Alex Marraccini divulges her Sims architectural habit and the joys of the game’s new “Dream Interior Decorator” expansion pack. (Follow along with the aesthetic adventures of Sims Hans Ulrich Obrist.)
It’s 2000 in a prosperous American suburb. Expensive kitchens are filled with lots of matching Carrara marble. The giant and inexplicably curved screen TV is the ne plus ultra of the living room space. The internet is a vaguely benevolent promise. The hall runner carpets are generically ugly, Clinton is still president, and David Brooks is worried about Princeton students being too organized in the Atlantic. McMansion heaven admits no sins of material anxiety; that’s because it’s Willowbrook or Newcrest, and we’re in the world of EA’s The Sims.
Designed to be a “life simulator”, The Sims 4 is a game that relies on domestic architectures and interiors to do its heavy lifting. Though The Sims 4 was initially released in 2016, it feels like nothing so much as the actual world of the original Sims 1’s release date in 2000; the top-down aesthetic diktat of neoliberal capitalism before we started calling it “late.” Adorno is trapped in a swimming pool somewhere screaming and drowning like the other Sims, which is a common player hobby. The pool is a pleasingly calm turquoise. You can even name the Sim Theodor Adorno before you drown him, make him like dancing and have a cooking skill of 4.
The game is essentially boring to play, which is why murder has become a feature — but The Sims has also become my dirty pandemic secret. The thing is I don’t play, not really. I build: an oddly accurate Restoration Church that could be a Thorne Miniature room, a bathroom that uses a hidden menu of developer assets to deploy a clump of snow as 80’s finance office cocaine. There’s a heady Le-Corbusierian-wet-dream-come-true feeling to the Sims. The architect, even if she still can’t build curved walls, is a kind of god.
Public spaces function in pre-programmed ways that mean they can be constructed, or indeed subverted, to the whims of the sufficiently clever planner. The joy of The Sims 4 is building not with the game’s aesthetic predispositions but despite, indeed, and to spite, them. I spent about six lockdown months building variations on the materialist-minimalist coffee shop. I try to convey the gravity of this to the Sims themselves: “I am Kiyonari Kikutake; ascend to the second floor from the floating stairs to mechanically drink the latte pixels! I am Paul Rudolph; look at the texture of the weighty concrete, o uncaring townie NPC who is inexplicably auto-dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, tan stilettos, and a ring shaped like a large purple eye!” They are utterly indifferent. Taste, when it comes to décor or style, doesn’t exist for the Sims yet.
About six expensive game pack purchases and one postponed grant to Tokyo later, I notice the developers have shifted the style of the game’s interiors slightly. The winter pack, for instance, uses the style of a ski town in Japan. This is especially galling and satisfying in turn, since the pixel idiots to whom I play architect-god get to go to a version of the Nakagin Capsule Tower before I do. There is a pack formally called “Eco-Lifestyle” which players snicker about as the “gentrification pack.” Good news for London: you can now build generic recycled brick frontage and shipping container pop-ups in-game.
When Lacaton and Vassal win the Pritzker, I upload a tribute build that keeps the original fabric of the in-game structure. I’m a precarious academic with a bunch of freelance pieces due, but damn if this isn’t the closest I think I’ll ever come to mastery. The version of Glass House I design for vampire Sims (whose skin ironically burns on contact with sunlight) gets many, many downloads. I smile like a Miltonic Satan crouching in EA’s well-adorned hellpit of wall sconces.
On June 1, my pandemic addiction hits fever pitch with a new expansion pack release: Dream Interior Decorator. There is modular shelving and tasteful Container Store storage. There is lots of blonde wood. The Sims can’t read Dirt, but they are going to live Kyle’s early Verge article on AirSpace. The thing about this pack is that you have to actually play as the decorator in the game. So like a stalker working from facial recognition hits I get to creating a Sim. I splay out fifty Google image search results of Hans Ulrich Obrist, who has newly re-committed, I have decided, to a life served in the placement of sofas. I add “Painting” to his likes and inexplicably, “Dance Machine” to his traits. “Sorry,” I whisper to the dust jacket of the actual Hans Ulrich Obrist interview-catalogue propping up my laptop, “Wrong place, wrong time, buddy.” I mentally decide I will not let him light himself on fire cooking, a common issue for the game.
The main conceit of the new pack is that the Sims are supposed to suddenly have taste. They now tell you their likes and dislikes, and their preferences in furniture. I send Hans Ulrich around to talk to Sim clients who claim to like “farmhouse gothic” or “green” or “mid-century modern” and he looks as despondent as I imagine his real-life counterpart would be in this situation. Much as I love an Eames chair or two, midmod is truly middlebrow pastiche these days if I’m getting requests for it from my style-delayed pixel people who have apparently discovered Apartment Therapy circa 2006. I can even order their walk-in closets with racks by color, their sleek laminate coffee tables strewn with books that are in-game versions of the Taschen hardbacks they’ll never leaf through. I try, I really do, within the bounds of my own sensibilities, but the clients hate us. Hans Ulrich is tired, his energy bar is slipping into the red, and he falls asleep in a pile on the sidewalk before I can get him home. I no longer inhabit the body of a Deathless God.
Things take a turn for the weird. Hans Ulrich seduces the local twink and befriends a sentient dustbunny (don’t ask) when I leave the game unpaused as I do the dishes. He names the dustbunny Mochi, and sits around commiserating with it, presumably about his neighbors’ bad taste. Then I decide to give it one last go. We get a commission to renovate for the Goths — the game’s resident dark mansion owners. Except Bella Goth, it turns out, hates the color black, wants a garden-contemporary style for her living area, and her husband Mortimer loves art.
I stare at my bedraggled Sim and we get to work with a shabby chic Morocco-via-Morris that wouldn’t look out of place in the V&A, despite Hans Ulrich’s actual real life job at the Serpentine gallery. “Suffer for your art!” I shout urgently at his bespectacled doppelgänger, so well beyond the creepy line at this point that I’ve stopped caring. Our maximalist look works. The clients sob and hug him. He stays for drinks. I suddenly need to know what all those NPC townies of Willow Creek thought when they shuffled up my Sky House staircase — with no visible safety railing — for their coffees in the rain. The architect is no longer a god. The Sims 4 Dream Interior Decorator has cast her down to earth, and she just might prefer it that way…. temporarily. — By Alex Marraccini