In 2000, a man named Will Wright built a small, flat garden, and he built houses of all shapes to decorate it and large swaths of land begging to be filled, and he made it green and wonderful, and he gave it music and language. He was its Creator, but he made me its God. He said, “Go play in my garden.” And, using His divine tools, I sculpted two Sims out of pixels so I could later watch them do WooHoo.
The world of the first Sims game, which debuted on February 4th, 2000, centered on a cul-de-sac, and so did its gameplay. Players were given a fantastical, customizable suburban world upon which they could graft their own stories of love, family and mischief. It was extraordinary and we loved it. We loved hiring the maid only to romance her, and we did not love when we were burgled in the night, but we loved summoning more money (rosebud, motherlode, ;!;!;!;!;!;!) and installing a heart-shaped hot tub in the sun room off the kitchen. We loved trapping our Sims in doorless sheds, and granting them the pool of their dreams only to remove the ladder while they were swimming.
And as they exhausted themselves to death — treading water hopelessly over the course of days — we listened to the dulcet melody of their full-throated pleas in the garbled, nonsense language of Simlish.
We listened to their lovemaking in Simlish, their anguish in Simlish, their cries of delight in Simlish. It’s the language forged by the game’s creators over 20 years ago that has underscored the Sims universe since. Forged, because Simlish was not only crafted to last, but crafted to be appreciated over time. Few jokes are able to trap the delights of audiences for 20 years, and fewer still live long enough to see themselves seamlessly integrated into TikTok.
Languages take generations to develop from crude verbal associations into patterns of communication and then into Nicaraguan Sign Language. For The Sims, it took about six months. The process, while shorter, was no less tedious.
A game-specific language was critical to Wright’s first plans for the Sims universe. Sims had to communicate with one another, and with the player, in a way that was recognizable. But Wright was adamant about severing Simlish from the world’s existing languages. The vocabulary had to be absolutely blank, so that players could distill their own imagined conversations between their characters. “From the very beginning, it was about serving gameplay,” remembers Robi Kauker, who has been the Sims’ audio director since the game’s inception. “He wanted the idea of emotions to resonate with people, but he didn’t want the Sims to say anything that were meaningful so not to mess with the characters’ storytelling.”
“The more abstract something is, the more you can insert yourself into it.”
Sims fan and game designer Mitu Khandaker puts it simply: “The more abstract something is, the more you can insert yourself into it. A face with two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth can be you, but the more detail you add, the more it begins to resemble somebody else.”
The early Simlish recording trials were frustrating. The team, comprised of Kauker, Wright, voice director Claire Curtin, sound designer Kent Jolly, and composer Jerry Martin, first attempted to use musical instruments — the Charlie Brown “womp womp” — but it “failed spectacularly,” according to Kauker. “We wanted the players to embrace their creations, and really nothing does that better than the human voice. In real life, when a baby cries, everyone in the room reacts, because we can’t help ourselves — it’s deeply part of us.”
So Stephen Kearin, a San Francisco-area improv actor, was invited into the studio and given sheets of written Ukrainian and Navajo, with the direction to pronounce it only as it looked on the page. A phrase like “Has anybody seen my dog?” would translate to a choked “Khtosʹ bachyv moyu sobaku?” But even disconnected from context or discernible meaning, Wright still found the words to be meaningless.
On Kearin’s first day in the booth, he was given a pidgin version of Swahili and Cherokee, but that method continued to fail and the overall mood was one of dejection. “It was a montage of people behind the glass smoking and cursing,” Kearin recalls. “Everybody was tearing their hair out, and I wasn’t giving them what they wanted.” Then: “There was a little lull, and everybody else had taken off their headphones, except for Curtin, who was facing me on the other side of the glass.”
Kearin turned to Curtin and asked if he could try an improv game called “Foreign Poet,” where the actor retells a poem in impassioned gibberish and the listener is asked to interpret it. “On a lark, because things couldn’t be going anywhere worse, she said sure.” Suddenly, Kearin began speaking in an unintelligible, gummy version of English. “We stopped after the first take, and I did it again, and again…”
“It was a montage of people behind the glass smoking and cursing.”
Then Kearin noticed a shift in the mood of the room. Wright was rapt, his hands pressing his headphones into his head. “They asked me, which is very emotional to me now: ‘Do you have a female counterpart?’ And I knew right then, it was Gerri Lawlor.” Lawlor, Kearin’s friend and collaborator, was also active in the San Francisco improv scene. On Kearin’s recommendation, they brought her in.
Kearin and Lawlor served as the Simlish actors for the first several iterations of the game, spanning about up until 2006. The two would remain in the booth for unbroken hours in chains of unbroken days, speaking gibberish to one another, playing off what the other just said by extending a syllable to see what happened, or switching out a melancholy “vitash” for a livelier one. And in the early days of the Sims, the two achieved moderate celebrity. At one point, the city of Budapest had extended an invitation for the two to appear in a parade, spouting Simlish from atop a float. Kearin now works as a TV and voice actor. Lawlor continued acting, and was an activist for San Francisco’s homeless population, up until her death in January 2019.
As the games approached a more perfect approximation of human society, and the Sims’ expressive possibilities began to kaleidoscope, Simlish expanded to underscore new and specific emotions to mirror the complexity of the gameplay. The activity “Brennan cooks” evolved into “Brennan cooks happily” or “Brennan cooks triumphantly.” Certain nouns in the Sims universe are now identified. Nooboo, for example, translates to the English “baby”, and can be used as a term of endearment, or to reference an infant or a crib. “Fliblia” refers to fire. “Sul-sul” is akin to “Aloha”, appropriate as a greeting or a farewell.
(English has also been “translated” into Simlish via the import of popular music into the Sims universe: I urge you to watch this brain-melting video of Katy Perry covering her chart-topping Last Friday Night in the language of Sims. It is incredible for its ability to conjure the sensation of all of my brain cells having exploded at once, rendering me incapable of understanding language at all. Kauker points out that the English-to-Simlish process is more of a transcription than a translation, as a song’s melody is re-crafted using the syllabary of Simlish.)
At Wellesley College, Dr. Angela Carpenter teaches the foundation of language creation, which she dices into roughly six blocks: phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, grammatical rules of verbs, and nouns and what they indicate. Simlish’s distinctive sounds, which Kauker likens to a Midwestern-Latin hybrid, comprise its phonetics and phonology. In terms of morphology, Simlish has more in common with baby talk than English. I love this quote from Cesar Aira’s “The Brick Wall”: “Small children lack linguistic or cultural frames to put around their perceptions. Reality enters them torrentially, without passing through the schematizing filters of words and concepts.” At some point, children begin to grasp a language with which to express their various earthly delights and grievances and requests for food, please. Before that, they manifest as blaars and gerps.
“They’re inventing a culture.”
The process of recording Simlish is more or less as follows: a cast member will be shown a particular animation, a word count, and a time, and the rest is up to the actor to fill in, until the result inspires just enough emotional response from a living, breathing human, while still essentially being meaningless gibberish. The game’s designers may then extend the audio or chop it up — “sul sul” is an example of a spliced phrase, rather than one that was spoken into the microphone — and enter it into the game. At which point, a world begins to bloom around it.
“Language exists in a culture, but at the same time, they’re inventing a culture,” says Dr. Carpenter. Japanese, for example, has specialized verb forms designed for politeness — there are three distinct words to indicate giving something to a superior, an inferior, or a peer — which both reinforces and informs a culture of deference. For speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre, an aboriginal Australian language, time is a concept that moves consistently from east to west, which could mean that the grocery store is later than the community college. Simlish, by contrast, is strung together with round, funny noises; emotional garbles; an uncannily human sound. It is the perfect soundtrack to a world that is absurdly comedic and tragic, and very touchingly human at times.
The first Sims gave us a fun, two-dimensional suburban fantasy. Your Sim meets and woos another Sim, they kiss 20 times to have a baby, that baby matures into an adolescent before your eyes, the clown painting in your house spawns an actual clown that inflicts depression on your family, so then you delete the clown painting, you can go on a beach vacation, and then you get bored and begin playing something else.
And then, in the intervening 20 years, the game’s world has arched uncannily closer to our very own. Now, in the Sims 4, you can hold down such careers as “freelance writer” or “social media influencer,” you can develop a form of alcohol dependency by way of suspicious “juices,” your dog can develop a life-threatening illness and require expensive surgery, you can go to college and make more money than your non-college-educated peers in the same career field.
Lyndsay Pearson, the general manager of the Sims and a veteran of each of the four core games, references Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a model for the series’ social design. The tip of Maslow’s hierarchy is self-actualization, which implies the possibility that our Sims will develop wants and needs separate from those their creator has intended for them.
It also implies the possibility that our Sims will indeed self-actualize and turn their little simulated backs on their progenitor gods. In this light, the fact that they have their own language, only partly understood by humans, is a terrifying weapon. Perhaps one day, our Sims will band together to dismantle our doorless boxes and our ladderless pools, and they will walk together into the techno-ether, bidding us one final sul-sul.