Fantasy in Simulation

I enjoy playing the Harvest Moon games. Yeah, go on, laugh it up. Poke fun at the guy who likes the farming simulator. “What’s next, are you gonna play that farm game on Facebook all day? Maybe you’d like to play a mobile game about working at a fast-food restaurant.” While I can’t explain what it is, there’s just something about the world of Harvest Moon that keeps me engaged. Even when a storm knocks out half of my crops and I have to work in the mines for extra cash, there’s a degree of relaxation to playing a sim that you can’t get playing a high-intensity action/adventure game.

And trust me, I’m not the only one. Ever heard of The Sims? It may not only be about farming, but if watching my wife play is any indication, then there’s a whole lot of people in the world who like an entire video game about architecture and home decorating. Then there’s Animal Crossing, where you dig for fossils, catch bugs, and play hide-and-seek with the feathers of a particularly eccentric peacock. While the self-perceived “hardcore gamer” may laugh at the noobs and their casual simulation games, there’s no denying that the genre certainly has a fanbase in the industry.

But there’s one teensy little thing about simulation games that I find a bit odd. In a game that’s supposed to be emulating real life – an entire genre that’s supposed to be emulating real life – there’s always a degree of fantasy thrown in.

It doesn’t take long to see. In Animal Crossing, you’re the only human person – all the other residents of your town are anthropomorphic creatures. In Harvest Moon, you’ve got sprites, dwarves, magical goddesses who have to be brought back to life with musical notes that mysteriously appear when you put out your campfire; even in the most realistic Harvest Moon games you’ll find a tinge of the fantastical. Even in The Sims, the ultimate game about real life, you can use expansion packs to add spacecraft, magicians, werewolves, and dragons to your otherwise normal human life.

So what gives? If you’re going to play a fantasy game, why not play Star Fox or The Legend of Zelda? If you’re going to play a simulation game, why throw the supernatural into the mix?

These questions are interesting to me not only because of the fantasy elements in games like Harvest Moon, but also because there are entire titles built on this blend. If you’ve ever played a Rune Factory game, you know what I mean. These games take the classic farming sim elements of Harvest Moon and throw in the curveball of a classic JRPG storyline and some basic monster-fighting elements. Or there’s Fantasy Life, a simulation game where in addition to being a tailor, chef, or miner, you can be a knight, archer, or wizard. It’s a simulation game, yes, but for a fantastic world where swords and sorcery are just as real as farming and fishing.

My only problem with these games is that it seems like when a game tries to be too many things at once, it ends up being dissatisfying on all of its points. Take Rune Factory for example. The title I played was Rune Factory 4, and I found that compared to Harvest Moon, the farming aspect was not as nuanced and detailed, and the social aspect was buggy and eclectic. When it came to story and combat, the story felt rather forced, and the combat was so bare-bones that it became a button-mashing spree with little thought or technique involved. After playing through two of the three story campaigns this game had to offer, I found myself thinking that I would be better off playing Harvest Moon when I felt like farming and then an action game like Zelda or an RPG like Dragon Quest when I wanted a deeper story line and combat.

Perhaps the key to a good simulation game is just the right dose of the fantastic. Just enough that it adds a degree of magic to the world to keep you interested, without adding the stress of having to deal with monster invasions or play to a set storyline. After all, simulation is about relaxing and enjoying the game world at your own pace. As long as the magical elements don’t interfere with that very basic facet of the genre, they should only add to the game.

What do you think, readers? Does the fantastic add to or detract from the simulation genre? What sims do you enjoy and what, if anything, would you change about them? Discuss it in the comments and together we’ll dissect the good and the bad in this notoriously “casual” genre.

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