I find it funny the lengths video game enthusiasts go to put people in arbitrary pigeonholes based on the games they play. Not only is defining one’s worth on what games they play ridiculous, but from where I sit no one type of video game is more or less legitimate than any other. As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so the enjoyment of a videogame experiences is a function of so many exogenous variables that one man’s trash can literally be another man’s treasure. That’s what makes games so exciting.
If you’ve played video games long enough you’ll also know how its trends ebb and flow in a way that almost dwarves the fickleness of the fashion world. You’ll hear the phrase “hasn’t held up well” bandied about all the time about the games of yesteryear, partly reflecting the fast pace at which the industry and technology moves, but also demonstrating just how dynamic gamers’ tastes (and tolerance levels) are. To those that lived through them though, the memories forged by hours spent with these now ‘archaic’ trends are priceless, and you’ll seldom mention the good old days of videogaming without eliciting some sort of sentimental story from a nostalgia-filled gamer.
Split screen multiplayer is one such artform – one that has largely died out but defined for so many their gaming memories of yesteryear. I have no doubt that anyone that was around long before Call of Duty was the behemoth that it now is has some fond memory of split screen multiplayer. Many will cite the formative console FPS experience ,Goldeneye 007, as the zenith of that style of gaming, while others will recall the rambunctiousness of the sillier-than-balls Timesplitters series on the PS2 and Xbox. Whatever their poison though, gamers of yore swear by those formative experiences sitting on a couch with a bunch of girls and guys, shooting the shit while they (in all likelihood) shoot the shit out of each other. Friendships were built and rivalries formed on couches right the way around the western world as our television screens were segmented for our multiplayer pleasure. It was the golden age of local multiplayer that so many of us lose ourselves in during daydreams of a simpler and better time. But for some split-screen gaming came to define a great age of couch cooperative multiplayer of more – dare I say it – casual experiences.
While I indulged in those same great competitive experiences everyone else did in former generations, it was actually a more friendly game series – one that has sold millions upon millions of copies worldwide -that defined my partiality toward console local multiplayer. That game was The Sims. But while most people were sitting at computer desks, mouse in hand, it was actually the console games released on Playstation 2 that captured my imagination like almost no other game before it, and had me playing to all hours of the morning. And it was the split-screen mode in the The Sims games on console, particularly The Sims: Bustin’ Out, that are home to some of my favourite gaming memories.
There is a very personal quality to sitting on a couch next to someone, sharing a screen, and playing the hours away. And that’s when you’re blowing each others’ heads off and calling each other scumbags. So imagine that same experience when you’re working together to the same end. There is a unique trait to The Sims series that has people clambering for the next one and proceeding to spend hours upon hours building (or ruining) the life of their virtual buddies. It appeals to the apparent human urge to build something from nothing – and the fact that it so abstractly, but in a way closely, resembles everyday life makes it instantly relatable.
But while playing The Sims alone is great fun, it is a whole new experience playing it cooperatively (or destructively if you’re so inclined) sitting next to friends or family. Raising through the ranks of a social and socio-economic ladder is naturally something you do with others and so in some ways The Sims is built for social play. Discussing the budgeting of your simoleons and your social life are key as you finely balance the lifestyle and career of the other player with the needs of your own character. The Sims is a game about optimisation and so throwing another player and their own set of variables adds another layer of complexity to a game that already hides an incredible amount of depth below its casual appeal. When you look at it that way, it’s easy to see what Maxis were trying to achieve with the latest Sim City and its focus on multiplayer.
You see like real life even the smallest decision – like one to throwing a party to satisfy the social needs of your Sim – can have a serious impost on your virtual buddy and their character’s progress. After all, waking up tired after a night of thudding techno kept you awake is no way to win that promotion at work. And so talking about what’s happening in your Sims’ world becomes key to success and reaching your goals. That old adage that you’ve got to work to live is no truer than in The Sims, and so buying that big screen television or that kitchen renovation requires money, and of course more money requires promotions. Discussing money and career around the virtual kitchen table becomes second nature as you both strive to reach the top of the food chain in your career in order to build your dream home. While that may not get the blood pumping the way blowing a mate’s head off does, for mine it’s a hell of a lot more satisfying discussing how you can cooperate to ‘win’ the game.
The Sims is more complex than its detractors that decry it as casual give it credit for. More than a game about about virtual avatars living virtual lives, it is a mathematical equation that requires a solution, and a solution that is more fun to work out with friends. But the way this cooperation parallels many of life’s decisions that makes it so unique among multiplayer games, and an experience that I personally haven’t had anywhere else. Sadly the split-screen feature was removed from the games in The Sims 3, leaving me only with the last-gen entries in the series. But to me its worth pulling out those dusty old consoles and booting those decade-old games up, because in my opinion, they are quite simply the best cooperative multiplayer gaming experiences around. And bigger than that, they are a great example of how brilliant local cooperative video gaming can be, and how sad it is that they are few and far between. We can only hope that if – and that’s a big if – The Sims 4 comes to console, that we see a return of one of the franchises secret-best features.