Feeding her blackberries and acorns was the means of gaining Melissa the hedgehog’s trust. She looked funny laying back on her haunches, chewing nervously with her little belly sticking out. Hedgehogs are, if you weren’t aware, rather shy little creatures. So, after offering her a friendly pat, I endeavored to introduce her to another of my animal friends, a beaver named Alan. Despite her self-consciousness, the two hit it off surprisingly well. Thus, I decided to introduce timid Melissa to another friend that she was a bit more fearful of, a dog named Slobbers. Once again, Melissa surprisingly warmed up right away to this slightly more intimidating presence. Celebrating her success, I was a bit startled by the sudden arrival of another dog named Miss Priss. Miss Priss immediately devoured Melissa.

So goes the circle of life, and the fragile existence of timid little creatures like Melissa. It makes me sad, but it is only so tragic because watching it it feels so true.

The preceding story is a true account of a little melodrama that I both witnessed and (I suppose) participated in while playing a session of SimAnimals. For me, it is these profound and often surprising moments of emergent narrative that mark the greatest experiences in playing any of the various games in The Sims franchise.

What simulations like this one often produce is such unscripted “stories” generated as a result of observing the interactions created by the various scripted behaviors of artificial intelligences. Thus, witnessing Melissa’s brief virtual life and death was as compelling as it was accidental. If you didn’t find the story all that compelling, well, of course, you didn’t experience it. Of course, you likely never will, since my SimAnimals experience will differ from yours almost necessarily. Such is the fate of the emergent narrative, occasionally profound, often brief, and, because it is a result of nonlinear programming as opposed to narrative scripting, almost always a story told once. Of course, if you have played around with emergent narratives yourself, you probably know a few stories of your own that will never be told again either.

Giving the animals human names like “Melissa” and Alan” perhaps adds a layer of human drama to such potential stories that the more simplistic scripted behaviors of the animals might otherwise lack. Since SimAnimals simulates a non-human world (unlike other games in the Sims series), it may be difficult for the player to directly relate to the emergent narratives unfolding in front of him or her. However, Melissa’s story, for instance, takes shape for the player by identifying her as something metaphorically like a timid human due to this appellation, which resembles (or marks her as) something recognizably human. Ironically then, this simulation of animal behavior may further the franchise’s interests in simulating human behavior.

However, those familiar with the Sims series may find that the experience of managing virtual lives is notably different in this game than in other games in the series. The simulation resembles something more like the gameplay of Viva Pinata than a traditional Sims game. It would seem like many of the gameplay choices are driven by the need to manage not only the animals’ lives but their environment in a more significant way than, perhaps, a Sims game requires. Since the environments surrounding your creatures influence their experiences (okay, that in and of itself may sound similar to the need to build or shop for human sims) but are also living, growing spaces given to scripted “behaviors,” the game layers an additional element of the caretaking of living things — not just the fauna but the flora, too.

Like Viva Pinata, then, SimAnimals is as much a gardening simulator as it is a simulator of the physical and social behaviors of living things. Caring for the plant life to make sure that the animals can survive becomes a dominant priority over the negotiation of the social elements of the animals that you collect and maintain. In some ways this may make the game a more compelling simulation for the hardcore gaming crowd accustomed to maintaining businesses or armies in resource management games. However (and, again, a bit like Viva Pinata), this interest is packaged in an unusual way for such a hardcore audience with its packaging of adorable animals with amusing animations layered on top of a somewhat demanding gameplay system.

The packaging of the simulation is a bit hit and miss here as well. The game seems uncertain about whether it intends to be cute and cuddly or map to this more realistic model of the animal kingdom. The animations for the animals can be cute, but rather than adopting fanciful images of animals, the graphics seem to lean more in favor of somewhat more photographic realism. It also lacks the true eye candy of that other garden simulator.

Both Viva Pinata‘s charm and its reward for a fairly difficult style of gameplay (managing an entire ecosystem that requires your intervention so that it doesn’t die or become fallow) is the blissfully engaging and amusing “romance dances” that come with successful mating of new species. SimAnimals eschews any such pleasurable visual rewards for success. Medals are granted the player as he or she succeeds at various assigned tasks concerning a species (growing desirable fruitbearing plants for them, mating two members of the same species, getting two antagonistic species to get along, etc.), but these medals lack the whimsy that Viva Pinata emphasizes, perhaps, as an acknowledgment to its potentially younger audience or a female constituency perceived to desire such “cuteness” as a visual reward.

As a result, while I liked the gameplay well enough for awhile, and I enjoyed some of its visual stimulation and potentially interesting emerging narratives, I could not figure out quite who the game’s audience was intended to be. Is this a children’s game? If so, why isn’t it cuter? Why is it so challenging in some spots? Is this a hardcore gamer’s game? If so, why is it so cute? Why aren’t there more deeply complicated goals?

In either case, though, being rewarded with some visual expression that was a bit more fun or a bit more awe-inspiring (nature does have the possibility of evoking that kind of response, too) seemed needed in what otherwise sometimes became a very mundane set of management routines.

RATING 6 / 10