How a Sims 2 Port Turned Into a Silent Hill Game for Kids

Loved and feared by fans, a DS port changed what players expected from The Sims.

The 2000s was the Wild West for wacky spin-offs. Atlantis: The Lost Empire became an FPS, Eragon was adapted into a hack-and-slash, and a 2005 port of The Sims 2 for Nintendo DS felt more like Silent Hill than a social simulator. From aquaphobic aliens to cow-worshipping super cults, it certainly wasn’t what my parents expected when they naively bought it for me in an EB Games in rural Australia.

Nevertheless, I was excited to play a Sims game completely uninterrupted by my siblings. Set in the aptly-named Strangetown, a location seen across each iteration of The Sims 2, the player is left to run a hotel in the middle of nowhere when their car breaks down in the desert. After framing the premise, it doesn’t take long before the game introduces sanity meters, verbal combat and radioactive rod collection. Gripped but confused, I wondered if other players found themselves as wrapped up in its bizarre story as I was.

Comfortably nestled in the /r/creepygaming subreddit lives a thread detailing dreamlike impressions of the supposedly “cursed” Sims 2 on Nintendo DS. “When I got this game for my ninth birthday, I immediately felt like there was something extremely off about it,” said Reddit user u/sundays89. “The ambience was strange … The Sims would speak in a weird jumbled way that didn’t even resemble typical Simlish. And this music would play during the entire day hours.”

Those who worked on the game believe its quirkiness was the result of creative freedom. “I think EA gave Griptonite a ton of creative license, and the designers took that as a chance to move forward with some of their weirdest ideas,” said Ian Stocker, Lead Composer on The Sims 2’s handheld iterations. “Once you have a game about aliens, it’s gonna just be weird,” he told Fanbyte over Discord.

In my experience, The Sims on PC was a playful game with small, relatable tasks like ‘bake a cake’ or ‘don’t wet yourself around friends’, so finding myself abandoned to manage a struggling hotel business and perform alien autopsies felt like quite the departure.

A lot of the unique atmosphere comes from the game’s setting. Players can explore the Strangetown hotel, shop, city hall, jail, and bar, each stocked with weird characters (including an alien-sim hybrid – Johnny Smith for the Sims lore buffs). But outside its sparse center, players are surrounded by an endless desert, a towering butte littered with mummy remains, and abandoned alien crash sites.

“Even at a distance of 20 years, I can still see the world and the music in my head,” said writer Darby McDevitt, who went on to work on Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series. “I think we really nailed a strange sense of place… an odd yet captivating feeling – sort of Douglas Adam’s meets David Lynch, maybe?”

With this in mind, it’s understandable that players remember it with a sense of peripheral fear. “It’s like Strangetown is just a weird representation of Sim Purgatory where all of these Sims are trapped in this fancy hotel, surrounded by nothing but sand,” said /u/LazerGuidedMelody. “It’s like Hotel California. They can check out anytime, but they can never leave,” they continued. “They’re always coming back, stuck there, just milling around and wallowing in despair and/or insanity.”

Curiously, the game received a different title in Japan – The Sims 2: Hacha Mecha Hotel Life. Hacha Mecha translates to absurd or nonsensical, which feels like a more appropriate suffix that reflects Griptonite’s approach to its unique design. “A little on-the-nose but it sells the idea,” McDevitt responded. “If I could rename it, maybe I’d call it The Sims 2: Kaleidoscope Inn.”

The Japanese title may be more direct, but it also lends itself to the port’s initial impetus. “In the conception phase for Sims 2 our team pitched a few ideas to Maxis — one idea was a fairly straightforward port of Sims 2 since the Nintendo DS was a more capable machine than the GBA,” McDevitt said. “Another was the idea of using the top screen to view your Sim while you controlled a little microbe on the bottom screen as you zipped around your host body, trying to influence their behavior,” he continued. “None of these ideas landed well with Maxis … that afternoon, on the way home from that meeting, I started thinking about an episode of Fawlty Towers I had just watched, and suddenly the idea of a Sims game in which you managed a hotel full of bizarre characters came to me.”

McDevitt added that technological circumstances may have been a bigger factor than any purposeful eerie design. “We couldn’t have this hotel in the middle of a populated city because, for one, we just didn’t have the time to make a full city with crowd life, traffic, etc. I didn’t have any sense that this would be allegorical in any way, I think I was too focused on the absurdity of the characters to take any broader view of the whole experience.”

The technical constraints of the DS also led players to experience unexplainable events that added to its unnerving ambience. One mission had you bury a “wriggling chest” in the desert for mob boss Frankie Fusilli. At the climax of this quest, the town’s Mayor and vocal Fusilli antagonist Honest Jackson would suddenly disappear. This was confirmed to be a glitch by the game’s producer Dan McAuliffe on Twitter, but many players (myself included) wondered if they were an accessory to murder. Unlike some of the more obvious malfunctions in gaming, the way this interacted with the story felt appropriately supernatural.

Fans of the game also idolize its eclectic score, which is comparable to modern vaporwave. In 2018, Stocker uploaded the soundtrack to YouTube to archive his work, which now sports over 70,000 views. “What’s weird is I’ve never really had any feedback from anyone who played it at the time,” said Stocker. “Once I put stuff on YouTube, then I started to hear from people who liked it as a kid.”

Stocker told Fanbyte he enjoyed “remixing old sims tunes” and was influenced by English Trance group Juno Reactor, Mark Mothersbaugh’s work on The Sims 2, and the soundtrack to Kill Bill, mentioning Goodnight Moon by Shivaree in particular. The song Chug Chug Cola also took inspiration from the cartoons of the time. “I remember, the producer JC and a couple of designers calling me into a meeting to specifically discuss that this needs to evoke the feeling of the Teen Titans,” Stocker said.

As for any real curses tied to the game, McDevitt was definitive. “The only curse in the game is our stupid decision to constrain certain collectibles to a real-world schedule,” referring to skill points hidden across the map that had to be collected at certain times of day. “This just incentivizes people to change their system clock and has no value beyond that. Rookie design mistake … but for any other diabolical curses, no, it’s not true. No such thing. It’s in your head. I promise.”

Nowadays, prized IPs aren’t often given away to be spun out and iterated upon. Experimental ideas like those seen in The Sims 2 on DS are hard to come by. But its spirit lives on, just in new mediums. “I think there is a market for this type of game,” said Stocker. “This type of story and character-driven, slice of life type of genre.” You can see its legacy in modern titles like Bugsnax and Stardew Valley, where players go back and forth performing tasks while uncovering the curious undercurrent of the setting.

Portable spin-offs like the DS version of The Sims 2 are also something of an industry relic. Modern handhelds like the Nintendo Switch are powerful enough to sidestep the need for unique ports. While this makes an IP more streamlined and accessible, it’s hard to deny that the constraints acted as nurturing creative challenges for developers, which resulted in games that fans still obsess over, even decades later.

Within every comment I found about the fever-dream gameplay of The Sims 2, there was another concerning how compelling and extraordinary it was to play. Like any good psychological thriller, it left you with more questions than answers, and a strong desire to uncover Strangetown’s unusual underbelly in all its glory.

“When I look back on different areas in games, one of my favorite times would be around 2005,” Stocker said. “I think that was where games were just kind of at the height of playfulness when you think about it.