How to Bring the Dramatic and Devastating Characters of Downton Abbey to Virtual Life in The Sims 3
Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style
Last fall I started working on a rather ambitious project -- to bring the Edwardian world of Downton Abbey into the virtual world of The Sims 3. I didn't think it was very ambitious at the time, since I've been making characters from my favorite shows, books, and movies since the very first Sims game. Once I got into it, however, I realized there was a lot more to this project than I'd expected. Beyond making the characters, balancing the family with staff and pets, and decorating the Abbey itself, there's the social side of Downton to manage and, much like the show, things seldom go smoothly. Take a look for yourself:
Downton Abbey Character Creation - When Physical Accuracy Fails, Aim for Personality Faithfulness
I've been recreating real people in The Sims and Second Life for years now, and while some faces translate exceptionally well, many just don't. If someone's just not quite right, it's not always the creator's fault; there's only so much you can do with sliders, so don't take it personally. In this case I think Sim Mary is the most faithful, with Edith's unique features putting her in close second. I'm least happy with the Earl of Grantham himself, Robert Crawley, whose facial shape and hair were a bit beyond my ability to recreate.
Well, not everyone can be perfect, but that's no reason to scrap the project, right? The show must go on. What you might lack in visual accuracy you can make up for with personality traits. Edith is a vehicle enthusiast, Robert's a dog person, Sybil is kind, Violet is a snob, and Thomas is... sort of a dick.
Limit Your Abbey Staff
The other problem is that The Sims 3, unmodded, limits the size of the family. Even with a mod to remove that limit, game performance can suffer pretty severely, so I had to cut the house down to bare-bones staffing. It was a tough choice, but I settled on Thomas and Anna since they're among the most notable downstairs characters on the show... And at the very least Thomas' twisted attitude would surely make for an interesting game.
Seek Out Abbey-Style Custom-Made Content and Expansion Packs
Let me say before we get much farther that if you want to create your own Sim Downton, cast and beyond, your motto ought to be "CC is key". Custom content, including content from The Sims 3 Store (sorry), was absolutely vital in terms of bringing the family, the staff, and the house together. There are several Victorian, Edwardian, and Jazz Age clothing and decor sets in the store that made this project much easier than it would have been without. Expansion packs helped as well, particularly the Supernatural EP from 2012 which adds the "Proper" trait (an absolute must for the folks of Downton) and Pets, which provides Mary with a horse, Robert a golden retriever, and Thomas a barn cat to chase out of the kitchen.
There's another custom content secret behind my Sim Downton success -- a virtual architect known as MrNSheikh who makes some of the most gorgeous original and adapted homes and apartments for The Sims that you'll ever see, then shares virtual tours and download links on his YouTube Channel.
Just this week he released his interpretation of Violet Crawley's home, The Dower House, but he's also done Crawley House (temporary home to Matthew Crawley and his mother) and Downton itself (a.k.a. Highclere Castle):
Unfortunately he uses a lot of custom content as well, and lists nearly none of it, so once I downloaded and installed the house I had to spend a great deal of time tweaking the decor to match the video and the house itself as closely as possible. Given that the house changes from season to season, what I ended up with was a hybrid of the house as it's appeared in different seasons, and in reality.
Some modifications also had to be made because of the limitations of The Sims 3. Plots of land have a maximum size, so many of Downton's garden and lawn features had to be made as parkland just behind the estate. I also had to place the servant's quarters in the basement near the combined kitchen and servant's hall. It's not terribly elegant, but it serves its purpose.
Oh, and they have to have a washing machine now, thanks to another expansion.
Let the Drama Begin! (But Keep an Eye on Your Abbey Sims' AI)
The setup took a very long time, but it was well worth it. Within minutes of starting to play, Mary had wandered down to the kitchen and gotten into a slap-fight with Thomas. She slapped him, he slapped back, she slapped him again, and so on, until I was forced to separate them. I told Mary to go to Town Hall and register her job ("Unemployed"), so she wouldn't spontaneously decide to be a Spa Receptionist or something while I was playing with someone else.
That's a big part of why this family, and similar historical families, can be such a chore to maintain. You have to constantly keep an eye on your characters, because they're always trying to do things that just... aren't right! You have to be three steps ahead of the AI at all times. I had made the entire family technophobes in the hopes that that would keep them away from watching television or going to the town library to play games on the computers, registered them all as unemployed so they wouldn't get jobs behind my back, and tried to build up relationships with other period-appropriate characters so that no one would elope with the mailman (... Sybil...)
The biggest problem was keeping people out of places where they didn't belong. Doors can only be locked for one person, or the whole family. There's no way to lock a door so that only two people could use it, making it impossible for me to restrict access to servants areas to Thomas and Anna only, or restrict access to the ladies' bedrooms to the ladies and Anna. Getting everyone in the correct bed at night was a constant battle, as was keeping the damn barn cat out of the house.
Of course even when you account for all the things that could happen naturally in the game, you still have the bugs to worry about. Thomas took a luxurious midday bath in Cora's bathroom (part of the door locking problem), but put on dark red lipstick for some reason when he did. Earlier, when I tried to hire additional NPC butlers, an unstoppable flood of butlers began as they were dropped off outside the manor one at a time, but refused to move until I deleted them all manually. I also had a serious problem with everyone peeing themselves, because the house is so big that they seem to have a hard time finding a route to the nearest bathroom during a bathroom emergency. Who could forget that memorable episode in season 2 when Thomas peed himself while trying to herd the cat out of the main hall?
It's hard work to put it together and even harder work to maintain it... But it was absolutely worth it. Even though I've had to accept Anna doing the laundry in a machine or Edith chatting guys up about their hybrid car, all the weird and almost natural moments make up for it. The kitchen fires where Anna takes charge and Thomas cowers nearby, the dinners where Violet says something that puts everyone else in a sour mood, Mary and Edith fighting over something as mundane as a statue in the music room... And I can't deny it: Even when everything goes wrong, it's too hilarious to get upset about. Oh The Sims, I just can't stay mad at you...
I can only imagine how interesting it will get when I finally finish decorating Crawley house, and Matthew shows up on the doorstep.
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Iris Ophelia (Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.