(Written partly in response to fondue's review. I hope he does not use his connections with the EDB to get even for this....)
The Sims are, certainly. a special, gut-wrenching flavor of awful. You build a house, then create little polygonal people to live in that house. You can either let them live their own lives, or micromanage their daily existence... and left to their own devices, they do a pretty bad job. These unintelligent shape collages, who speak in a primitive symbol language, fill their empty lives by choosing from between several mostly identical career tracks in an attempt to earn more and more money, which allows them to litter their home with a wider variety of junk. In some ways, The Sims resembles a roleplaying game without any of that boring combat and magic, one in which the characters spend their entire lives in the Outfitters' Shop.
Yes, these are things wrong with The Sims. It is easy to look at it and say "Wow, look at all these things it does wrong!" And indeed, it is often instructive to do so. How could they have made a game with such obvious flaws?
The answer, of course, is that they were not obvious when the game was in development, because no one has really tried anything like it previously.
Little Computer People? Yes, a brilliant design, but it was more like a virtual pet (predating Tamagotchi by at least a decade) than this.
The Sims is notable for being an open-ended game in an era in which players expect every game to be "winnable." For giving people very entertaining and different play objectives in which there are no absolute, right answers. (How many games present players with the task of making a room look nice?) For offering extreme expandability through the introduction of entirely new classes of items, downloadable over the Internet. For presenting players with real-life situations, problems, and even lifestyles, and thus becoming, in some tiny way, an agent for social change. (Some of these elements, such as homosexuality, it is granted have no basis in the software whatsoever. But it is a strength of The Sims that the game is open to interpretation.) But most importantly, The Sims is different. Different from whatever came before.
The computer game industry is a strange one. I am of the too-considered opinion that it is possible to make any concept, activity, profession, hobby, indeed anything that can be imagined, into an interesting, playable computer game. The approach necessary to do so for some things may not ever be discernable to a human being, but it is still possible. This is a medium with such rich potential, so many possibilities. But the industry has entered a long, dark period, when people actually consider "innovation" to merely be the introduction of new weapons into what is basically DOOM with better graphics, or better scripting, or better level design tools, or new types of deathmatch play. This is so for a number of reasons, has been so for quite some time, and maybe will always be so, to some extent. But at this time, it has gotten to the point where new, interesting, wonderful in the literal sense of the world, different games can't even get made anymore in the industry's stilted, me-too, marketing-driven atmosphere. From reading interviews with designer Will Wright, it seems a miracle that The Sims even got made. Even Maxis, the people who published SimCity, were standoffish.
There are certainly flaws in The Sims. Maybe some of these will be addressed in a later iteration of the software. However, even if The Sims was the worst piece of software ever produced, it would still have a place in my heart, for daring to being different. I do not often agree with the opinions of the mainstream gaming press, but on this point, I believe Gamespot was right on the money.
The Great Trash Heap has spoken! Nyaah!
(Response to fondue)
Yes, it's different. It's so much better than all those Japanese lifesims in two important respects:
A. It doesn't make you feel vaguely icky, or at least, not in the same way. Girlfriend simulators, indeed.
B. Because it *is* open-ended, and isn't so focused. There's no pre-existing story in The Sims. The game isn't some experience preconceived by the developer that the player is forced to run through, no matter how many "endings" Princess Maker 2 might have. The game itself doesn't pass judgements on the player at all. It doesn't tell him what is happening so much as show.
Each Sim is not terribly complex. There is really not a whole lot happening under the surface for these guys. The strength of the game is that it's just specific enough to be playable while being sufficiently vague that the player can read his own motivations into their behavior.
A lot of The Sims is smoke and mirrors. This is, in fact, very hard to do compellingly.
As for being different not being enough... when it comes right down to it, it's all there is, and is astoundingly difficult to do. Take it from me.