At the beginning of the new millennium, Will Wright, then creator of some of the most detailed simulation games (or as he called them, software toys) of the time, brought us The Sims, a suburban life-simulation game. It was unintentionally the most scathing social satire in videogames of the time, and possibly even now.
Like Wright's earlier games, The Sims was driven by an interest in a particular field. SimCity was an exploration in municipal planning; SimEarth modelled the Earth following the (now generally rejected) Gaia hypothesis; SimAnt (my favourite of the Sim games) simulates colony of the common black ant; and The Sims was born out of an interest in how architecture influences human behaviour.
During development, the focus shifted away from the architecture and entered much more on the simulated people. The end result is a game in which you manage a suburban, middleclass household, from the building and decorating of the house, right down to the members' life choices. When not carrying out an order given by you, the Perverse Master, the sims will go about their lives. Their banal, hollow lives.
They get bored, so they seek out entertainment. They get hungry, so they seek out food. They have to relieve themselves, so they use the toilet. They have to bathe, so they use the shower. They have to sleep, so they go to bed. Their needs are as basic as ours, but stripped down to absurdity, and any variation in how they satisfy these needs is only so much window dressing.
After only a few hours, you began to realise that you are staring into a fishbowl of your own life. There is no relieving the banality of existence. You get up, eat breakfast, compete for space with the other humans, go to work, come home, eat, watch TV or play games, go to bed, get up, bathe, literally rinse, repeat.
This game has taken the daily cycle of suburban, middleclass life, and reduced it to an aquarium of nihilism. And it doesn't even give you weekends to break up the monotony!
None of the earlier Sim games had terribly sophisticated simulation engines, but as toys for exploring ideas of technical fields, they served their purpose well. But when the topic is social interactions, something familiar to all of us, and something much more intimate, the toy feels like it is mocking you more than playing with you.
Maybe the more fantastical expansion packs fix this by making the game more outlandish. That might make it sufficiently unfamiliar to reality to take the game from a bleak parody of day-to-day life and turn it into something more like what we were promised sea monkeys would be. And maybe someday I will be able to bring myself to return to the abyss, and see whether I can't give it some pizzazz.