It was a project helmed by a legendary game designer at a studio recently buoyed with cash from a large publisher. It took on theme of the forces hidden in plain sight that affect our choices and the world we live in. The game spawned three sequels with the latest entry appearing in the later half of 2010. It is considered a work of art and introduced many of its players to a beloved genre that touches people to this day. The game, of course, is
Deus Ex The Sims.
While The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has since toppled Deus Ex from the top of many Best of All Time lists, Deus Ex continues to keep a tight grip on the ludorati with maxims like “Every time you mention Deus Ex someone reinstalls it” and heavy nostaliga for the immersive sim. Deus Ex is not a bad game, and yet its status as the best game of its cohort (never mind all time) is curious. A quick glance reveals that not only were some highly successful franchises launched in 2000 (including Hitman: Codename 47 and Shogun: Total War), several games that are considered the peak of their series were released as well (Quake III: Arena and Diablo II, among others). Very few of the games on that list are considered contenders for the best game, including The Sims. I am here to correct this misapprehension, now entering its second decade, with the kinds of facts and objectivity inspired by the omniscient view of this most excellent game.
Everyone has a clear idea of what it means for something to be the best right up until there is a disagreement. Fortunately, since The Sims is actually the best, it excels across all dimensions and so we can examine what it means to be the best at leisure. A simple starting measure would be sales.
There is a lot of careless talk about sales as a measure of quality, both for and against. Sales are attractive because it’s a number and numbers are objective, but interpretations are anything but. Sales are the start of a case, not the final statement. While there are many fine games that do not sell well, a sale indicates that, based on the information available at the time of purchase, it was appealing enough to buy it, and that the game matched expectations enough not to return it. Return policies in 2000 were stricter than today, but games from the same period will be equally affected. Measured by sales, there is simply no contest. The Sims was the best selling game of 2000 with a little over 1.75 million units sold (and topped the charts in 2001). It would take Deus Ex nine years to sell a little over half the number units The Sims did in its first year.
Sales are not the last word, but consider the difference. The price for a game that is rarely going to be higher than at release. Both The Sims and Deus Ex were successful games with established publishers behind them. The conditions for both games could not be more similar and so it is difficult to see higher sales for The Sims as anything but consumer preference, and the gap between the two titles only widened over time.
From the outset we knew that few would be swayed by the objective perfection of sales numbers, so it is worth considering why The Sims so clearly matches the preferences of gamers. Deus Ex is a game made for dudes like me. The cover has a cool looking G-man in stark lighting wearing shades at night, and it’s dark and dirty and sci-fi and has shooting in it. If I were back in 2000, I would want to play that game. The majority of the world is not like me and The Sims was built with a broader appeal in mind (while Deus Ex appears to have been designed with narrow appeal from the start) and is all the better for it.
Sales and broad appeal may be interchangeable and say nothing of whether or not the underlying product is worth anybody’s time. Is Deus Ex simply a more refined product whose elegance can only be appreciated by true connoisseurs? Such claims seem dangerously subjective, but never fear, I, rational being that I am, can bestow the wisdom that comes from truth and numbers.
The review aggregator Metacritic has Deus Ex at 90, with The Sims gazing down benevolently from its perch at 92. Two fine games to be sure, but the superior product is still recognized as The Sims by a knowledgeable and sophisticated audience, even when it is more socially acceptable to praise Deus Ex. The Sims also receives external validation with its inclusion in The Museum of Modern Art. Modern art may not be for everyone, but this article, and The Sims, is above such subjective opinions.
Review aggregators still face a problem since claiming critics are out of touch when they disagree with our subjective opinions is as fashionable as lauding Deus Ex. This is not a particular concern, since The Sims’ objective greatness is recognized by non-professionals as well. If this supposed unreliability of experts requires us to go directly to the players, one might argue that this question has already been answered through the revealed preference of sales. However, let us suppose that Deus Ex was a misunderstood masterpiece that required its brilliance relative to The Sims to be realized (by players) over time, meaning that sales numbers from 2000 would not accurately reflect the quality that has now been realized today. This hypothesis can be tested with an objectivity not unlike the status bars regarding your sims’ health and mood.
Steamcharts tracks player activity on Steam. At the time of this writing, Deus Ex is at its daily peak of 79 players, below its all time peak of 343 (from 2012). In contrast, the earliest version of The Sims on Steam (The Sims 3) is currently in the Top 100 for player count with 4,474 concurrent players right now, a daily peak of 4,526, and an all time peak of 9,563, which was hit in 2019. The issue of comparability between The Sims 3 and the original will be dealt with later, but this is more than just a reflection of a preference for new games. The Sims 3 was 10 years old at its recent peak player count with a more recent edition available on EA Origin (and accessible through a low cost subscription option). Furthermore, these counts compare favourably to each entry in the Deus Ex franchise with the exception of the most recent entry, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, having a higher peak player count (52,061 all time peak on release with a 24 hour peak of 632). Players and objectivity have spoken: gamers can’t get enough of The Sims and it is the only title in the present discussion with an increasing number of concurrent players.
Those susceptible to subjective opinions might be seduced by the thought that little of the discussion has dealt with the direct experience and content of the games themselves, rendering the previous analysis irrelevant. Fortunately the similarity between Deus Ex and The Sims allows for easy and objective comparison.
Deus Ex is not touted for its voice acting or graphical fidelity, but rather its freedom of choice. Even the most stalwart fans will concede that individual mechanics like erratic shooting may not be the best, but offer this freedom as an
excuse alternative to the inelegant moments, leaving aside the inconvenient fact that the stealth approach involves an equally inelegant lock picking mechanic of holding the left mouse button for a fixed period of time for a variable number of picks based on skill.
There is nothing wrong with this ambition, but the freedom is somewhat illusory. The player is offered freedom to approach a given problem however they choose, but the outcome will always be the same and the same character will pull you into a cutscene to explain how FEMA is going to put us all in camps. When streaming Deus Ex, attempting a stealth approach, I needed to find some information in a locker without enough picks to open everything. The level does not appear to offer any indication as to where to get the information, and chat opted to directly say which locker without prompting. This doesn’t just indicate that Deus Ex’s ambition sometimes oversteps its implementation, but that fans hold strong enough opinions about the ‘correct’ way to play the open ended game needs to be played. In contrast, there is no sensible meaning of playing The Sims ‘correctly’. The Sims offers full freedom while still expressing its ideas through the trade offs the player faces in achieving whatever their priorities are. The Sims ultimately does Deus Ex’s headline feature better.
Present day responses to each game reveal why The Sims outshone Deus Ex. Deus Ex is an old game about the future, while The Sims was the future. It is no great fault of Deus Ex that it has an old control scheme that is difficult — if not incomprehensible — to a modern player. However, in contrast, a modern player would be very comfortable sitting down and playing the first installment of The Sims. The graphics would be dated and there would be fewer features than in modern versions, but the concept and control scheme hold up. This experiment (at least in the Deus Ex case) is replicated on Twitch now and again when a streamer tries to play the game for the first time. Deus Ex’s control scheme isn’t remarkably different from previous efforts like System Shock, and yet we know from modern games that there was lots of room for improvement. The Sims has also improved, and yet the original succeeded in such a way that the original version is still intuitive 20 years later. This is why using the 3rd game as a proxy isn’t as incredible as it would be in using the later installments of Deus Ex as a proxy if the original were not available (though, as we have seen above, the comparison still lies in The Sims’ favour. A convenient feature of being objectively the better game).
The Sims anticipated a number of gaming developments we now take for granted. The game had an unusually large number of expansions (indeed, holds a Guinness world record for it), before long tailed games supported by DLC were a thing. SimCity was a constructive game too, and yet The Sims serves the seemingly endless demand for crafting style games by putting a player’s sims into a shared space with separate houses, allowing multiple players (on the same computer) to interact with each others’ creations. It even gave us a preview of how EA is the finest publisher, with them encouraging Maxis to continue the project when enthusiasm at the studio was low.
Modern art isn’t for everyone, and it is easy to see how subjectivity can cloud an objective view as to the best game, but the benevolent omniscience of The Sims’ user interface affords its users with the perspective to weigh the evidence and see the clear conclusion that The Sims is the best game of 2000. Gamers recognized the best game of that year and have not stopped playing it since. The correctness of this decision is reinforced by critical consensus as well as its anticipation of modern gaming trends. 2000 was a great year for gaming, and The Sims’ status as the best game does not preclude a player from enjoying any of the others, but on the 20th anniversary of its European release, it is time to recognize The Sims’ rightful place as the greatest release of its cohort.
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