Updated: Mar 30, 2020
Electronic Arts 2014/17 release, The Sims 4, and The Sims series in general, makes use of audio in a particularly interesting way. The effectiveness of this audio technique is so strong that it has become synonymous with the series itself and iconic within game audio. This article will focus primarily on the Simlish language created for the series of games since its early beginnings.
The in-game gibberish language serves several different functions: to notify, guide and intrigue the player, as well as providing context for the open-ended story trees of The Sims characters. The language is deliberately vague to allow for player projection and empathy. However, it also gives enough information to the player regarding intent, for the actions and desires of the characters to be clear. This open-ended audio system ties in directly with game systems and goals from the designer’s perspective and has a few different functions within the game which will be detailed in this article.
The first function of the language is to instruct the player on what type of action their sim is performing or needs to perform, i.e. notification. Notification can be described as unsolicited information about a game state, character or object which prompts the player to act (Stevens, 2018).
For example, the sim will emote certain cues if it needs to use the bathroom or it needs rest and relaxation. These verbal cues are accompanied by a graphical icon adding further context to the cue. However, during play if you as the player are busy with the task of building or improving the world in some way, your first cue to the sims request is nearly always aurally.
These indirect cues offer instruction or advice to the player as to their next course of action. The manner in which these cues are delivered can also alert the player to the urgency or pace at which the next strategy should be employed.
In The Sims these notifications are done in such a way as to be open ended to the players decision making. They are at first gently reminding the player to take out the trash or go to the bathroom. These notifications become more insistent as time goes on and the sim will become distressed or annoyed if their needs are not met. All of which is depicted differently depending on the characters traits and states. These traits and states inform the way in which the Simlish will be performed, for example, if the character has a laid-back personality, a Simlish conversation had by that character will reflect this in its delivery. However, if the same character is bursting for the toilet the desperation will override the character’s usual laid-back style.
The way in which the Sims as a game is designed is based around Maslow's hierarchy of needs, a theory of motivational psychology in which the hierarchy of human needs is depicted within a five-tier pyramid system. (See Fig.1) (A.H. Maslow, 1943)
Fig1. (Available from: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs | Simply Psychology https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html)
Basic psychological needs such as food, water, warmth and rest make up the base of the pyramid as they are the most primary needs. These are followed by safety and security and social psychological needs such as intimate relationships and friends. The Sims game only touches upon the higher order needs such as esteem and self-actualisations, mainly through the creative pursuits of the sim characters themselves, such as the arts and crafts the sim may perform.
The Sims game seeks to replicate these core tenants, so that the player may empathise with the character and understand and act upon their basic needs. In Matt Brown’s talk at GDC 2018 “Emergent story telling techniques in The Sims” he describes how The Sims is about nurturing and empathy in a familiar world, grounded in reality.
The sims make mistakes and are imperfect, and this ties in directly with the players need to parent their sim. The Sims design revolves around self-evident dependencies;
sim must pee - use toilet- buy toilet - need money - get job - use computer.
The audio cues in the form of Simlish also reflect this design philosophy. The animation and icon gestures are paired with an expressive Simlish phrase. Conversations between characters are as self-evident as their notification counterparts, due to the inherent expression in the Simlish phrases.
As the engine stitches together the various phrases and topics, based upon the characters traits and goals, a very wide variety of possibilities opens up based on the players decisions. Those decisions are usually made in direct response to a feedback loop of how the player feels the conversation is going, the players goals based on their sims needs and the tone of responses from the AI Sims.
Grant Rodiek, producer on the Sims 4 summarises the Simlish language as part of the soul of The Sims franchise. “Sims speak Simlish — a fake language — but they act so expressively that you know just what they’re thinking.”
If a sim is angry, happy, sad, funny, bored or any combination of states associated with human activity the sim is able to convey this through the Simlish language. The language, because of its gibberish nature allows room for the players own imagination and interpretation as to the exact conversation, while still conveying enough information to set the tone of the interaction. This also has the added benefit of reducing the players attention to repetition of dialogue which is prevalent in many games with repeat actions.
The Simlish language also provides a platform at which to provide player feedback on performance. Acting as a proxy for tactile interactions, The Sims chime out a Simlish response informing the player they have acknowledged the players command to perform an action. Subsequently they then inform the player the action has been completed and they are moving onto the next task or going into the next required state, i.e. idle. The Sims also give the player negative feedback through the Simlish language. If their needs are not met and if the player fails to respond to the trash on the floor, the sims mood state becomes increasingly negative and the tone of language used becomes increasingly frustrated, angry or dower, so alerting the player that the situation needs to be rectified.
All of this has a knock-on effect to the player immersion, the players ‘living dollhouse’ becomes a thriving entity and a continuous story, driven by the players choices. The vagueness of the Simlish language and the open-ended nature of it allows the player to project onto the Sim virtually any story they like. With a plethora of personality types available in combination with a large number of possible actions, the player is able to construct a narrative from the constituent pieces which feels entirely personal to them and their sim. This allows for greater empathy with the sim character, this bond in turn assists with keeping the player immersed and invested in the world. Why else would a player bother to get their sim that job or furniture or relationship with another sim, its emotional connection which drives this interaction and the Simlish language is a large part of that connection.
In conclusion, the Simlish language at first glance could seem like a clever way to avoid the extra costs of localisation, however this would be an unfair and cursory glance at what is an iconic part of game audio for a very good reason. Empathy, connection, wants, desires, need fulfilment are all part of the sims world and the driving component to this is the player understanding those core tenants. The Sims language, Simlish, does this beautifully, giving the player all the feedback they require to navigate the world while simultaneously remaining open-ended enough for the player to have their own interpretations and their own story.
1. Gamasutra - 7 games worth studying for their excellent sound design (01/10/2018) https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/318157/7_games_worth_studying_for_their_excellent_sound_design.php
2. (Video) Emergent Storytelling Techniques in 'The Sims'
Matt Brown – GDC 2018
3. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs | Simply Psychology https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
4. SimCity The Sounds of Nonsense: Recording Simlish (01/10/2018) https://www.ea.com/en-gb/news/simcity-simlish
6. (Article) Richard Stevens and Dave Raybould with additional contributions from Ben Minto,
The reality paradox: Authenticity, fidelity and the real in Battlefield 4
7. (video) How to record Simlish - The Sim Supply- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-ow_PWTODg
8. (video) 22:00 The Sims 4 Walkthrough Gameplay Lets Play Playthrough Part 1 - No Commenary - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5kFa47sExsU