Machinima & The Sims 2: A Love Story
Do your fondest preteen memories involve sitting at a computer?
From 2005 to 2007, I used The Sims 2 and Youtube to sustain a brief career as a creator of “machinima”. Machinima is the use of computer and video games to create computer animated films. I just called it ‘making Sims movies.’ I thought to myself, ‘some day I’m going to be a director,’ and using The Sims 2 to create movies seemed like an obvious way to explore that. Everyone around me — figuratively, of course, because it was the internet — was doing it. All of my favourite songs had music videos made with The Sims 2. Machinima stems from a long tradition, originating in the mid 90s. Most scholarship on the phenomenon of machinima can be attributed to Henry Lowood, a collections curator at Stanford University. He describes machinima as “community-developed content”. Lowood’s research in machinima production emphasizes the “bottom up” growth of machinima, “driven by enthusiasts and accidental filmmakers [who learn] how to deploy technologies from computer games to develop new practices for expressing themselves”.
I was introduced to The Sims by a friend who had it on his family computer. In 2003, I had The Sims: Bustin’ Out for the Nintendo Gamecube, which would lay the groundwork for The Sims 2 in later years. While the original The Sims relied on isometric projection that gave the illusion of a 3D environment — a holdover from the Sim Cities games of the 90’s — Bustin’ Out took place in a totally 3D world. It was addictive. EA recognized that children have creative urges and gave them an almost limitless virtual toolkit to express them. The AI of both playable and non-playable the characters let them be independent. It looked and felt more real than the previous Sims. Following the release of Bustin’ Out, EA began development on The Sims 2. Released in 2004, it innovated gameplay further by including the possibility of creating buildings with multiple stories, the ability to create toddlers and teenagers, and genetic information coded into families. The immersion was more complete. You could build your dream home and breed a family into eternity. EA exuded to players the promise God made to Abraham in Genesis: I will make you exceedingly fertile, and make nations of you. The players looked upon the neighbourhoods they had created and said: This is good. Across the world, Barbies lay dormant in dusty plastic houses — infertile, possibly carcinogenic — while children tended to generations of Sim families.
To native creators of machinima, The Sims 2 was promising. The gameplay could be manipulated easily for filming. Lowood writes, “Making machinima with The Sims 2 offers control of the camera, navigable anywhere in the 3D environment” but conceded that “controlling the characters is limited to prompting them into certain moods so that the AI induces a desired reaction”. Youtube became the primary method of distributing Sims 2 machinima, whereas previously most machinima was distributed on websites like machinima.com, which later became a Youtube Network under the ownership of Time Warner.
In 2006, a Youtube user named Jaydee227 uploaded Helena — Sims 2 Version — My Chemical Romance, a music video created using The Sims 2. The cinematic quality was unparalleled. The narrative involves a woman in an abusive relationship who is comforted by the ghost of an ex-lover. The ghost torments the woman’s husband, who is revealed to have beaten him into a coma. There is an elaborate wedding scene in a gothic church and believable depictions of violence. The imagery is infused with the emo look that permeated the mid-2000s. This was a departure from previous incarnations of machinima, like The Strangerhood, a series commissioned to Rooster Teeth by EA in 2004 which largely followed a sitcom format. The Strangerhood seemed amateur by comparison — at least visually. As an 11-year-old with the requisite tools at my disposal, I wanted to do the same thing as Jaydee227. I experimented with the in-game image capture tool, built sets, and used characters to act out scenarios. I created my first music video in the winter of 2006, uploading it to Youtube a year later.
Must Have Done Something Right is the story of a couple who grows old together set to the song of the same name by Reliant K. There is no polish to the finished product. I had not yet learned how to manipulate Sims’ behaviour with cheat codes or game modifications. Filming involved a more hands-off fly-on-the-wall method than anything I would create later, but I was very proud of it. The characters begin as children, playing in a low-resolution 3D world with no shadows and little texture. Their mothers, who do not feature in the plot at all, can be seen sitting in the background of the set. It was not possible to use children Sims without having an adult present on the lot. In regular gameplay, the absence of a parent would result in the removal of the child by an in-game social worker. I filmed clips of the couple growing old. In post-production, I didn’t have enough clips to lay over the entire song, so I reused clips to create a flashback sequence. Having discovered it was possible to age characters backwards with a cheat code, I reversed their ages until the elderly couple were children once again. By the time the couple reached adulthood, their mothers had died. The newly minted children, now in the house without parents, were promptly removed by a social worker. The last clip shows the car taking them away.
Horror Movie, made in 2007, was my first attempt at creating something scary. The premise was that a ghost was killing the occupants of a derelict mansion. The ghost would appear and characters would die. By this point I had discovered it was possible to kill Sims at will. Deaths included in the film show people burning to death without fire, drowning without water — which created the effect of being pulled into the floor — and being struck by a meteor. There were still many mistakes. I had not yet conquered their AI, so Sims would cry at the off-camera tombstones of dead characters. Even the ghost wails uncontrollably, surrounded by dead Sims. There is also no sound. Horror Movie was inspired by my burgeoning interest in horror movies, prompted by films like Darkness Falls and The Grudge, neither of which I was allowed to watch but was fascinated by nonetheless. Entire movies were now available online, albeit illegally, and 12-year-old me could watch all of them. I had a story to tell, and I wanted it to be disturbing. In subsequent films, I remade
sequences from The Grudge. I made a total of seven videos inspired by The Grudge, called The Curse. To recreate a scene in which a woman walks around after having her jaw torn off, I edited a character so that their chin and mouth were shrunken and pushed back into their neck. I painted over the skin texture in Photoshop to make blood. The result was unconvincing but I thought it was really cool. As The Curse progressed, so did my ability to create more interesting scenes. While nothing I created would parallel Helena, The Curse part 3 and Horror Movie stand on opposing ends of an uncanny valley.
The filming process generally followed as such: I would plan the project in a notebook. If the game did not provide the appropriate costumes for characters, I would download them from creator sites like ModTheSims2.com. I constructed sets on “soundstages” in order to spare myself the effort from constructing entire buildings I wouldn’t use. To film, I would use a cheat-code to suspend the Sims’ AI . I would use different codes to remove extraneous features like speech bubbles or progress bars that indicated whether or not Sims were happy. They would stand in place until I needed them. I would prompt them to perform a series of actions while using the in-game camera to record. The camera was integrated into standard gameplay, which Henry Lowood describes as a “virtual image capturing tool that mimics the optical function of a standard motion picture camera”. Once filming was done, I would upload the clips to Windows Movie Maker to edit. Using a mix of illegally downloaded music and royalty-free sound effects, I would overlay the sound onto the clips. I wrote subtitles because I never wanted to record myself for dialogue. I was too embarrassed by the sincerity of speaking into a microphone alone in my room.
In an effort to get me away from the computer, my parents signed me up for boy scouts. Schlepping through the Alberta badlands under a giant backpack, I would imagine what I could be doing at home with my Sims. How accurately could I recreate the Amityville Horror house? What if the deposed Romanov family lived in a duplex next to the Brady Bunch? Could I make that look like a reality show? I had no interest in spending another weekend trying to sleep on the forest floor surrounded by other gross 12-year-old boys. Why hike, swim, camp, or shoot guns when I could live with total vicariousness through my Sims?
Just as naturally as my love for The Sims grew, I slowly began to outgrow it by the end of 2007. The last uploaded video on my channel is from December. This coincides exactly with when I began to make more friends at school. In the 11 years since I last logged in to that account, I lost the password and the email. The videos remain there, a snapshot into a brain that suggested I was both immature, drenched in the pop-punk zeitgeist, and obsessed with Japanese Horror. They no longer show up in searches or receive views and have largely been forgotten.
Other creators, who I can only assume were older, drew from a more developed aesthetic and wealth of experience, creating much better machinima than I could. Using programs like Milkshake 3D and Blender, they could manipulate the 3D model of characters into poses not programmed into the game. The addition of special effects with Adobe After Effects as well as the use of more complex editing software like Final Cut Pro and Sony Vegas Pro meant creators were not limited to what could be only be achieved with cheat codes and slight texture modifications. Before I could articulate what made a scene feel authentically “gothic”, creators who understood this innately could fashion a gothic aesthetic from an enormous pool of resources generated by other content creators. What they couldn’t find, they could make themselves. Early Sims 2 machinima, like The Strangerhood, does not make use of anything that cannot be achieved beyond the base game. This meant no custom content, actions, or positions. The Strangerhood, being commissioned by EA, was meant to function as an advertisement for the game. Viewers could relish in the possibilities of vanilla gameplay, while potential filmmakers saw there were limits that needed to be pushed before they could create anything good. Jaydee227 modelled objects for Helena that did not exist in-game, like a single bloody rose and a high school yearbook dated to 2005. Her characters use a mix of custom content for clothing and hair, and the texture of their skin has been modified to appear more realistic. The female protagonist has a modified skin texture that was commonly used to recreate the look of Korean ball-jointed dolls. While shirtless, the abusive husband has abs and nipples that have been airbrushed on. The ghost is modelled after My Chemical Romance frontrunner Gerard Way, replicating his clothing and signature hair. Although dated, the visuals are striking in comparison to the base game. It’s the difference between seeing a skilled drag queen in costume versus out.
While Jaydee227 no longer creates machinima, and the community around The Sims 2 machinima has largely been relegated to nostalgic former creators, the inspiration from Helena is evident in the work developed into machinima from The Sims 3 and The Sims 4. Rémi Marcelli, arguably the most successful heir to the Sims machinima tradition, drew upon a similar emo-goth aesthetic for his most popular film, Obsession. While Sims related content continues to be popular on Youtube, machinima is rare. The old standbys — modded content and AI suspension — are difficult to integrate into the gameplay of The Sims 3 and 4. Achieving the same quality of work as Marcelli requires a wider, less accessible skillset. Where The Sims 2 “simplified the process of creating machinima, [expanding] its dramatic range, and [bringing] in a vast new pool of creators and viewers”, the sequels removed the functions that made Sims 2 machinima user-friendly. The Sims 3, however, developed an open-world concept that made it possible to play with characters across an entire town instead of being restricted to individual home lots. The open-world proved to be extremely popular, but custom content was sparse. The Sims 4, widely criticized upon its release, removed the open world, stripping many features in favour of higher-calibre graphics and improved AI. Machinima, which required a lot of time to produce yet yielded little in return, became rare. “Let’s Plays”, a genre which focuses on actual gameplay, were easier to produce quickly and profitable. Machinima created with The Sims 2 reflected an era of content creation that was largely not-for-profit. The Let’s Play era reflects the ability of content creators to generate consistent income based on Youtube and Google AdSense revenue. Gaming culture has changed. The generation playing The Sims 4, native to social media, never knowing a time before Youtube, is not the same generation that played The Sims 2. This is not, however, totally negative. The internet is a friendlier place for content creators. While they might not be creating films with The Sims 2, many people earn a viable income by playing video games in front of an audience. Those who miss the halcyon days of The Sims 2 machinima can still access the thousands of videos on the digital graveyard of Youtube, including mine for anyone who knows where to look. The weird, abstract, creative urges of my adolescence are there, hidden among better projects by serious gamers. I admit, though, that if I knew the account password, I would probably delete the videos. I still find them embarrassing.