Why Does Playing The Sims 4 Make Me Feel Empty Inside?

When a beloved franchise changes drastically, gamers can feel left behind

Why Does Playing The Sims 4 Make Me Feel Empty Inside?
Source: Electronic Arts.

Growing up, I was a huge fan of the Sims games. I owned most of the expansion packs for The Sims 2, and spent loads of time with The Sims 3. But somehow I never got into The Sims 4 when it first came out in 2014. The sheer amount of bad press surrounding the release of the base game kept me away, and then when opinions started to shift to ‘mixed’ from ‘negative’, I still stayed away because the urge to play the game simply didn’t strike me. I bought the base game when it first became free-to-play, but it languished in my Steam library for years after that.

Well, I’m happy to report that as of December 2023, the stars finally aligned and I was once again gripped with the inexorable urge to play a Sims game. Since it was the most easily available option, I picked The Sims 4. After extensive research (Googling “best sims 4 expansions reddit”), and based on my experience with the franchise and my preferred playstyle, I picked up a couple of expansion packs and dove headfirst into the game. 

Addictive (in a bad way)

The Sims 4 is an addictive game. It’s addictive in a way that I’ve forgotten that games can be. I thought the Civilization games, Cities: Skylines, and Baldur’s Gate 3 were addictive. But they weren’t a patch on The Sims 4’s ability to occupy my attention so thoroughly that the outside world simply stopped being any object of consideration to me. Maybe it’s because I grew up playing Sims games and so it’s somehow able to strip away any kind of illusions of discipline I’ve built up as an adult. I’ve spent a worrying amount of time on this game this month. 

But there’s something else that’s different about The Sims 4. I never felt “good” whenever I could finally wrench myself away for the night. The best way I can describe the feeling is a kind of hollow, vague dissatisfaction. I don’t think this is because of disappointment in myself for a lack of discipline, because I did the exact same thing in August with Baldur’s Gate 3, and that game made me feel the happiness of a small child whenever I set it down. So why does The Sims 4 specifically make me feel this way?

This piece is an attempt to answer that question. It’s extremely subjective, and based solely on my personal feelings and my perspective as a relatively casual fan. There are plenty of people who derive a lot of joy from The Sims 4 and I do understand why. It is a fun, compelling, and unique creative outlet. That being said, I’m not the only one who feels this way, and I’m not alone in trying to puzzle out the reasons for this. These are my personal reasons for why The Sims 4 leaves me feeling hollow. 

Source: Electronic Arts.

There are plenty of people who derive a lot of joy from The Sims 4 and I do understand why.

I'm older now

Before this month, the last time I remember playing The Sims was in 2011. That’s a twelve-year gap. I don’t mean to harp on it, but a lot has changed in that time. Back then, The Sims was the only game I played on PC. I’ve played a lot of games since then and discovered new likes and dislikes in terms of games. I never consciously realised it until thinking about this piece, but it’s obvious that The Sims games just aren’t my favourite games in the world anymore. I still enjoy simulation games immensely, but the subgenre of life sim games isn’t my number one pick.

Growing up, my favourite aspect of the Sims games was the sense of progression, having my Sim work her way up to the top of her career ladder, become extremely popular, reach mastery of a variety of skills, or whatever other arbitrary goal I felt like my Sim should have as efficiently as possible. As a child with limited exposure to gaming in general, The Sims 2 was the only game I knew that scratched that itch. But now that I’ve played games that let me simulate more specific things like city-building or factory-operating, games with a narrower scope than all of human life, and therefore have more depth in their specific domains, I’ve found that these work better for the kind of simulation I want. 

So naturally, coming back to The Sims 4 after all this time is going to make it harder for me to ignore all the things that don’t do anything for me. The Sims 4 has a much better character creator than the previous instalments, and a dizzying array of clothing options, but that’s something I never cared about. Maybe if I did find those aspects of the Sims games compelling, I’d feel differently about The Sims 4. Literally being able to sculpt your Sims’ until they look exactly like you want them to is one of the key new features of the game, after all. 

This is all true, but I don’t think this fully explains why The Sims 4 leaves me feeling hollow. However much I’ve changed in the last twelve years, I still found the game compelling enough to not be able to quit once I started playing. For another, even though I don’t care about how my Sims look, I still spend a lot of time on their traits and quirks to optimize them for whatever misery I have in store for them. I enjoy watching Sims interact, and seeing them grow and change over time. The Sims 4 has all of this as a part of its gameplay; its core hasn’t changed. So, while I have grown and changed, I don’t think I’m so different now that I wouldn’t enjoy a Sims game at least a little. 

The Sims 4 Outdoor Retreat DLC. Source: Electronic Arts.

While I have grown and changed, I don’t think I’m so different now that I wouldn’t enjoy a Sims game at least a little.

DLC-ification

The Sims games have always had expansion packs which would generally introduce or deepen some aspect of the game and add some new items related to the new features. It’s always been a part of the series, and I used to love most expansion packs for the variety they’d add to my games. 

Fast-forward to the present day, and it’s a well-documented fact that DLC in Sims games are much more fragmented than they used to be while costing just as much, if not more. On a purely personal level, seeing all the features that launched with an expansion like The Sims 3 - Generations being split off into some permutation of ‘expansion packs’, ‘game packs’, and ‘stuff packs’ costing significantly more than it used to is very off-putting. As a casual player, it’s difficult to keep track of which features come with each expansion, including features that used to be a part of the base game in previous instalments.

While playing the game, I’d sometimes have the feeling that I was missing some feature or item; I’d check and sure enough, it was a part of some DLC that I didn’t own. That feeling of missing out wasn’t at the forefront of my mind while playing, but it was a constant, vague feeling that affected the parts of the game I used to enjoy the most. Caving in and buying the DLC doesn’t really help either, since features that would be bundled with a single expansion pack in the Sims 2 and 3 are fragmented in multiple places here. I can’t shake the feeling while playing the game that EA wants me to be perpetually dissatisfied and is trying to convince me that just one more DLC purchase will magically fix that void. If that’s the case, then props to them, because it worked, and I’m constantly reminded of all that my version of The Sims 4 lacks. 

A shallower game

The stripped-downness of The Sims 4 goes hand-in-hand with two other missing aspects of previous Sims installments. Not only did I love these parts of the earlier games, but I can’t see them ever being incorporated into The Sims 4 because they’re simply too fundamental: narrative depth and a distinct sense of strangeness. 

The pre-made neighbourhoods in The Sims 2 and The Sims 3 were large, and populated by memorable characters who had pre-existing histories and dynamics with each other. The Sims 2 played up a melodramatic, soap-opera angle with the disappearance of Pleasantview’s iconic character Bella Goth, and the colourful cast of characters who were connected to her disappearance in some way or other. The Sims 3’s open world, meanwhile, gave each neighbourhood a distinct sense of place, while a large number of premade Sims made it feel lively. Apologies for waxing poetic, but I also got a sense of tranquillity tinged with strangeness from The Sims 3, because there were so many quiet and lovely spots from which to watch the world go by. 

Source: Electronic Arts.

While playing the game, I’d sometimes have the feeling that I was missing some feature or item; I’d check and sure enough, it was a part of some DLC that I didn’t own.

The Sims 4, of course, has none of this. The neighbourhoods this time around are shockingly small, there isn’t an open world to give you a clear sense of space, and most egregious to me, the premade characters don’t seem to know each other at all. It makes the world feel shallow and makes its artificiality obvious. As a kid whenever I got bored with playing as a Sim for too long, I’d load up a pre-made family like the Goths or the Pleasants and read each character’s bio. I'd look at their traits, their memories, and their relationships with the other characters, and take in the little bits of environmental storytelling in their houses. The team clearly put thought into this aspect of the game, and it makes me sad that EA seemed to place so little value on it this time around. 

This flatness extends to large amounts of the gameplay in The Sims 4; the game just seems a lot easier. Things are less likely to go wrong, the lack of an open world makes the game feel claustrophobic, and the characters you’re stuck with just aren’t that deep.  Character animations are flatter and less varied and traits don’t affect gameplay as much. The Sims 4 lacks the bite that previous games had, it’s simply not as mean, but isn’t convincingly nicer either. Random moments of unrestrained chaos don’t seem to happen by themselves anymore. Big life events like having a baby, or someone dying don’t seem to be much more impactful on Sims than relatively smaller events like buying an expensive TV. Everything is just less than

Haunted by absence

It’s hard not to view this as a part of a growing trend in recent years of the corporatized sanitization of “content” to make it more palatable to investors and advertisers. I think fundamentally, my problem with The Sims 4 is those figurative empty spaces in the gameplay and the depth of its world. Maybe if it was the first Sims game I’d ever played, I’d like it more since there wouldn’t be a frame of reference, but unfortunately, I remember how the previous games were.

Source: Electronic Arts.

The neighbourhoods this time around are shockingly small and there isn’t an open world to give you a clear sense of space.

There’s a pervasive sense of absence in The Sims 4, what I can best describe as simply less of everything. And if you want to remedy that, you’ll need to be willing to shell out obscene amounts of money to flesh the game out with DLC. And even after that, there’s still always just going to be less of it than there could be. I don’t know if this is meant to be intentional or not. On the one hand, manufacturing dissatisfaction in consumers is a tried-and-tested way to sell products. But on the other hand, I have to wonder how sustainable this approach could be for The Sims 4. My time with the game has completely put me off the franchise and has squandered most of my goodwill along the way. I realise how naive this sounds, but I hope EA takes a different approach with the franchise for the inevitable Sims 5. I hope we all vote with our wallets and don’t give this approach of ‘enshittification’ any more positive feedback than we already have. And most of all, I really hope The Sims 5 doesn’t feel like even less. It shouldn’t be that hard, because the bar’s so low. 

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