I haven’t been keeping track of official school dates, not out of some debonair regard for them but because, especially after the overworked hell of last semester (scored high in everything but at such a cost), I’ve stopped taking the long view to my work and focus instead just on getting by. So it took me by surprise this week when both my minicourse and the Big Scary Course Comprised Largely Of Material Too Archaic For Me To Read announced that it was the last class meeting before finals. What?? And since the mini-course paper will be laughably short (and enjoyable to boot), making the only time-suck on my horizon the Big Scary Class’s paper, I caved and bought The Sims Medieval.
I rather doubt anyone reading this is going to care, but for the sake of propriety let me warn you: spoilers ahead.
Now, before The Sims proper (i.e. the people running about the house buying furniture and burning dinner), the preexisting Sims franchises (SimAnt, SimPark, SimCity, etc.) belonged to Maxis. This was of course before EA bought them. And Maxis had a sense of humor about things. I don’t know who got put in charge of The Sims Medieval (I actually heard next to nothing about it, other than “it’s coming out next year/in six months/next week/now!”), but whoever they were they appear to be trying to resurrect this older sense of humor:
(Sidebar: Gratuitously Long-Winded Sections of Capitalization are precisely my humor of choice. I can’t count how many times I used than when blogging from Japan. Nice call, TSM.)
I was able to get this text because rather than an agonizingly linear process of character and quest development (yes, there are quests!), the game gives you options throughout a questline to shape your character’s personality. At this particular point, my knight had established that there were indeed a bunch of goblins in a cave, and I had the option to “proceed cautiously” or “be cocky.” I chose the cocky path, because I had already made a handful of heroes I liked (you switch focus from hero to hero throughout the game, based on what kind of hero each quest wants), and I very much wanted a dithering idiot for my knight in shining armor. But the game’s humor doesn’t limit itself to playful jabs at stereotypes:
It actually gets political. A birther joke, in a Sims game! In the past–and I’ve played every expansion for Sims 1, 2, and 3–they’ve gone in precisely the opposite direction. From the occasional poignant remark in Sims 1 object description text, they muted their commentary down to nothing as the games became popular. And now, here, a birther joke? I was astounded! If the context is a bit confusing, the name I chose for my kingdom was Terrabythia, and the gossip was occurring between my knight and a local, who clearly resented the idea of a person of significant power (the friar is head of the monastery) having come from outside the country. There are other contemporary references, too–to Avatar, for example, when referencing a bunch of royal blue elves dancing around a glowing white tree in the woods–but this one’s political nature is particularly striking.
Also striking is the increase in visual quality of the characters and your ability to manipulate their appearance. Sure, Sims 3’s character generation is a huge improvement over Sims 2, but no matter how much fat you add to a face or how you move the cheekbones around, all the faces in Sims 3 tend to start to look the same. They’ve fixed that in TSM with a huge increase in skin detail–shadows and crinkles around the eyes, ruddiness of cheeks–as well as making it so moving the structures beneath the skin actually results in faces real people might have. They don’t look like impeccably clean-lined simulated faces–they look like Faye from What About Bob (as in the case of my troubadour), or Silent Bob from, well, Silent Bob (see: Brother Rolo Huggins, above).
Speaking of Brother Rolo, TSM does not try to stay mum on religious issues, either: you’ve got your Jacobeans, whose structures are towering cathedrals (which, bizarrely, adds security to your kingdom) where fire-and-brimstone sermons rain down on your quivering congregation; and you’ve got your Peterans, who live in this monastery:
–and who are hands-down my favorite (content) part of the game so far. Somebody out there sat and thought “well hm, if one of our religions is the yelling-and-promising-everlasting-hell type, what do we make the other type? AHA! Clearly we stick The Name Of The Rose into a sims game and call it good!” And it IS good. Because that is one of my favorite books of all time. For many reasons. I thus have an incorrigible soft spot for portly multi-lingual men in dusty rooms under terracotta roofs, patiently translating and illustrating texts from way, way out of their cultural sphere. What, then, is Brother Rollo Huggins’ first task, when I decide to do a priest quest? It’s called “Translation Sensation,” and for it Rollo must recruit an illustrator from the populace, send his stepdaughter the Princess (long story) off to the village to buy bottles of ink, and settle down in his cell for some serious translating.
It’s no secret, given where I live and what I study, that I frequent among people with no small amount of ill-will toward organized religions and any form of Christianity in particular, and on most points I don’t blame them. But carrying that resentment back into a time when churches and to a greater extent monasteries were THE centers of learning is, I think, silly. When you’re an academic hating on 13th century monks, you’re stabbing your comrades in the back. Before universities, before cities were much more than piles of muck riddled with disease and the occasional witch-burning, where were you going to learn anything? Someone shipped you off and you got to learn (sometimes) two or three languages, not to mention how to read and write your own, plus the all-important Latin, which could carry you across texts and cultures in a way no other language available to you at the time could. You didn’t spend all your time wishing fiery doom upon unrepentant non-believers. You did scholarly things: reading books, writing books, organizing books. (And, well, making really tasty jam and beer.) Serious thinking still went on, even when under the auspices of highly religious organization. Look at Thomas Aquinas. Not a dumb guy. Or one who let his thought process stop at “well, the bible said so, so there.” So come on. Don’t hate on dorky monks. They were all you had in the way of dorks, back then.
That said, TSM still had to make the religious monks, er, religious. Here is our bro Rolo “writing with The Watcher”:
As you can see, this occurs with his eyes slammed shut, muttering to himself. “The Watcher” is you, the gameplayer. In another direct turnabout from previous Sims games, this one goes to great lengths not to hide your presence as the gameplayer but to come right out and name you a god. There’s a great cell-art animation intro that establishes you as a presence that pre-existed mankind, here in this valley, and when glaciers receded and people started picking up rocks and sticks and realizing they could be used as tools, you were there. When they started building houses and farming and looking for something to attribute all their success to, you were there. And it posits that your entrance into the game as an active force urging sims to do this or that (or to NOT do this or that) coincides with your realization that “well, people are dumb.” So these people praising The Watcher are in fact praising a god, which is You, the player. Which is so direct, it’s great.
The praying in this game is a little creepy–sims close their eyes and wave their hands in unison in front of each other–but I’ve only seen the Peteran version of praying, loathe as I am to introduce some brutally moralistic force into my kingdom. (Amusingly, increasing knowledge and culture by building institutions that promote them by default decreases security. Meaning the more theaters I build, the more susceptible I am to terrorism. Brilliant logic there…) I’m curious to see if the Jacobean form of praying is different, suggesting as it would a more definite break between the two religions, rather than just–as one would assume in the Franciscan/Orthodox break, for example–a difference of factions within the same religion. We shall see. I’ll have to build the cathedral some time, but I plan on having plenty of wizards and bards around first. Can’t invite the doomsayers in if they don’t have plenty of people to tell they’re going to hell, after all.