♪ Harva sol labaga along with hava so lawnumg ♪
Before there was Animal Crossing and Minecraft, there was The Sims. The much-loved life simulation game, which turned 20 this week, was the soundtrack to many millennial childhoods, a digital doll’s house populated by tiny virtual people and seemingly endless possibilities (not to mention expansion packs – lots of expansion packs). The game itself will recall fond memories of crowding anxiously around a bulky 90s Dell computer, waiting for the CD-ROM to install, and one of the reasons it’s become so well-remembered is its soundtrack, an inconspicuous lounge-jazz masterpiece that reflected the low-stakes optimism that made The Sims such a joy to play.
At its heart is Jerry Martin, an audio director at video game developer Maxis, who was approached by the game’s director Will Wright to head the project. Martin had already built the soundtracks for the likes of SimCity3000 and SimCopter, but The Sims was a very different type of game, and one didn’t have an established soundtrack style. Life simulators were still a relatively new concept in the early 2000s, and their soundtracks even more so. “The board looked at The Sims and said, ‘What is this? He wants to do an interactive doll house? The guy is out of his mind,’” recalled Wright in a 2006 interview with The New Yorker.
Jerry Martin, Doobie Brothers saxophonist Marc Russo, and jazz pianist John R Burr were the core trio behind the first game’s soundtrack (subsequent entries in the series would bring in new artists). Much of their music together is characterised by long, improvised piano arcs and the sort of freeform mood jazz typical to the Bay Area, where Maxis was located: non-distracting, wallflower instrumental tracks made for sunny city-dwellers on long car rides – the sort of music that can afford to meander its way down scales, and back up again.
As The Sims grew to become one of the most successful gaming franchises in history, its soundtrack became more glitzy and A-list, too. On The Sims 3, My Chemical Romance, Kelly Rowland, and Flo Rida were among the artists to cover songs in the game’s unique Simlish language, while The Sims 4 was picked up by British neoclassical composer Ilan Eshkeri, whose orchestra-recorded scores upped the game to an entirely new, theatrical level. And lest we forget Katy Perry’s Simlish edition of “Last Friday Night”.
Below, we’ve selected eight of the biggest bangers across all four Sims editions. Or, to put it in Simlish, poof es eight tracks depwa should grouw to now.
MARC RUSSO, “NEIGHBORHOOD” (THE SIMS)
Taking you back to a time where life’s possibilities were only a ‘motherload’ or ‘rosebud’ away, this track from the original The Sims soundtrack is enough to conjure images of low-stakes days spent mulling over which kitchen counter to install in your detached, four-storey mansion, or whether to place the DJ booth in the front garden or by the pool. Regardless, this peppy track – characterised by its bouncy, subtly percussive refrain – reflects the game’s bourgeois, aspirational outlook, and makes you feel like anything’s possible. Life points, increasing.
JERRY MARTIN, “BUYING LUMBER” (THE SIMS)
While it’s particularly amusing to imagine Martin sweating over his piano for the perfect tune to buy lumber to, this track from the original The Sims is a wistful post-classical improv, stretching across five minutes. There’s an acute, sliding sadness to the song, exemplified in the juxtaposition of minor-key piano chords and jazz progressions, and evokes the same contemplative emotions you feel when watching an open fire.
MARC RUSSO, “BoSIM Nova” (THE SIMS)
When Jerry Martin was handed the initial The Sims project at Maxis, he had complete creative control, except for one thing: Will Wright, the game’s director, really liked bossa nova, and wanted it incorporated into the game. Besides the punny name, “BoSIM Nova” is gloriously cool, and evokes long, carefree days coasting down Redwood’s sunny bay area, with its whistle-led refrain undercut by some airy “badeehe badabadeo” vocals – there’s also an excellent piano solo courtesy of John Burr.
KIRK CASEY, “SIM NIGHTS” (THE SIMS)
Taken from the original soundtrack, this song by composer Kirk Casey is packed with optimism and romance, evoking the laid-back sounds of the American ‘cool jazz’ scene. In it, the syncopated acoustic guitar plucks are punctuated with a meandering saxophone that persists nearly all throughout the track’s five minutes, only giving way briefly to a slinky keyboard solo.
JERRY MARTIN, “MALL RAT” (THE SIMS)
With over a million streams on Spotify, “Mall Rat” is clearly a fan favourite within the Simscape. It starts with plucking violin strings that potter their way up and down the scale, before giving way to a call-and-response refrain not too dissimilar to the classic tunes typical of Japanese video games in the 90s. It’s also one of the most ‘video game-y’ tracks on the original game, with its eastern melodies and sweeping chord progressions.
JERRY MARTIN, “SIMTRICITY” (THE SIMS: HOUSE PARTY)
I never thought I’d hear the amen break in The Sims, but here we are. Taken from The Sims: House Party expansion pack, “Simtricity” sounds like dance music as imagined by someone who’s never really immersed themselves in dance music. It’s an amped-up house track with all the techno-futurism of a 90s anime score, and weirdly, some elevator-jazz synths. I imagine this to exist in the Simlish equivalent of Bangface, yet its soft pads also resemble the floaty sounds of Soichi Terada. I’m confused, but happy.
MARK MOTHERSBAUGH, “FIRST VOLLEY” (THE SIMS 2)
For its first sequel, The Sims enlisted Mark Mothersbaugh – an experimental musician and member of legendary new wave band Devo who’d go on to have a hugely successful career as a Hollywood composer – to build the soundtrack. Like Mothersbaugh’s quirky scores for Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tennenbaums and Rushmore, The Sims 2 soundtrack has an off-kilter charm, effortlessly mixing the acoustic elements of the original (playful pizzicato and frenetic string bass) with electronic elements (synths and drum machines). “First Volley” is a brilliantly absurd track: a hodgepodge of gnarly surf music, jazz, and funk, with a twinkling harpsichord that reminds me of the sort of music you’d hear on a merry-go-round.
ILAN ESHKERI, “IN THE AIR” (THE SIMS 4)
A collaboration between British neoclassical composer Ilan Eshkeri (Young Victoria, KickAss) and the London Metropolitan Orchestra, The Sims 4 soundtrack is perhaps the most cohesive of the bunch, with each of its individual tracks harking back to an overarching theme. On “In the Air”, Eshkeri’s experience as a composer on films comes across the most, with its theatrical string arrangements and a cheeky wind section.