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From ‘The Sims’ to ‘Animal Crossing’: how life simulation games provide an escape from reality

Remember those times in your childhood when you couldn’t wait to be a grown-up? You’d daydream about being independent, staying up as late as you wanted and eating all those snacks your parents wouldn’t buy for you. But then you hit adulthood and realised just how stressful everything is. Mortgages, bills, rent, a job: the list is endless. Everything just piles up and, as we all know, it can be a bit too much sometimes.

But what if I told you there was a way to adult and relax at the same time? Welcome to the pixelated world of life simulation, the video game genre that lets you live out your best life in cyberspace.

What are life sims?

Life simulations (or life sims) are a genre of video games that replicate the everyday activities performed in real life. From buying a house and raising a family to tending to a farm and going fishing, these games aim to provide all the different aspects of life but make them a relaxing experience. One of the best and most well-known examples is The Sims, a now-vast series of life sim games published by Electronic Arts (EA) where the player creates a character called a Sim, and proceeds to care for them, get them a job, build and furnish their house, and even help them raise a family.

All of these seemingly-mundane life tasks that we’d sigh heavily at in real life are magically transformed into tasks we can’t get enough of. But what makes them so fun? Let’s take a look, shall we?

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Living your best life

On the surface, life sims sound pretty dull. But don’t let that put you off, there’s more to them than meets the eye. Each activity is crafted to make even the most tedious of chores enjoyable. A perfect example is the fishing mechanic in Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons. You simply throw your line out into a body of water, wait for one of the fish shadows to take a nibble and then reel it in. Such a simple way of presenting the idea yet it provides unlimited satisfaction. Coupled with the pun-heavy quips about each fish you trawl and the prospect of being able to add your catch to the in-game aquarium, it turns the time consuming and mostly-boring hobby of fishing into a delightful and exciting pastime, all without your real-life self not having to leave the comfort of your home. Or getting wet. Now, that’s what I call winning in life.

But that’s not all that life sims have to offer. A lot of the games out there allow you to have a stable job and even buy a house, something that a lot of young people are finding extremely difficult in this day and age. The Sims encourages you to find your Sim a job so they can keep up with expenses. This is made effortless by just sending your character to their job where their performance is based on their attributes—which you can upgrade as you progress through the game.

Meanwhile, Animal Crossing lets you buy a house from the get-go, although that does mean you’ll be in the village’s top business raccoon debt, Tom Nook. Unlike banks in the real world, however, Nook lets you pay back your loan whenever you’re able to, meaning no stressful final reminders falling onto your mat anytime soon.

All of these elements culminate into one thing: escapism. But how exactly do life sims help us evade the real world?

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Let’s get deep for a second

The problem with the real world is that everything you do has consequences. If you don’t show up to work, you get fired. If you don’t pay your rent, you lose your house. With life sims (and all video games, in general), the consequences of your actions can be changed—all you have to do is reset the game and try again. This makes life sims the ideal way to take a break from the pressure of the real world.

In February 2022, house prices in the UK rose to 10.9 per cent, up from 10.2 per cent in January 2022. This increase has meant that nearly a third of all 24 to 30-year-olds in the country are still living with their parents, or have had to move back home because they couldn’t afford to live on their own. Nearly all life sim games give you, or let you buy, a house that you can maintain, live in and decorate to your heart’s content. With the state of the housing market at the moment, this is the only way a lot of people are able to have a space to call their own.

But it’s not just owning a piece of virtual real estate that makes these games so enticing. They’re a way to mentally unwind too. ConcernedApe and Chucklefish’s Stardew Valley took the world by storm when it was released in 2016 and has since sold over 20 million copies across all platforms. The fantasy farming simulator sees you take up residence on your late grandfather’s farm after having enough of your soul-destroying office job. Once again, the game gives you your own house. but this time, you also have a farm to tend to. As you go about your day growing crops, making friends with the locals and exploring the surrounding environs, you will start to realise that there is a certain serenity in the freedom the game places before you. You could spend your day working on your farm, or you could head down to the beach for a spot of fishing. After a hard day’s work, you can walk to the local tavern and share a drink with the locals. Or not—it’s really up to you.

It’s this freedom and slow living that draws people in and lets them live almost a double life. One free of taxes and jobs and the general gloom of the world we currently reside in. In Stardew Valley, none of that matters. The mental release felt after spending a few hours in the game is immense, as blogger Kira Leigh discovered when coming face to face with one of the romanceable characters, Sebastian. “I was staring into a mirror,” she admitted.

By pursuing Sebastian’s character route and discovering how he suffered from a lot of the same things she was, it helped her reflect on her own life. “When he opened up to me, I was given a gift as well. The rare gift of being able to observe your life from the outside […] I was forced to actually think about this character’s situation. And that forced me to think about my own, too,” she wrote.

The moments of quiet reflection these games allow you to have can be more powerful than we realise. Sometimes all you need is a few hours of peace tending to your carrots or chatting with the pixelated locals to process what’s going on in your actual life.

Top 3 life sims to help you kick back and relax

If this article has opened your eyes to the fact that you need a bit of rest and relaxation in your own life, check out one of these delightful games. You never know, it might be just what you’re looking for:

1. ‘The Sims’ by EA

As one of the most well-known and popular life sim games, The Sims lets you essentially play god as you create your own character and then set about constructing their life as you see fit. Want them to go to university and become a scholar? No problem. How about joining a rock band and rocking out in the garage? The Sims has got you covered. There are also countless add-on packs for you to choose from, giving you the ultimate authority to customise your own experience the way you like it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z00mK3Pxc8w

2. ‘Stardew Valley’ by ConcernedApe

Now onto an indie staple, Stardew Valley is all about living life in the slow lane. Farm, fish, mine and craft as you explore and discover the different shops, people and environs this gorgeous pixel art game has to offer. Build connections with the locals, attend town events and even get married to your favourite characters (if you spend enough time with them, that is). There is no end to the peace this game will bring you.

3. ‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ by Nintendo

Released right at the beginning of the first COVID-19 lockdown, this game was a must-have in practically every household. After getting an invite to a deserted island getaway, you arrive and begin your new life there. Starting out with a meagre tent, you soon learn the ways of the island, craft items and equipment to make your stay more comfortable and welcome adorable animal villagers such as Joey the Duck and Fang the Wolf as friendly neighbours. The game doesn’t really have an end, so you can explore, relax and sculpt your new home as much as you like. Featuring a wonderful multiplayer system, the game also allows you to invite other players locally or from across the globe to visit your island and enjoy the tranquillity together.

Pokémon Nuzlocke Challenge: When adult players create their own game rules

“Gotta catch ‘em all!” Remember that old phrase? While it’s been quite some time since it used the iconic slogan, the worldwide Pokémon phenomenon is still going strong 25 years after its initial release. Unlike other franchises however, it hasn’t really matured with its audience. Many adults who played Pokémon as kids may be finding that those games of yore just don’t have the same spark they remember. So, in order to alleviate the mundane Pokémon experience, adult gamers have developed a new—and sometimes heartbreaking—way to play. Introducing the Pokémon ‘Nuzlocke Challenge’.

So what exactly is a Nuzlocke?

Well, in order to participate in a Nuzlocke, you’ll need two things: a Nintendo console and a Pokémon game of your choice. Pretty simple, right? Not for long though. From here on out you will be completing your chosen Pokémon journey by adhering to a self-imposed set of rules. The core of these are as follows:

– You may only catch the first Pokémon you encounter in each area.

– If your Pokémon faints, it is considered ‘dead’ and must either be released or placed in storage, which means you cannot use it for the rest of the playthrough.

– This one’s pretty cute. You must nickname every Pokémon you catch in order to get more attached to them.

If you’ve played in the universe before, then you already know that these new rules are a real game-changer. If you’re a new ‘Trainer’, then let me explain.

Normally, the regular Pokémon journey isn’t particularly taxing. You travel from town to town, defeating ‘Gym Leaders’ (the game’s version of bosses), collecting ‘Gym Badges’ from them, catching lots of Pokémon to complete your ‘Pokédex’ (a special electronic encyclopaedia for recording information on the creatures), stopping the bad guys and becoming the Pokémon Champion of the region. You get the gist of it.

The worst thing that can happen to your little pocket monsters is that they faint in battle, but just hurry on over to the nearest Pokémon Centre (the in-game equivalent of a hospital) or use some healing items and they’ll be good to go again. You can’t really lose a Pokémon game either. Your party can be wiped out but you can just respawn at the last Pokémon Centre you visited and try again.

Not in a Nuzlocke though. If one of your Pokémon’s hit points (HP) hits zero, they’re considered dead. If all of your Pokémon are wiped out, it’s game over and you must delete the save file and start fresh if you so wish. You can also forget about completing your Pokédex during a run like this. Every time you enter a new route or location you get one chance to catch the first Pokémon you encounter. If you knock the Pokémon out, or it runs away, that’s your chance gone, and you must wait until the next new area before you can attempt to catch another team member.

As you can see, making your team members somewhat ‘mortal’ and having a limited roster of Pokémons adds another layer of difficulty and strategy to your experience. You get what you’re given and you just have to make it work.

If you didn’t think that was enough, the icing on the cake comes with having to nickname each Pokémon you catch. “But it’s just a name,” some of you might say. Indeed, it might be. But when Sparky the Pikachu, who has been with you for most of your journey and to which you are now attached, gets taken out in a crucial battle, you’ll understand why this is the hardest, most devastating rule of all. RIP Sparky.

This extreme version of Pokémon was developed back in 2010 by Los Angeles-based artist Nick Franco. He initially documented his journey in a webcomic called Pokémon: Hard-Mode which went on to inspire many adult players who took to naming it themselves as a Nuzlocke—a combination of ‘Nuzleaf’, a grass type Pokémon and the character John Locke from the TV series Lost. Don’t waste your brain cells on it, not even fans understand it. In an interview with Vox, Franco told the publication, “I was just trying to make someone laugh at stupid comic. I didn’t want to make some big thing.” Well, well, well, look where we are now.

Go hard or go home

So, why do players want a harder challenge? Pokémon isn’t exactly known for its difficulty. Most fans, even the youngest ones, can get through a normal playthrough without much hassle. And that’s where the problem lies with many of the older players. Even after 25 years, the games are still being geared towards children, even more so now with many of the new entries guiding the player through the adventure—we’re looking at you, Ultra Sun & Ultra Moon—rather than just letting them explore at their own pace.

GameFAQ user SmellyvonBeli expressed their annoyance at the hand-holding, saying “Why can’t I explore on my own? Why does my overly-happy ‘rival’ constantly give me potions, revives, etc? I wish I could just explore new areas at my own pace instead of sitting through cutscenes every 90 seconds.” Now, Pokémon was, and always will be, a game aimed at a younger audience, there’s no disputing that fact. But older fans just aren’t content with that idea anymore. And we think nostalgia is to blame.

You know how it is—you experience something again from your childhood and it’s just not quite as good as you remember it. It’s the same with Pokémon. As you grow up, your perspective of things changes and you mature, so when you sit down to play Pokémon: Ruby Version 19 years later, it’s way easier and less impressive than you remember. This is where the Nuzlocke Challenge really comes into its own—it revitalises a beloved, yet ultimately tired set of games and gives them another chance to shine. And to the nostalgia- and challenge-hungry fans, this is a dream come true.

Illicit Pokémon activity

The Pokémon Nuzlocke Challenge is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to helping the game series ‘grow up’ however. In fact, a quick Google search will uncover an entire world of Pokémon ROM hacks.

A ROM hack is essentially an altered version of a game. Internet users take the file of an already existing Pokémon game and then mess about with it—adding their own features, some even going as far as creating a whole new version out of a pre-existing one. Some players take matters even further and make their own Pokémon games from scratch, one of the most notorious being Pokémon: Uranium Version which contained a much more mature story and was far more difficult than normal games. It added difficulty modes, a Nuzlocke option when you started the game and a bigger focus on building a competitive team. However, due to legal action being taken against the developers, they had to remove all download links and cease the development of their project in 2016.

As with most things that involve original intellectual properties (IPs), there are certain legal issues that can and will crop up. Pokémon ROM hacks and fan projects unfortunately cross these legal boundaries, with Nintendo historically pursuing a multitude of cease and desist orders. But if these projects are illegal, why do so many people continue to make them?

The answer is simple. As mentioned above, many gamers aren’t happy with the state of Pokémon at present and where Nintendo is taking the franchise. These fan-made games appear to be a public letter to the game developer to step up with Pokémon. If they won’t make the changes that are wanted, then the fans will.

Despite all this, it seems that, to some extent at least, Nintendo has heard the call for Pokémon to grow up. With the release of Pokémon Legends: Arceus on January 28 2022 came a huge leap forward in the way the video game could be experienced. In an article by Wired, YouTuber Rogersbase had this to say about it: “This is like grown-up Pokémon, to the extent that you can make Pokémon grown-up. It’s always gonna be a franchise that is aimed at everybody and can appeal to children.” And he is correct. By opening up the world, giving players the opportunity to explore as much as they see fit, and actually adding some challenge to the game, Pokémon is finally catching up to where fans want it to be.

Heart of the community

Let’s take a second and move back to the topic at hand. The Nuzlocke Challenge has been around for many years at this point, and with good reason. With such a fun and refreshing way to re-experience Pokémon, it seems obvious that some people would want to document their adventures. Enter the “PokéTubers.”

A type of YouTuber that makes primarily Pokémon video game content, there are hundreds, if not thousands of examples of this type of content creator around now and many of them take part in playing-through Pokémon games with the Nuzlocke rules. Zwiggo, a PokéTuber from the Netherlands is one of the more popular creators and produces many types of Pokémon challenge videos, including Nuzlocke runs.

This type of video has obviously found its way onto TikTok too, with creators like PurpleCliffe branching out from YouTube. From this, huge communities have been born. Many creators broadcast their runs on streaming services such as Twitch where fans can interact with them on a more personal level. This type of interaction builds up solid communities and fan bases and allows content creators to enjoy and share their often hilarious experiences.

Probably the biggest boost to Nuzlocke’s notoriety was the publication of a video by a YouTuber called Jaiden Animations back in November of 2019. The video followed the animator’s first-ever Nuzlocke of Pokémon: Ruby Version and what started off as a fun and jolly adventure ended in anything but that. One of the most notable moments came when she faced off against the sixth Gym Leader ‘Winona’, who is notorious for sweeping teams.

Prior to the fight, she lost her beloved team member ‘Corn the Nuzleaf’ and when fighting Winona, Jaiden’s ‘Magneton’—an electric-type Pokémon made up of a set of three magnets—aptly named ZIPZAPZOP was almost killed by Winona’s ‘Altaria’ (a large cloud covered bird). “Somehow ZIPZAPZOP lived the earthquake on 2 HP, like a mad lad. Corn must have been looking down on us for this one because there was a 90 per cent chance that ZIPZAPZOP was supposed to die there”

Pokémon Nuzlocke Challenge: When adult players create their own game rules

This emotional stance on the Nuzlocke struck a chord with viewers, many relating to the events of the video and exclaiming how emotional it made them.

Postgame

So, where does this leave Pokémon? With the new generation of games coming to Nintendo Switch at the end of 2022, it will be very interesting to see where Nintendo takes the franchise this time. With the information available, we already know that Pokémon Scarlet and Violet Versions will feature a similarly open world to Arceus as well as comparable mechanics. Arceus was a step in the right direction for the game series and it is these types of changes that will more than likely bring veteran fans back into the fray. Will we see a built-in Nuzlocke mode? Probably not, but as long as there are players looking for a new and exciting way to play their childhood favourites, the Pokémon Nuzlocke Challenge will live on.