading a scene like this in a book. This is when a summary would come in handy. Remember what I mentioned about life points and how using them truncates time? Summarizing does this in a way. It helps you avoid boring someone with a tedious scene. Keeping a balance between scene and summary is tricky.
I’m sure I don’t really have to tell you how to make a book compelling. You’re undoubtedly hard at work doing just that. And hard work is the key isn’t it? Crafting a compelling story is hard work that goes well beyond a mere push of a button.
Sims images from megagames.com, sims.wikia.com, and at the EA Games website. Watermelons from commons.wikimedia.org. Hamlet cover from Goodreads.