How WandaVision Captured the Secret Horror of The Sims

| March 5, 2021 |

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Photo: Marvel Studios/EA

This article contains spoilers for WANDAVISION.

WandaVision‘s stunning finale alters the landscape of the MCU by posing a series of questions that seemingly set-up Marvel Studios’ biggest post-Endgame plans. It’s could be years until we get definitive answers to all of those questions, but there’s little doubt that we’ll eventually look back on WandaVision as the bold experiment that laid the groundwork for whatever comes next.

Still, there’s a good chance that when people think back on WandaVision years from now, it won’t be the MCU elements of the show they remember most fondly. No, that honor will likely go to those weeks when WandaVision left us wondering “What is happening?” As we watched Wanda and Vision take refuge in their idealistic suburban nightmare, millions wondered how they got there and what it all meant. We were fascinated by the idea of this powerful creature somehow pulling the strings in a world which, on the surface, seemed to disown the very idea of harm. It’s an element of the series that rightfully helped WandaVision earn its reputation as one of the boldest and strangest series in recent years.

Yet, there is something familiar about the machinations of WandaVision‘s universe, and I’m not talking about the various sitcoms the series paid tribute to. No, I’m talking about the strange ways that best, most mysterious, and sometimes scariest elements of WandaVision reminded me of The Sims.

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Grief and Loss: The Origins of WandaVision and The Sims

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, video game designer Will Wright started making waves in the video game industry through his brand of “sim” titles that included SimCity and SimEarth. Much like how WandaVision‘s earliest episodes went against the MCU grain by dialing back on the action and spectacle, Wright’s early games abandoned the action-heavy focus of many video games at the time in favor of something stranger and more intimate.

The story goes that Wright started working on a prototype known as “Dollhouse” sometime in the early ’90s. What little we know about this prototype suggested that it was essentially designed to be spiritually similar to SimCity but would instead focus on building a house (or perhaps a series of homes) rather than an entire city. It seems that the earliest versions of the project largely focused on more mechanical architectural concepts.

However, the nature of Dollhouse reportedly changed when Wright lost his home to a devastating fire. Legend has it that as he began slowly rebuilding his home and filling it with new things, he thought more about how the value of a home was really less about its structure and the things inside and more about the people in it. As such, he rethought the Dollhouse concept and shifted the direction of the project towards a game that was as much about the people in a home rather than the house itself.

It’s been suggested that The Sims is designed as a parody of consumerism based on how much the happiness and “progress” of The Sims is tied to the many things they can buy, but that only seems to be a part of the equation. Much of what The Sims is trying to accomplish is actually reportedly based on psychological principles that Wright used to help better understand the designs of his digital people and the relationships the player would form with them.

For instance, Wright was initially inspired by the 1977 book A Pattern Language which was largely about architecture, but more broadly suggested that certain patterns and routines could help enhance a living space by creating a sense of familiarity and security. Another of Wright’s known early inspirations was the 1993 book Understanding Comics which argued, among other things, that part of the reason why comics connected with so many people was due, in part, to their nonlinear stories, use of iconic imagery over pure realism, familiar characters, and use of abstraction. Combined, these concepts helped shaped the way that sims’ moods were shaped by their surroundings, sense of belonging, and stability.

In many ways, Wright’s inspirations feel like the playbook for Wanda’s own designs as well as Marvel Studio’s design of the WandaVision series.

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The Idealistic Patterns of Westview

It’s hard to ignore the ways that WandaVision parallels The Sims from both a meta and storytelling standpoint. Much like Will Wright, Wanda’s “inspirations” for the creation of Westview were her feelings of loss specifically triggered by the empty lot that should have been her home. In the same way that Wright eventually expanded his project to go beyond just the creation of structures, though, Wanda didn’t stop at crafting a house she and Vision could live in. Her experiences and her losses taught her that a home needed so much more than that.

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When Wanda crafted the existence of at least her subconscious dreams, look at what she emphasized. She turned back to the iconic imagery of her own childhood and imagery instantly familiar to many who grew up on the idea of the idealistic suburban environment. It was partially a commentary on the absurdity of those concepts, but in that commentary was something very genuine about what those ideas and images mean to us on a much more profound level.

Like Wight’s architectural visions for his universe, Wanda’s also relied on patterns. The citizens of Westview were often relegated to routines that were sometimes as simple as endlessly hanging the laundry, but more often relied on maintaining the same basic role even as the decades seemingly went by. Even Wanda’s high-end furniture and other belongings remained largely the same even as the styles changed slightly over time.

In the sense that some of The Sims most “gamified” elements can be attributed to the idea of achieving certain live goals, there is a sense that Wanda felt, on some level, that she was offering the security, the familiarity, and the comforts that so many of us crave deep inside. Psychologically, she likely didn’t see it as torture or captivity so much as the chance to live somewhere where you could feel safe and welcome.

Much like Wight, Wanda is clearly fascinated with how those outside of Westview interact with her creations as well as how those within it interact with her and each other. In Wanda’s case, though, there is a sense that what she’s really striving for isn’t really an organic environment of social interactions but rather a form of controlled chaos. In the same way that Wight and what became The Sims‘ programming team struggled to constrain such dynamic A.I. (two female sims unintentionally kissed during an early preview video, which sparked a minor controversy at the time), Wanda’s attempts at adding and embracing more variables within Westview often proved that what she created couldn’t (and perhaps shouldn’t) be contained.

In the cases of Wanda, Agatha, and the average Sims player, though, it’s what happens when our psychology bleeds into the simulation that makes the whole thing so interesting and sometimes horrifying.

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Pulling Ladders From Swimming Pools and Killing Sparky

In a study conducted by researchers from Lakehead University, Canada, it was discovered that Sims players with certain aggressive and even psychopathic traits would be more likely to behave more violently towards the sims their character interacted with. It’s believed that some of this behavior can be attributed to the belief that non-aggressiveness is somehow a sign of weakness.

It’s not just those with psychopathic tendencies who display such behavior, though. The internet is filled with stories of Sims players from all walks of life who have, at one point, tortured their creations. From stories of “painting goblins” whose sole job is to secretly supply the wealth of the family living above them to tales of starvation and electrocution, it seems many Sims players have, at one point, created chaos simply to see what happens.

It’s an idea best summarized by the classic idea of pulling the ladder out of a swimming pool. In the early versions of The Sims, you could get all of your characters in a swimming pool, delete the ladder in the pool, and watch as they slowly died due to a presumed total lack of upper body strength. It was a simple exploit many players discovered in their own ways, and, in the words of Sims producer Ryan Vaughan, it in some ways came to represent the greater idea of “giving players the ability to tell the stories they want to tell.” Indeed, many players will tell you that their interest in the idea of killing and torturing sims is more about their fascination to see what is possible and what will happen when you play outside of the “rules” of the game.

Few characters in WandaVision embody that idea as clearly as Agatha Harkness. As someone who willfully entered Westview from the outside, she’s long been interested in poking and prodding at the edges of this incredible scenario she can hardly believe. Some of it was part of her grand design, but some of her actions were seemingly done just to watch what happened next.

The killing of Sparky the dog is probably the “highlight” of both pursuits. On some level, Sparky’s death did further Agatha’s study of Wanda, but there’s also a very real sense that it was done to see how the environment would react to such an event. Was this a place that would simply reset such a tragedy, or would it be possible to introduce death and loss to such an idealistic world? If you pull the ladder out of the pool, can the sims in the water escape?

Yet, there is certainly something to be said for how Wanda’s own creations and actions embody the most horrific elements of The Sims not by trying to break patterns but by enforcing them.

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Wanda and Sims Players: The Architects of Horror

Wanda modified the residents of Westview to conform to her vision. You can’t even bring in objects from the outside world without having them pass through a version of her filter. It’s eerily similar to the way that we create sims, homes, and entire neighborhoods in The Sims games.

In the rare situation when someone behaves outside of Wanda’s plans, she’ll exile them, correct them, or simply reset the scenario. As Vision observes during the show’s most horrifying moments, the spell that these people are under goes against their still very much alive nature to be free. Some can only silently cry as they go about their rigidly enforced routines.

While there is something undeniably cruel about torturing sims, perhaps there is another kind of cruelty in the idea that we can control them and make them rigid players in our own fantasies and visions. The Sims‘ advanced AI was designed to allow them a degree of freedom. Indeed, part of the fun of the experience should come from watching how they go about their lives when we’re not manipulating their every move.

Yet, Wanda was, at times, the kind of Sims player that has to make sure everyone is behaving correctly, optimally, and in-line with their idealistic escapism at all times. To that end, it’s hard to deny that part of the appeal of The Sims is the ability to answer the question “What if it was all in your control?” What if you could build the perfect house, get that dream job, and have control over the relationships in your life? While it was a game designed partially to showcase the value of life and how we balance human concepts against the motivations of consumerism, it’s difficult to say thatThe Sims was ever meant to be a game where every player was expected to “win” by creating the ideal and optimized life in the same way that SimCity would tangibly reward players in their pursuit of a Megalopolis.

If Will Wright could have exercised that kind of control over his own life, he would have almost certainly kept his house from burning down and we would have all benefited less from the grander ideas he came to be fascinated by as a result of that event. Wanda also couldn’t quite prevent the tragedies in her own life, but she did have the power to make everything at least appear “as it should be” rather than live with the pain of forging ahead in a world of chaos.

Though there is a kind of beauty and nobleness to her efforts, as we’ve seen throughout WandaVision and the history of The Sims, there is also a hidden horror in the idea that you have control over beings capable of playing out their own lives and that any deviation from that control is something that must somehow be corrected.

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