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The Cutting Edge: Focus on Personal Technology | GAMERS'
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'The Sims' Presents a World You Can Call Your Own

March 02, 2000|AARON CURTISS

Better minds than mine--from Plato to Monty Python--have spent long hours pondering the meaning of life and the nature of free will. And since the dawn of the Technology Age, the key question has been whether it is possible to duplicate the human experience--to create an artificial community of thinking, learning, sentient beings composed of little more than a few million lines of code.

For those who find the question intriguing--or for those who just enjoy peeping through the blinds at the neighbors--"The Sims" offers the opportunity to cultivate a primitive version of electronic life right on their home PCs. Launching "The Sims" lets players alternate between being a voyeur and a god in a game that is at once wholesome and creepy.

The premise of "The Sims" is simple: Players control the daily lives of individual digital households. It is "Sim City" on the smallest level possible, developed by the same crew that designed that masterpiece of minutiae. The goal is to create happy, prosperous families living in material, emotional and intellectual bliss. Achieving those goals requires sound money management and a strong work ethic as well as intangibles such as an internal sense of purpose and the ability to make others feel comfortable.

When I say players direct the lives of their artificial families, I'm not exaggerating. Sim feeling scummy? Direct him or her to the shower. Bored? Find a good book or an entertaining television show. Lonely? Suggest calling friends. Big meal not sitting right? Provide directions to the bathroom.

Of course, the game would get old quick if the on-screen Sims did exactly as they are told. But these are proto-humans, and they exercise a degree of free will. Sometimes they do what they want and learn for themselves whether it was the right or wrong thing to do. It took some very smart programming to create a free-will algorithm.

But then the first hint that "The Sims" is a very smart game comes from the 100-plus page instruction manual, which includes a recommended reading list of such titles as "Notes on the Synthesis of Form" and "A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction." As the game launches, status messages alert users that the program is "normalizing social network" and "calibrating personality matrix."

All of this intelligence is delivered to users through a simple interface with menus that pop up only when needed. Real-time action occupies most of the screen. In other words, players can watch the lives of their creations unfold, buy them furniture to decorate the house and even add on as the family grows.

It can be fun just to watch. Characters react to others in the game as well as to environmental circumstances. For instance, She-Sims get mad if they visit the toilet and the last man to use it forgot to put the seat down. Sims who make unwanted advances on the neighbor's wife can find themselves in a fight. Sims who make consistently bad choices--which means Sims who don't have thoughtful human counterparts--end up in dead-end jobs. Or just plain dead.

Playing "The Sims" is an interesting and addictive experience, one that raises all sorts of questions about who we are as individuals. Do we create the perfect families we never had? Or do we mirror our own flawed lives? Do we want the best for our Sims? Or do we torment them with loveless marriages and unfulfilling jobs? How much control do we really have over them?

And, finally, is "The Sims" just a game inside an even bigger game in which we ourselves star? Are our own human frailties some cosmic algorithm or merely the limits of disc space and processing power?

For those who care to confront those questions, "The Sims" requires a Pentium 233 with 32 mb of RAM and 300 mb of available hard drive space.

"Sega Rally 2"

The problem with "Sega Rally 2" is not that it's a bad game. It's just not as good as it should be. As the 128-bit follow-up to the 32-bit "Sega Rally Championship," "Sega Rally 2" ought to be the best racer available on any console. It isn't.

"Sega Rally 2" has a lot to recommend it.

The 16 tracks--spread across six locations as diverse as the mountains of Corsica, the sands of the Sahara and the forests of Sweden--are the game's highlights. They wind through beautifully detailed terrain with nary a glitch, although the graphic fog sometimes seems a tad overdone. The road surfaces--from mud to gravel to packed snow--make for challenging driving in real-world rally cars made by Toyota, Peugeot and Renault.

Players can customize the cars' steering, suspension, tires and gearing and save the settings on Dreamcast's Visual Memory Unit for head-to-head play. And the computerized co-driver who shouts out directions at 135 mph provides important information without blathering on.

In other words, "Sega Rally 2" covers all the bases.

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