The Sims, Our Town, and the Role of the Director

             In 1938, Thornton Wilder published Our Town, a three-act play that tells a story of the day-to-day life in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners.  It won a Pulitzer Prize the same year, was produced the next with Orson Welles in the leading role, and is performed countless times each year to this day.  Our Town has become well known in the theater community as a play that varies wildly in quality based on the director of a given production.  It is a work of art that specializes in opportunity – it scales seemingly infinitely in proportion to the vision of the director.  Thousands of high school productions have given Our Town the reputation of being a very long, very boring show.  Critically lauded productions in New York and film, however, have proven to be some of the most rewarding experiences to be had in theater in the past century.  It all depends on the director. 

Thornton Wilder's Our Town, published 1938.

            Act I of Our Town is aptly titled “Daily Life,” and follows the Webb family and the Gibbs family on an average day in Grover’s Corners.  The families wake up, their children run to school, the paper and milk are delivered, and morning begins.  This is the entirety of the first act of the show.  In Act II, “Love and Marriage,” three years have passed since the morning explored in Act I. George Gibbs and Emily Webb are getting married.  The story of Emily and George falling in love is told, the two have momentarily cold feet, are calmed down, and marry.  Act II ends.  In these acts, character motivation and actions are widely left open to interpretation from the director: the church choirmaster with a drinking problem, Simon Stimson, can be cast as a teetering fool or as a deeply troubled, sexually repressed tragedy; the parents of the families can be cast as irritating harpies or warm, loving, thoughtful figures.  Act III, entitled “Death and Dying,” is the ‘payoff’ of Our Town, and is the culmination of all the directorial efforts in the first two Acts.

George and Emily are married in the 2009 production of Our Town.  The folks sitting on the left and right are audience members, while those in the center facing the camera are cast members

            When considering the role of creative people in the world of theater, the distinction between actor and director seems readily apparent – the actor acts out the words of the playwright, the director tells the actor how to do so.  To many people, the actor appears to have as much impact on the production as the director; in actuality, the actor’s impact, although invaluable, is usually limited to their choices in physical and emotional characterization within the context of the words, actions, and setting that are provided for them.  The director, however, has a great deal of power over the script – power to change what characters say and do, to change the visual style of the show, and to impart his perspective within the confines of the script.  In the case of Our Town, the director has more power than with most shows: it is, in essence, a blank slate of a show.  Our Town is a show that deals with textually generic, mundane events, and relies on creative direction to become a something great.  In high schools, the text is performed as written, with little flavor added – the results of which are always dry, meaningless presentations of the text.  However in 2009 at the Barrow Street Theatre, for example, Our Town was brought to life with the incredible vision, creativity, and passion of David Cromer, and was an overwhelmingly emotional, beautiful experience.  Our Town is a canvas waiting to be painted by a director, and is capable of carrying a director’s creative expression like very few plays are.

            In 2000, Maxis, led by Will Wright, the developer behind SimCity, released The Sims, a simulation game in which the player takes control of one or multiple virtual avatars called Sims living in a suburb of SimCity.  The Sims quickly became one of the best-selling games of all time, selling 11.3 million copies in two years.  It spawned seven expansion packs, was followed by two full sequels (with Sims 4 on the way), won dozens of awards, and continues to be a fascinating study in user interaction to this day.  The Sims has garnered a reputation in the video game community for bridging the gap between the simulation genre, which is traditionally enthusiast, and the ‘casual’ market; it presents its very complex simulation elements with an accessible user-interface and easy-to-understand instructions.  The Sims is a game that specializes in opportunity – what players choose to put into the game, and the meaning with which they choose to imbue the actions of their avatar, directly affects how meaningful the play experience is. With over sixteen million copies of the first Sims game shipped, a wide berth of experiences has been had by players the world over.  

The Sims 2 sold more than 20 million copies and spawned seventeen expansions

 

            Yahoo! Games, in their review of the original The Sims, believed that players would tire of “the lack of variety on offer.” (1, Yahoo)  In a review that focused on the narrative that they had crafted through their Sims, however, Armchair Empire stated that The Sims “is a game for all types of gamers.  It’s a fairly simple concept but its complexity and the way it draws you in is amazing.” (2, The Armchair Empire)  The Sims is a game with the potential to deliver a unique rewarding experience.  It all depends on the player. 

The Sims and Our Town occupy the same space, in different mediums.  The director of a production of Our Town and a person playing The Sims are tasked with comparable goals.

            In comparison to theater, video games have a very complicated relationship between creators and consumers.  Although there is a definitive line in some respects – there is an author of the game, the game developer, and there is an ‘audience’, those that play the game – when you examine games like The Sims, the definition of ‘creator’ becomes less clear.  There are two types of roles that a player can inhabit when playing a game – that of the actor or that of the director.  In games such as Call of DutyGrand Theft AutoSuper Mario Bros., and Final Fantasy, the player is an actor in a production that has already been written and directed by the developers of the game.  Although there are choices to be made about how the player travels between each beat of a written story, the player as an actor is confined to the words, the actions, and the settings that are preordained by the developer.  In Final Fantasy VI, the player can choose whether or not Celes or Locke is going to be in their party for their final climb of the Tower of Rubble, but they are going to fight Kefka regardless.  On the opposite end of the player-agency spectrum, games like SimCityMinecraft, andAnimal Crossing assign the player the role of director, affording them unprecedented agency in a world where only the rules have been written, and requiring creative input in order to sustain interesting play.  In Minecraft’s creative mode, there are actions to perform and mansions to build, but it is up to the player to decide what their goal is and how to complete it.  In these games, the script has been written – the thousands of lines of code have built a framework in which all of the action is predestined to take place, but the specifics of the story that is to be told is left in the hands of the player.

There's really no reason to build this giant Hogwarts-esque castle/villa, but the player has decided for themselves that their goal in Minecraft is to create a home for themselves that they could not in the real world.

           In The Sims, players are given one task – manage the avatar’s life.  This includes building them a proper house, managing their career, taking care of their dietary and hygienic needs, and a whole host of other things that combine to provide a complex, compelling method through which the player is able to craft a story for their avatar.  In more recent iterations of The Sims, most notably The Sims 3, players are also provided with more specific (but optional) goals regarding their avatar’s career and life progression.  Given this structure of gameplay, it is abundantly clear how The Sims relates to Our Town – they are both opportunities for creativity.  In their respective mediums, they both represent the length to which the author of a work – whether it is a script or a collection of code in a game engine – can leave so much room for interpretation, such a wide berth of options for the director or player, that the imbedded narrative elements are, at some point, irrelevant.  This isn’t to say that Our Town lacks a story in the traditional sense - rather to say that, unlike most plays and musicals, that story is neither the most important nor the most interesting thing about a production of the show.  In the same way, the goals in The Sims – whether it is the implied goals of the original or the more strict, more concrete marks of progress in the subsequent iterations – are not the most exciting part of gameplay.  In both cases, it is the ability to write your own story using someone else’s framework.

      The medium of games is the only one in which the idea of ‘vision’ is shared between the creators of a piece of art and the audience.  There are, of course, hints of evidence against this on both sides.  In theater, for example, the audience gives a certain amount of energy to the performance, and what they take from it is certainly affected in some way by the reaction that energy has with what is being performed on stage.  In games, on the other hand, there are experiences – like any game in the aforementionedCall of Duty series – that would essentially go on uninterrupted regardless of the effort put in by the player.  However, in games likeThe Sims, unlike most any other medium, the player is given the task of creating their own fun.  This has the wonderful benefit of providing the player with nearly limitless opportunity for interesting experiences in a way that isn’t possible in art with strictly scripted creation.  It is in this way that the player can be given the role of the director, and how The Sims is similar to Our Town.  In Our Townthe director is given a wide-open playground, a show where the text and stage directions make up a sliver of the final experience.  InThe Sims, the player is given the same. 

Some productions of Our Town are decidedly less stripped-down than the 2009 production; this one, from the Williamstown Theater Festival in 2010, opted for period clothing and a motif that riffs on the play's reliance on only chairs and ladders in the stage direction.

           The less-fortunate result of this reliance on a creative vision outside the core ‘text’ is what is known in game design and game studies as the ‘creative player problem.’  This is a problem that is overwhelmingly present in The Sims and Our Town, and both works seem to embrace it knowingly.  In a play like Twelve Angry Men, actors can make a performance very special and a good director can put a unique twist on it.  The text and staging is so tight, so specific, and so good, however, that reading the script silently to oneself would provide one with a fairly accurate approximation of the experience of Twelve Angry Men.  Our Town, conversely, presents the director of the show with the ultimate theatrical version of the creative player problem – it is entirely on that director’s shoulders to take the meat of the play and cook it correctly, and add spices that are unique to themselves.  Should a director be unwilling or unable to do this, they will render the dish inedible.  This is the cause of Our Town’s poor reputation – the countless productions put on by high schools and colleges are frequently sufferers of the creative player problem.  (Or, as it would be, the creative director problem.)  The Sims likewise embraces the creative player problem in a way that would make a traditionalist game designer cringe – it puts in the players hands complete control over quality of the game experience.  A player that has no interesting in crafting an interesting life for their avatar will have a subpar experience with the game, while a player that makes plans for their avatar and tries to execute those plans will have crafted a story that is unique to themselves.  In both cases – in the case of an Our Town that has been directed by someone with an important vision and of a game of The Sims in which the player has put their heart into crafting a world for their avatar – a meaningful, memorable experience has been created.  Our Town and The Simsboth succeed marvelously in what designer Ian Bogost claims games (but one could argue plays, also) do: they “invite us inside, they involve experimentation, ritual, role-playing, and risk-taking that might be impossible or undesirable in the real world.” (3, Bogost)  Like Our Town and theater, The Sims and games are safe, open spaces for creation.

      In David Cromer’s 2009 production of Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s few suggestions for staging were taken to the extreme and then utilized magically.  There was no set, only a black room with two black tables and four black chairs signifying the two main families’ houses.  No props were provided for the actors, so every action had to be pantomimed.  The actors wore ‘street clothes’ – that is to say, they were not costumed for the setting of the play, but rather in modern clothing.  This was the setting and feeling that pervaded the first two acts of the show, which were performed wonderfully and accompanied by a stage manager – the show’s narrator – who was directed to interact with the audience in a way that made him both a friend and antagonist, constantly judging or questioning the goings-on in the theater.  In the third act of the show, “Death and Dying”, one of the main characters, Emily Webb (the one that was married in Act II) has died in childbirth, and the act is told from her perspective, in the afterlife.  She is surrounded by the deceased members of her community, who have reached varying levels of enlightenment that, in production, are displayed as exponential extrapolations of the characterizations that the director had given each character in the previous two acts.  The show takes a very surreal introspective turn, but at this point remains very bleak, still without costuming or a set to speak of.  Emily discovers she has the ability to go back into her life to revisit a memory and chooses to do so, despite warnings from some of the deceased.  (4, Wilder)

          This is where the payoff of directorial power comes into play.  In this 2009 production, Emily walks towards the back of the bleak, black theater, in which the lights have been dimmed considerably for this third act.  She walks towards a black curtain that stretches the length of the room.  The curtain opens quickly and reveals a lavishly decorated and lovingly crafted kitchen, with wooden cabinet and walls surrounding a large window, through which light pours in.  Inside the kitchen Emily’s mother is (actually) cooking bacon, and the smell quickly fills the entirety of the theater.  The sight, smell, and sound of the fully-realized setting overtakes Emily’s and the audience’s senses.  The overwhelming stimuli is magnified by the decisions that David Cromer, the director, had made up to this point, and the combination of a consistent, unique vision and the brilliance of this moment in the show provided it a payoff that is almost unimaginable until it has been experienced.

David Cromer as the Stage Manager (narrator) in his 2009 production of Our Town.

      In the same year as this production, Robin Burkinshaw decided to create characters in The Sims to see how they would interact.  Burkinshaw created a man, named Kev, and his daughter, Alice.  He decided that they would live in a park on two benches and rely entirely on the kindness of strangers.  Burkinshaw set these characters up in terms of personality and relationship in such a way that would result in a unique story that Burkinshaw has crafted.  The results of this setup were staggering: over time, every character grew to hate Kev, and Kev eventually began to make it his mission to find people who did not hate him.  Alice, on the other hand, went from being a victim of abuse to growing into a teenager and eventually not putting up with her father anymore.  While at first she didn’t have any ill will towards him, because she was young and he was her dad, even Alice grew to hate Kev.  The payoff in this case was tremendous and continuous – Kev and Alice had developed personalities and stories based explicitly on the direction of Burkinshaw.  The culmination of this constructed narrative is when an older Alice, still homeless and constantly hungry, makes her first hundred dollars, and asks Burkinshaw (through a system where an avatar can have a wish) to let her send it to a charity.  (5, Burkinshaw)

Kev and Alice at the beginning of their journey.

      It is this emergent narrative, which was borne of the decisions Burkinshaw made in order to create a unique story, as well as the third-act reward that the 2009 production Our Town affords its audiences, which was the result of David Cromer’s specific, distinctive direction, that allows us to identify these two works of art as being sorts of exponential experience machines.  In both cases, the amount of care, effort, and personal experience put into the work by the creative storyteller – in these cases, the player and the director – is multiplied many times in its payoff.  The Sims and Our Town both output based on input, with infinite capacity for experience.

 

      These incredibly rewarding moments are both similar in their impact on the piece of art from which they emerged and vastly different in the reason for that impact.  Our Town was published seventy-one years before David Cromer’s production, and that still managed to be an earth-shattering experience for those who had the chance.  The Sims was published thirteen years ago, a lifetime in software, but still lives on to this day, whether it is in the series’ longevity or in the influence it has clearly had over other life-building games.  These are both important works in their respective mediums because they are works that will never grow stale.  Our Town will never run out of meaning, because new directors will always have new things to say through it.  The Sims will never want for scenarios, because new players will always bring something of themselves to the game.  The Sims is the antithesis of the creative player problem – it puts every player in a role that, for a play like Our Town, is reserved for a select few.  And this is the source of its popularity – it trusts the player.  It tells the player that they can do whatever they like, as long as they do it with meaningful intent.  Our Town is an opportunity for directors to make their mark through a beautiful, wide-open play.  The Sims is the perfect example of why video games are such a wonderful medium: The Sims gives that opportunity to everyone.

Video games, like theatrical shows, are opportunity machines.