No Way But Up
We have to believe in free will. We’ve got no choice.
—Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Times
Tomagotchi: the bane of my sixth grade existence and the breakout star of pocket-sized life simulation. When I first saw the egg-shaped, electronic keychains, I thought the idea of life simulation would never last; there are just far too many interesting things in real-life to be concerned with the well being of a battery operated pet. To my sixth-grade dismay, I was wrong.
Despite having a glaringly crude LCD screen, narrow and simple play interaction, and the overlooked detail that most sixth graders in small-town Minnesota didn’t actually need keychains, a Tomagotchi pandemic broke at my school, taking over classrooms beyond my grade. Everyone seemed to have at least two. Everyone except me. I hated myself for not thinking the stupid things were cool, but I held firm to my belief. Recess, my last hope for meaningful, real-life interaction had become my worst nightmare. My friends found torturing their “pets” more interesting than our regularly programmed schoolyard football game.
After a few lonely weeks, everyone seemed to suddenly agree with me. Tomagotchi was unfortunately struck by the meteoric impact of being stamped un-cool by the junior-high kids. Just as quickly as the toys had come, they fell out of style. Tomagotchi became near extinct. Of course there were stragglers, younger kids hopelessly clinging to a bygone fad, but Tomagotchi had by-and-large fallen victim to the pocket-sim Ice Age.
If, in the electronic evolutionary chain, Tomagotchi are the first stage of pocket life, born of plastic primordial soup, The Urbz: Sims in the City are Stanley Kubrick’s ape witnesses to the monolith. But can Urbz keep gamers from falling asleep before intermission?
Life simulations have evolved with PC games like The Sims and console games like Animal Crossing, but it took time to bring “life” back to the pockets of sixth graders (of all ages) everywhere. Sure, there were spin-offs like Pokemon, but the goal of those games was to “catch ‘em all”, not “catch ‘em all, nurture ‘em and raise ‘em for no purpose other than you’re bored and your parents are too cheap to buy a puppy.” And these spin-offs certainly didn’t let you create the central character’s personality. They fell more into the category of role-playing games rather than sim games. And it seems Urbz (and its handheld predecessor, Bustin’ Out) have only dipped their feet into the life-sim pool, leaving the gamer with a ho-hum sim/role-playing concoction, taking away many fun parts from each style of game.
After answering a few multiple-choice questions that create your Urb’s generic personality traits, Urbz begins with a surprisingly cinematic opening sequence. The sequence sets the theme for the game, alluding to the city of Miniopolis, your Urb’s current life as a janitor and an evil corporate plot. The game’s relatively high cheese-factor hides behind the beauty of this sequence, with great music flowing wonderfully out of the often audio impaired GBA.
Within the first two minutes of gameplay, you’re fired by your new boss, a sinister version of Rich Uncle Pennybanks, named Daddy Bigbucks. His simple plot: to turn the once quiet city of Miniopolis into a real life Monopoly board, controlling the revenue of everything in town. His goal is an odd one. If he plans on turning a profit on Miniopolis, does that imply Miniopolis’ economy is struggling to begin with? Obviously, his hostile takeover has had little opposition by the rest of the city’s business elite. After spending some time in jail early in the game, it’s easy to see Miniopolis has a large slum-like section of town, called Urbania. Does Bigbucks plan on starting an urban renaissance? Will he invest in the university, the hospital or the local police station? These questions aren’t fully answered. The only thing the Urbz know is that Daddy Bigbucks wants to make money, making lots of money is wrong, and the people of Miniopolis don’t want any part of it.
From the start, I made it my goal to do everything in my power to rise in the ranks of Bigbucks’ empire. He would triumph in the end, I figured, and no way did I want to be caught in the path of an angry billionaire. What could I do to stop him? I’m just a lowly unemployed janitor. Apparently, the only free will available is in the comforts of home decor. Not once do you get the option of being a thug, a crook or a crony. Instead, when you leave your home for the streets, you’ll be forced into helping a bitter old woman in bringing down Bigbucks’ plan. Freewill is as trivial as where you would like to place your toilet.
Here’s one of many examples. After unlocking the third mission, Detective Dan asks you a favor. He wants you to play Moogoo Monkey, a card game within the game (one of eight minigames or “jobs”). After your first game, a suspicious man will approach you and ask you to go on a seedy treasure hunt for him. After you figure everything out, another man will give you a briefcase. He’ll tell you to take it to the first man. But Dan doesn’t want you to do this quite yet. When I tried to ignore Dan’s request, the second man would not take the briefcase. Dan has to insert a bug before the game allows you to finish the hand-off. Freeform gameplay? Would you like to live in this crummy apartment or that crummy apartment? Where would you like your refrigerator? Shower at home or at the gym?
While practically forced to uncover the very obvious “evil” plot in town, your Urb becomes constantly hindered by real-life hurdles that face every private detective; hurdles like a small bladder, constant hunger and a never ending need to sleep. These problems can stop important conversations, keeping your Urb from essential clues. Sadly, these annoying problems cause just that in the game: annoying problems. If Urbz was anywhere near real-life in its gameplay, people in bad need of a shower could still speak. I (and I’m sure many others) know several people in perpetual need of a good scrub-down who never know when to shut up! Rather than having poor hygiene detrimentally affect the relationships made throughout the game, only one option is handed out: take a shower and talk later.
Part of what made Urbz older brother, The Sims, interesting was freeform gameplay, not trivial lifestyle options. You could be as cruel or as kind as you wished. You created the world your sims lived in, the developer just set the world’s boundaries. Urbz: Sims in the City is, in itself, a misnomer. I hesitate to continue calling Urbz a life-simulation. There is little or no simulation, only linear role-playing in a lifelike world. All of the game’s secrets, minigames and shopping choices are but mere distractions from this reality.
Ultimately, the game becomes the antithesis to the American Dream. While Bigbucks represents the tragic and terrible extreme of a man gone mad in the race to the top, your Urb represents the opposite: a being whose life is predestined. Any hope for meritocracy comes in a rank-and-file package. At least with Tomagotchi, the actions (or inactions) of the gamer had appropriate consequences.