The illusion of control.
Becca Schuh on what The Sims can teach us about grieving.
When Epperly died, I can’t say I blacked out, but I did immediately refuse to process the information. I put it away, I quit that family and went to another one and didn’t play it for weeks.
Oh, yes, I should say: Epperly was a Sim. By this I mean, she was one of the artificial humans I’ve created in the 20-year-old computer game The Sims, where players design a small community of artificial people and live out the mundanities of their lives. There is no ‘goal’ or ‘point’ to the Sims, in modern parlance, we would say the only point is simply to vibe.
I played The Sims long before quarantine: I played obsessively for about four years as a child and teen, and I got back into the game as an adult after I started having dreams about it. Quarantine did intensify my gameplay: I bought a gaming PC to completely dedicate to my Sims practice, both for disc space and so I could play the game while using my Macbook for writing or Zoom catch-ups.
My Sims practice is a slightly off-kilter one within the gaming community, though not unheard of: most players play a single family for as long as possible, others play with ‘challenges’ created by other users in Sim communities or focus mostly on building new houses. I, on the other hand, created 10 or so families when I began to play the game, and have since been rotating between them, playing each family only a day or two at a time to make sure they stay on the same age timeline. As they grow and have children, I have their children get to know each other and eventually go to college and date and marry and have children of their own.
Something about this generational community is the crux of the game for me: when I try to play on a new save or with a Sim outside of the community structure, I get bored almost immediately. Within my inter-tangled web of sub-humans, I can play for hours.
Epperly was central to my harem of Sims: she was the daughter of Fauve, my Original Sim, who I keep aging down so she can live forever. Epperly married Blythe, daughter of another one of my favorite families, and they lived in a penthouse in San Myushno, from the City Living expansion pack. They were both painters.
Epperly was a magical Sim, trained to be a witch from the expansion pack Realm of Magic, and she was my first and only Sim to reach the pinnacle of the witch skill tree. This meant she could create meals out of thin air, repair (constantly breaking) appliances, curse other Sims and make them fall in love. The world of The Sims is already magical in its own right, but a Sim that can do anything seems to have somehow exited the realm of the reality of the game and entered an even more elaborate fantasy, nearing their own singularity.
When I took my Sims computer to my friends’ house to project onto their big TV, they fell in love with Epperly too. They wouldn’t let us play with any other families, they just wanted to know her and her magical life and her beautiful penthouse and her loving marriage to her perfect wife.
I like to keep The Sims on in the background while I clean my apartment. One day, I was playing Epperly and Blythe’s neighbors, another lesbian couple from their same college cohort, Magdalena and Mallory. When I came back to the computer from a bout of cleaning, everyone was crying. I didn’t think much of it. Sims cry all the time. Everything seemed fine in the world of Magdalena and Mallory. It was winter in Sim time—big chunks of white trailing down the screen, sounds of wind coming out of the computer, and an increased risk of death by freezing. I didn’t realize anything was amiss until I went to play Epperly’s household.
When I opened it, Epperly wasn’t there. The only Sim in the household was Blythe. I knew immediately what had happened—the Sims were crying because someone had frozen in the cold, and it had been Epperly. I thought, oh no, oh no, oh no. I clicked out of the house and didn’t open the city neighborhood of San Myushno again for weeks.
Normally, you can cheat and bring a Sim back to life by not saving the game, or by visiting their urn often enough that they come back as a ghost and can take a potion that restores them. But since Epperly had frozen to death while I was playing another household, I’d saved the game before I knew that anyone was dead. I looked through the nearby households for the urn, but I couldn’t find anything. She was just gone. Even in a game where everything was completely under my control, I lost the being I had the most affection for.
Death spiralled towards me this past year, as I assume it did for nearly everyone. My paternal grandparents within a month of each other just two months before COVID began, one of pneumonia, so maybe it was COVID after all. The parent of a friend died of a heart attack, then another of kidney disease. Both of these were friends whose childhood homes I’d stayed at, so with these parents I’d cooked meals and played games and thanked them inadequately for their hospitality. Each time I was struck by death, but I still couldn’t conceptualize it.
I knew death was coming closer to my inner circle, but hadn’t I always known I was absurdly lucky not to have lost anyone close to me? Hadn’t I known I was so, so privileged to mourn horses and dogs and distant family members? Yes, I knew, but of course, knowing doesn’t matter. It didn’t help.
The thought of Giancarlo dying had never crossed my mind. He was a friend, a writing mentor. I’d stayed in his home in Italy—even though he lived overseas, he was a constant presence in my writing community and my intellectual life. Giancarlo, like my Sim Epperly, was a magician. He didn’t learn spells like she did, but he was a magician all the same. I only saw him once or twice a year, but there was always a next time, always more to look forward to. And then I was going to see him during one of his yearly trips to the city, going to meet him at the Bowery Hotel. I waited and waited and eventually left, and the dark knowledge that something was wrong had settled into me by the next afternoon when I found out that he was dead.
Should I have asked the front desk to send housekeeping to his room? What was the exact time that it happened? Could I have done something? These thoughts raced at first, but then subsided. It was done, and I could not have done anything, but where did that leave me? What was I supposed to do now?
The Sims is naturally a game of control. The control we can’t have in life, we seek in a game where we can play god. I’m as fond of control as the next person—but as time goes by, I find it just as elusive in simulation as I find it in life.
When I let Epperly die, it confirmed my greatest fear: negligence. Ever since I became a camp counselor when I was 16, I’ve been afraid of what would happen if someone got hurt while I wasn’t paying attention. I recently adopted a dog, and so I am responsible for a life that is not virtual. I am a very good dog parent, but I still remember that feeling when I realized that Epperly had died, how I couldn’t face it, how I just exited out of the game and pretended nothing had happened.
I accidentally had two Sims named Giancarlo: a mean, black cat that I named after him on purpose, as a joke, while he was alive, and a child, who the game named randomly when I was playing with another family. Before he died, it made me laugh and think of him all the time. After he died, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t kill the Sims to stop reminding me of him, but it felt sick to keep them living healthy Sim lives like their real life counterpart wasn’t dead.
I’ve always had a hard time with temporality. In college, all I could think about was how it wouldn’t last forever. At the end of my freshman year, I read a quote on a bathroom wall that said ‘the secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.’ I knew it was important and true but no matter what I did, I couldn’t enjoy it. I wanted it to stop so I could do everything I wanted in a given moment, spend as much time with each person, friend or lover or party acquaintance as I wanted to without the threat of the end always barreling towards me.
Oddly enough, the Sims do help with this. I move them out of houses when I get bored, I break up couples and take teens to live away from their parents, and it doesn’t matter. In life it still matters, but I can see how I’ve changed: I no longer miss old apartments, I haven’t mourned a lost lover in years. I’ve learned to get better at losing things, but I can’t fit death into that paradigm.
Just a month or two after Giancarlo died, a friend from college died of cancer that had spread to her brain. I went to a tiny school, so we all got in touch to talk, but it was too shocking to say much of anything. What can you say when a thirty-year-old woman dies? She was a comedian, by profession and by personality. She was loud and unafraid of farts and porta potties and bodily fluids. I hear her voice in my head, and I do not believe she is dead. I know she is, and yet I do not believe it. I cannot picture it. She must be somewhere, that is possible, isn’t it? Her urn hidden in another build?
Is there another reality where Giancarlo is still in Italy and Sam is still hosting performances in Chicago? What is the Sims but an alternate reality?
I didn’t used to believe in magic, and now, I do, but it’s not that I believe in the spells like the Sims make. My concept of magic, my framework, has changed. I watch the consequences that spin out from seemingly unrelated social incidents, I laugh with my friends as people we hate encounter misfortune, we cackle and say we caused it with our powers. I think about all the turns my life has taken that I could not imagine ten, fifteen years ago. It all feels like magic. Art does too. That’s how I know that Giancarlo was more magical than even my most magical Sim. The art that he fostered not only lives on past his death, but he brought it to life in the first place. It’s the most magical thing I know.
My friend asked me recently if I had a new favorite Sim after Epperly died. I showed her a couple of other families, but I realized as I did it, no, I haven’t replaced her. A personal history is a tapestry of people loved and lost. My father still cries about the dog who died when I was ten, my last remaining grandmother never remarried even though her husband died nearly twenty years ago, and that, at least, I now understand.
I never knew what grief would look like for me, but I’ve found that it is like much else in life: slow, nominal, process-laden, confusing, impenetrable. I don’t know what I was expecting. I thought I was looking at The Sims to process death, but what I really found is that even in a simulation, death is unprocessable.
There is no rhyme or reason, there is no end or beginning, there is no final moral. In the episode of the aughts teen drama The O.C. when they hold Marissa’s funeral, Sandy Cohen says to Ryan: “You’ll never get over it, being there when she died, but you’ll get used to it.” Death is still unbelievable to me, it seems to exist in another world beyond this one and beyond the world of The Sims and the fictional worlds of the novels I love. The more I experience it the less I understand.