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Edge Staff

Can Paradox beat The Sims at its own game with Life By You?

Big in 2024 Life By You.

Once head of The Sims, Rod Humble seems set on belying his surname with his latest project. The pitch, after all, is essentially the world's most popular life sim, but bigger, broader, and more detailed. As Humble and senior designer Hannah Culver talk us through an extended demo, it feels of a piece with the series Humble left behind, but with a few crucial differences. Paradox is promising an open world with extensive customization and emergent storytelling, and on this evidence, Life By You has the potential to let players create deeper stories.

"As a game designer, one thing I enjoy so much is working with a game that clearly shouldn't have any victory conditions," Humble says. "There's a lovely Italian folk saying: at the end of the game, the queen and the pawn get back in the same box. There aren't any winners or losers in life. You just live a life, and life sims are a great equaliser."

A whole new world

(Image credit: Paradox Interactive)
(Image credit: Paradox Tectonic)

This feature originally appeared in Edge magazine. For more in-depth interviews, reviews, features, and more delivered to your door or digital device, subscribe to Edge magazine

Our demo puts us in the shoes of aspiring gardener-slash-fitness guru Ronnie. The first thing we see as they step outside is a colourful house that wouldn't look at all out of place in The Sims. But then the camera pans out to reveal a more recognizably Paradox world, with quasi-realistic trees, geography and ambient audio. It's a visual direction that's consistent with the publisher's signature style, but Humble says this aesthetic approach serves an important purpose. "I wanted a more grounded look," he says. "The tone I really wanted is just this sense of, 'Hey, I can really tell a relatable story', and our style isn't getting in the way of it or hanging over your head."

Humble doesn't mention The Sims directly, but the connection is easy to see. Sure, you can try to tell serious stories in The Sims, but when your character wakes up with cartoonish fumes emanating from their unwashed body and greets their loved one with "shalooba farken", or gibberish to that effect, that style sets distinct limits for the shape your story can take. You have to supply most of the emotional depth from your imagination.

Humble and Culver hope Life By You's stronger sense of realism will help players to create more meaningful, intimate experiences and explore sides of themselves they might not have the freedom to in their real lives. That desire guides everything from building mod support into the game's early-access release to enabling players to customize populations so that their cities look familiar and representative of their own lives.

"Making a life sim means bringing games to the most important thing in the world – our lives – and being able to help players tell stories that they can relate to, that are very personal, that they couldn't in any other medium," Humble says.

(Image credit: Paradox Interactive)

Those stories play out across dozens of everyday actions, including going to work. Most workplaces and leisure spots in The Sims exist as text-only locations in your imagination, or elaborate-looking buildings you can't enter – what players call 'rabbit holes'. Life By You has no rabbit holes: whether your character is buying groceries or going to work, you stay in control, guiding them through every ordinary moment and extraordinary decision alike. Following your character while shopping or going to work may sound mundane, but it's a significant departure from The Sims, where you can't control or influence them for long periods.

A suite of new interactions and activities opens up when Ronnie clocks in at the gym. They've got classes to teach, equipment to clean, colleagues to ignore, and business planning to sort – if they want to. While we suspect you eventually have to do your work tasks to remain employed, for now, Ronnie wanders around the fitness centre and chats with an amorous co-worker – an interaction that introduces Life By You's take on emergent storytelling, where contextual factors converge and result in unexpected outcomes. In this scenario, Ronnie picks a rude response while speaking to their colleague, but a combination of his personality traits and environmental triggers means that, rather than being hurt, he actually falls in love with Ronnie a little more. 

Culver says the goal was to recreate as faithfully as possible the space between chaos and structure that fuels real-life interactions – where you don't know if the person you greet might offer simple pleasantries or, prompted by circumstances you know nothing about, start sharing their life story. Humble built a fully functional 2D prototype of Life By You at the start of development in 2018 so the team could experiment with this kind of simulation, putting scenarios in the system and seeing how they turned out before tweaking them and adding even more.

The game of life

(Image credit: Paradox Interactive)

An unfazed Ronnie heads home for an extended lunch break, stopping outside their house to pick some flowers for an arrangement, which also levels up their gardening skill. The vase they pick is customizable, and the arrangement changes visually depending on which flowers or other greenery you use.

That's merely a fraction of the granular degree of control you're afforded. Should you have a penchant for, say, seashells, an expansive crafting system lets you create bespoke items from them by mashing them together with anything else that takes your fancy. And if you're having trouble locating shells – or any other item you might need more of – you can adjust the parameters for how and where they appear, their size and colour, and pretty much everything else about them. "We've taken a maximalist approach," Humble says. "We push as far as we can, until we hit some kind of hard technical or time limit."

"Making a life sim means bringing games to the most important thing in the world – our lives."

Rod Humble

It seems Humble's team hasn't hit that limit yet. Every item and person in Life By You features modifiable scripts like those shells. You can change your cat, your clothes or your neighbour's cat's clothes. You can adjust the size, colour and several other traits for any object you see, or create brand-new ones. You can even build your own expansion packs and share them with friends. While that might sound standard for anyone who's developed or downloaded custom content in The Sims, here you're using the same tools as the developers while building directly in the game itself. That removes any compatibility issues between mod and game, letting you pick what you want to change rather than downloading a custom pack in its entirety.

There are a few shortcomings and potential sticking points. Dialogue seems flat, and while there are no glaring performance issues in the small suburb we've seen, outside the context of a controlled demo there's no telling how the game's systems might buckle, particularly under the weight of player-authored elements. If it can fulfil its promise to present a virtual existence in greater depth and detail, though, Life By You could yet grow into the Sims beater its creators are so clearly shooting for.

This feature first appeared in Edge magazine. For more fantastic in-depth features and interviews like this, you can pick up single issues at Magazines Direct or subscribe to the magazine, in physical or digital form.

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