I'm not sure anything has ever made as much sense to me as the fact that Rod Humble—studio head of Life By You maker Paradox Tectonic—used to work high-up on both The Sims and Second Life. Watching the game in motion in a demo at this year's Gamescom, how could it be otherwise? The game looks like a strange, ungainly, but undeniably intriguing mixture of both: Part life sim, part modders' toolkit, part chaos generation engine.
Where The Sims has been polished to a (relative) mirror sheen over the course of four main games, two decades of development, and a number of expansions only rivalled by, well, Paradox games, Life By You is an ambitious and slightly ramshackle-looking thing. At times, it threatens to spill over into calamity as the game's wheels begin to pull clear of the tracks, but gosh, doesn't that have an allure all its own?
Life by you, really
Watching Paradox director of marketing King Choi take me through a day in the life of yoga instructor Ronnie Maisonet, I almost feel like I'm witnessing a demo for a storytelling toolkit rather than a game in the vein of The Sims.
Everything is set up for players to dig their hands in and start mucking around. Right from the jump, Ronnie's character is freely and seemingly constantly editable. You can reach in whenever you want and start rearranging the building blocks. New genders and sexualities are a checkbox away, with more to come down the line as Paradox works with consultancies to ensure the full spectrum of human experience is represented.
That philosophy extends outwards from there. A chat at work with Ronnie's colleague, which takes place in English rather than some kind of pidgin-Simlish, can likewise be edited just by tapping a pencil icon next to each dialogue choice. After deciding (bravely) to create a toxic environment at work and choosing to aggravate his coworker, Choi is presented with a few different speech options to pick from.
Each of them should have the same effect—annoying Ronnie's colleague—but they're all a different flavour of mean. Don't like them? Write your own. It doesn't sound like Life By You will adapt on the fly to what you write, but it's all part and parcel of the game's principle of letting players mess with its fundamentals. This is a game that throws up an editable colour hex code whenever you pick a new thing to build and where you can throw pretty much any item into an object editor to start tinkering with its properties. The Second Life spirit bleeds through. It really wants you to get in there and make its simulation your own.
I should also mention that, for reasons no one in the demo could fathom, this entire conversation happened under the watchful eye of a random, bedraggled onlooker who spent the entire time standing unblinking behind Ronnie's shoulder. I got the impression this hadn't happened to Choi before, but also that things just like it occurred with alarming regularity. Frankly, I find it charming.
That doesn't mean the whole game is relying on you to make it move, mind you. During my demo, Choi talked up Life By You's "emergent gameplay" engine, the network of connections underpinning the game's interactions that makes for all sorts of wacky happenstance and strange stories. Choi told me the game is trying to take the context of events into account as much as possible, meaning the exact same action or dialogue choice could have different outcomes depending on their who, what, where and why.
By way of example, he described giving a similar demo in which he once again decided to try to pick a fight with a coworker. In that instance, though, his character and their coworker had a few flirtatious interactions while he wasn't looking. That pre-existing relationship, combined with the unique assemblage of personal traits that coworker had, meant that when he tried to say something mean to them they just took it as playful ribbing. Their affection meter climbed, the flirtatious relationship deepened, and Choi was left slightly bemused by what he'd just witnessed.
Consider me very curious to see how that plays out when the game hits stores. Life By You seems intensely detail-oriented. Discarded clothes pile up on the floor when characters take them off, and when Ronnie took a moment on the way home from work to pick the flowers outside her door, she was later able to arrange them—those specific flowers—into a vase on her kitchen counter. When I asked about it, it sounded like Life By You is churning with variables like that (many of which you can get in and flick around yourself), and I'm frankly intrigued by the potential number of things for its context-sensitive systems to take into account.
I'm a bit worried too, though. Life By You already looks a bit like a Second Life mod that broke free of containment, and I wonder if it might break down beneath the weight of all that emergent ambition. Or even the reverse: Perhaps all that extraneous detail never really plays into the proceedings of your average game, leaving it feeling like a missed opportunity. But Choi told me Paradox is working very closely with the modding community to make sure it has everything it needs to turn the game inside out when it finally hits early access—where it'll likely stay for around a year, says Choi—on March 5, 2024. If those details don't matter then, it's only a matter of time until they do.