The Sims 2: Inside the mind of Will Wright

At GDCE last week, one of the delegates said something really interesting, that I wanted to put to you. He said "play outdates storytelling by a couple of million years." It sounds like you're trying to re-unite the two separate modes. You can either play a game, or tell a story - but you're talking about "playing at telling stories".
Play and story are deeply related. They're both educational technologies that arose from evolution, and the reason we find them both enjoyable is because our brain is rewarding us for doing them, in the hopes we'll keep doing them and learn more. Small mammals, cats and so forth, play-fight, and that's a learning strategy. They're learning dexterity, body-control, balance, all before it's a life threatening situation. Play is also based around the idea of agency - I do this, and that happens, allowing me to directly learn from it. If I wave my hand around, if it hits my face, it hurts. Babies learn that pretty rapidly.

Story is built upon a totally different circuit in our brain, that of empathy. Storytelling seems to be a different type of learning technology based upon being able to transfer experience through time. I can come back and tell you, as a caveman, that I was out last night and a tiger almost got me. The next time you go out late at night, you can be more aware, looking for tigers. You weren't there, you weren't with me, but through that story you kind of have that experience vicariously. You learn from putting yourself in my shoes, you learn from being in my mental state, and that's what all storytelling is based upon, movies, books, it's based upon your ability to transfer yourself into Humphrey Bogart's head, and feel his despair in the movie.

You're talking about a storytelling engine.
Actually, the player is the engine. I'm talking about a storytelling parser, or something.

Why do you think the Sims games are so absorbing?
The more creative a player can be in the game, the more the game is reflecting some part of themselves, and their imagination, the more absorbing it is. I think people are fundamentally narcissistic, like, you know, doing things differently from everyone else. I think you quickly realise that you're on a rail in most games, and if I kill this badguy, then I know that everyone else has killed the same badguy, so... yes, those games are fun, and yes, I play those games, but I think that games where it's very easy to do something that has very interesting, and elaborate behaviour is deeply rewarding. Basically, it's like a big elaborate mirror. When people play The Sims and they step back and look at what they've made, you can tell a lot about what they've done and the families they've created.

Robots! You're fascinated by AI, and you're fascinated by robots, and you're fascinated by videogames... is there a common thread here?
Yeah. For me the interesting problems in robotics are more software problems. Robots for me are models of various physical and mental human abilities. I love the idea of having a smart machine that walks around, but for me, that's not the big attraction. The big attraction is, in trying to build one of those things, you learn a lot about humans. What abilities do we have that are incredibly hard to simulate - which ones are easy? Some of them are surprisingly easy to replicate. For me, robots, and games building little human, toylike Sims are the same thing. How can we learn more about ourselves? The human mind is by far the most complex thing in the known universe, we understand more about galaxies and stars than we do about the human brain. I think we'll be studying it for a long time.

Is The Sims a reflection of you, as a designer? One of the interesting things about The Sims is that it's intensely liberal, are those your ideologies that you put in?
A simulation is just a series of assumptions, so, of course, we had to formulise it all at the end of the day. We had to decide babies don't burn, and gay relationships can happen, so yes, they are.

So, say, in SimCity, the fact you can't create a living, functional city without a coherent public transport system. Is that you saying "public transport is a good thing"?
Well, we don't do that on purpose, in most cases. We don't say, here's our agenda, let's try and convince people that public transport is a good thing. I'd much rather, with a game like that, say "OK, using these elements from reality, and using the rough rules and dynamics of reality, how can we now use those to create and balance an interesting game?" At some point, if the game's not fun and interesting, it doesn't matter what ideology you put into it. And also, I think that I don't want to have too many overt agendas. I'd much rather balance the thing to be neutral in all directions and let the players make the value judgement. OK, an example: in SimCity, we let nuclear power plants blow up. But they don't do that, in reality. They just don't. They don't explode. We try and make it as balanced as possible, with the exception of gameplay concerns. If it seems like it's not neutral, most of the time it's because we thought it was more fun that way. Most of the time, we try and make something that's realistic, because people expect it, or because it's funny, or...

As he searches for the words, a minder cuts in. "That's enough Will. Time's up."

The Sims 2 is available for PC now