Hello, readers! I have a birthday present for you.
Now, I know that's not how this is supposed to work. I turned 32 on Monday and tradition dictates that I receive presents. (I did get some good ones -- from family and boss -- but that's a tale for a subsequent post.) But you know me -- since when have I lived by the whims of tradition?
Case in point: 32 is a power of two; in binary, it's 0x100000. A neat digital milestone for a digital era. And yet my gift to myself for my bithday weekend was to drive out to a nearby mountain and hurtle myself up a very analog hiking path. (Also a tale for the subsequent post.)
So: Birthday present. As you could probably guess from the post title, I got you a gaming story. As befits the digital milestone, it's a story about a computer game. I know this is not usually an auspicious start to a story*, but considering that the mere mention of the Crater Lake Mansion of Death I built circa 2002 has already spawned three earnest requests for the tale, apparently I'm onto something here.
* * *
The Crater Lake Mansion of Death began when I tried to dig a basement.
Our tale is set inside the digital suburbs of The Sims -- which is less a computer game and more a way to replace your daily life with an idealized digital equivalent. You are given a set of house building tools, and then a few manipulation options for the little avatars that inhabit the house you create. As Yahtzee observes with his trademark snark, the limited range of activities basically allows for two styles of play: a simulation of exactly the life you're trying to escape via playing computer games in the first place, or creative breakage.
Every Sims player goes through a phase of creative breakage. 99 percent of the time, this comes out in vicarious sadism (as typified by walling up your Sim avatar in a meter-square room and waiting for them to soil themselves and starve to death). But I had bigger aspirations. I didn't want to break the avatar. I wanted to break the game.
Sims houses (at least in Sims 1) had a fairly impressive range of building options, but programming choices and/or CPU-power limitations forced some arbitrary, hard-and-fast rules. You could have a one-story house or a two-story house, but never more. The only available stairs were straight, single-flight sets; no landings, curves or spiral staircases. And there was no option for a basement -- only building upward to a second floor.
"No basement? Well then," I said, "I'll figure out a way."
After discarding a few unworkable ideas, I started trying the only thing that would give me a "down" staircase: build up the dirt surrounding the house until people could enter directly to the "second" floor, and then use the "first" floor as the subterranean level. I first tried this with my main character David's residence, but the terraforming options (raise/lower land) stop at the property line and the outside edge of the land has to remain flush with the original ground level. There's an internal game limit on the slope of hills, and I didn't have much approach room in the yard, so I was unable to add enough dirt to bury the first story.
"Alright!" I said. "A challenge!"
I created other families in the neighborhood for David to schmooze with -- because in The Sims, for some ungodly reason that is simultaneously realistic and blisteringly cynical, your job promotions are determined by the number of neighbors who like your avatar. David spent a while working and climbing the ranks, accumulating more and more cash, and finally bought the expensive mansion at the edge of town -- the house with the largest plot, something like an acre in size. Now there would be no space constraints stopping my land-raising plan!
But buying the house ran David out of money again, and terraforming costs money. I was getting fed up with the tedium of fast-forwarding through the game just to wait for the paycheck that would let me add another tractor-load of dirt to the property. Clearly I needed a more efficient way of constructing his underground secret lair.**
Then the solution hit me.
And the first step into Dante's Simferno began.
When you create a new Sim family, they start with a bankroll of cash big enough to purchase a tiny house -- if memory serves, $20,000 Simoleons per family. Sims can't simply transfer money back and forth, so there was no direct way to cheat by having random strangers show up and give David money. However ... terraforming costs money without adding value to the property. If I could simply find a way to move new Sims into the mansion, I could have them sink all their bankroll into dumping dirt on the hill, move them out again when they were broke, and repeat the process until the hill was built, since the property value wouldn't change. Endless cash without once having to deal with their tedious daily lives!
The mansion itself cost way beyond a starting Sim's bankroll. But the price of moving in was largely determined by the cost of the house materials plus the cost of its furnishings; lot size was only a minor factor. So! David tore the house down, mercilessly eradicating every shred of building and landscaping, until it was nothing but an enormous, flat dirt lot with a single tiny outhouse in the center. He promptly sold the worthless dirt field and moved back into his original house, and I checked prices on the mansion lot: Move-in cost, $9600.
So several eccentric, reclusive Sims moved in, poured dirt onto the property and immediately moved out broke. And I grew bored with the process again. Now, remember how I said 99 percent of players' Sims-breakage comes in the form of gratuitous avatar sadism, generally by walling them up in a tiny room until starvation kills them? Everybody goes through that phase. Everybody. You can't look at a sandbox game like that without wondering what happens when a Sim dies.
I was no exception. As I grew bored with the old move-in/terraform/move-out, I finally succumbed to temptation and walled in a Sim to starve to death. They whimpered and turned in circles and tried to sleep standing up and soiled themselves and finally keeled over. The game chastised me with a strongly worded notification ... and dropped a tombstone where the Sim had been. I blinked, had someone new buy the lot, and walked over to the tiny death room: the tombstone was still there. I checked the building components menu: No tombstone was listed. I could sell the tombstone for a few Simoleons, but there was no way to buy them. The tombstone was a permanent yard decoration, but the only way to get one was to fall down the path of sadism and kill a Sim.
I spent all of the new guy's money on terraforming (raising the back side of the lot, away from the tombstone), and decided for kicks to wall him into a room too. I absent-mindedly set the game time on fast-forward, shuffled some papers around, and glanced up at the screen two Sim-nights later. Blinked, and lunged for the space bar to freeze it.
There was something walking around on the property.
With the game paused, it quickly became clear: The previous occupant had returned as a ghost! (In newer Sims, ghosts are apparently a little more random; in the first one, they were an easter egg tied to having that person's gravestone on your property.) She wandered around a little, scared the crap out of the current resident, and disappeared at dawn.
And suddenly, it all fell together ...
I wasn't just going to build a basement. I was also going to build a charnel house.
I was already planning to move at least 30 families through the property in the span of a few game-months. The place was clearly cursed, because it was a giant money sink that drove people mad and demanded giant dirt sacrifices. But suddenly, the lot's ancient, malevolent spirit had awoken -- and now it was no longer content to bankrupt its owners. It needed their very souls.
Resident #2 died, and a second tombstone appeared. I discovered that you can move tombstones around from place to place, which meant that I could shift them to keep them on top of the ever-growing hill, and use the entire lot for terraforming.
The new owner Bobby Joe made the mistake of sticking around just a little too long after the money ran out, and suddenly found himself surrounded by impenetrable walls. After a short time, he too fell silent and another gravestone appeared.
The next owner was a family with a child. They too succumbed to the lure of the death outhouse. I then discovered that childrens' tombstones were a different size than adults'. (I also discovered that, bizarrely enough, having a haunted house with a track record of mysterious owner disappearances causes a tiny uptick in property values. I guess there's slightly more cachet in owning a Death Outhouse than there is in owning a boring old regular one.)
The hill grew. The tombstones mounted up, in both small and large sizes. As more tombstones landed on the property, the hauntings became more and more frequent. It became rare to have a night without a ghost -- and then statistically impossible -- and then the ghosts were wandering in threes and fours, sometimes half a dozen. None of the owners could get any sleep, which probably helped to drive them slightly more insane before they died in their tiny-walled up outhouses. "For the love of God, Montresor ..."
Soon, viewing the property in the (isometric) world map revealed a towering hill of dirt, a huge half-pyramid whose apex cemetery somehow managed to tower above the two-story houses in the rest of the neighborhood. I planted some bushes on the camera-ward side to spell my name for posterity, and kept raising the top outer edges of the hill -- leaving a depression in the center where the "basement" was going to go. Since the tombstones either wouldn't sit on a sloped hillside or looked retarded there, I packed most of them into the center of what quickly grew to look like a volcano.
Finally, one lucky batch of sacrificial victims got to start house construction. At long last! The basement I had toiled so long to create -- the basement that had bankrupted an entire small town -- the basement for which so many Sims had given their virtual lives ...
Well ... the basement wasn't happening. Neither wall nor porch on the second story could extend out to the hill's edge. I couldn't even get it close enough to make the gap invisible in world-map view. I experimented a little more, but quickly figured out the basement dream was dead; the programmers simply hadn't anticipated any sort of abuse like what I was trying to perpetrate.
So I was left with a big volcano-thing with a lot of gravestones and a cramped two-story house-like thing inside of it. What else could I do? All this work had to count for something.
Clearly the graveyard had to stay; too many Sims had given their lives to dishonor their sacrifice like that. I crowded the tombs all together in the crater, added some landscaping, and (to keep the Sims from spending all their time wandering around the graves and weeping for the fallen) threw in a circular lake around the whole thing. Now the ghosts could wander the property freely at night, safe from the meddling of future owners.
But what to do about the house itself? The building couldn't go on the outer slope (the game forced the entire house to be on the same ground elevation), and there was very little room left after the graveyard. After some deliberation, I built a tiny kitchen and workout room in the crater and added a few external staircases along their walls. With judicious use of support pillars at lake's edge and in the graveyard, I was able to build a modest second-story-only house that acted almost like a roof over the graveyard, leaving it in spooky eternal shadow.
Fortunately for David once he moved back into the Crater Lake Mansion of Death, I discovered that Sims ghosts cannot climb stairs. After he got home from work and ate, he would retire upstairs for leisure activities and/or sleep, and he would do his thing, blissfully unaware of the half-dozen ghosts marauding through the property underneath his feet.***
At least until he went downstairs for a midnight snack.
* There are some notable exceptions to this rule, such as my discovery that under the right conditions, you can cause enemies to lose their turn in Final Fantasy Tactics by shooting your own allies in the back. This is my favorite gaming story OF ALL TIME. I'm pretty sure I've told it somewhere, but I'll have to dig it up again.
** Appropriately enough, by this time David had climbed the Science career path all the way to the top rank, Mad Scientist.
*** This really cries out for pictures. Unfortunately, the CLMoD was created on elynne's computer something like 7 years ago; my suspicion is that it's long lost to the ages. If she still has access to that old computer, you should totally bug her to load it up again, get some screencaps and upload the results. :)