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When I was little, a considerable share of my time was spent chasing my hypothetical dream game. A game of a genre that to my knowledge no one has ever defined: and only some games have ever come close to it, in rare cases even very close.

There have always been some games that trigger a certain, very strong emotion in me, even if it is just fleeting or only happens sporadically. I still cannot describe quite what it is, but I know the feeling when it is present. I have long thought about it and I think now I can somewhat formalize a description that other people might understand.

Image: Render of Sims 2 sims dancing In some games, the core appeal is to customize. Take the Sims for example, where most of the game consists of customizing virtual humans, their virtual houses, and playing out their virtual lives, building families, taking jobs, adopting pets, and of course living through interpersonal drama extraordinaire.

In Super Mario Maker, the core gameplay of a creator is to design levels that other people can then play. These can be traditional Mario platforming levels that are built almost like a story, with an introduction, a buildup, a twist and a conclusion, or it can be levels showcasing glitches or fun interactions, minigames, or extremely hard levels designed to frustrate or challenge. Either way, it is a game about customization.

However, no matter how much I have tried in the past to define the kind of game that triggers this special emotion in me, I have always circled around to the same word: customization games, or sandboxes.

But games like the Sims or Mario Maker, while fun in their own right, do not cause me to feel this emotion at all! I have spent years digging through lists of "top customization games" that mostly were either sandbox building games like Minecraft, or games with a particularly great character creator.

None of them were really what I was looking for.

Image: Render of a Spore creatureA game that did trigger that feeling very strongly however was Spore. In the EA classic from 2007, which was arguably one of the worst received games of all time (but nonetheless among my favorite games during my childhood), you create a single-cell organism that, over the course of a game, evolves, until it can run on land, eventually build a tribal society, then an industrial civilization, and eventually a spacefaring species. Throughout, you have full control over your people's physiology, adding and removing limbs and body parts, choosing a color scheme, building their buildings, constructing their vehicles. Close to the end of the game, you would find your own custom creations (and other people's creations from online sources), all over the place, even on alien planets! You could go to a random planet in the universe and find it is populated with a species of insectoid tribesmen which you have customized in another savefile years ago. Your custom buildings and vehicles casually litter your inhabited worlds as decoration, and so can species you have met or created.

And I think that specific aspect is where the crux is. Long have I struggled to describe this, but I believe the entire mystery is as thus:

Games where you can customize something and then watch the game organically use that something to enhance, change, decorate or build the game world by itself, trigger this special emotion in me. Seeing my own creations autonomously being used or populated by a game makes me euphoric beyond belief.

And honestly, the way I played games, this makes total sense!

In the Sims, I never played the premade families, and I barely had any patience to play one family for multiple generations. But I did create my own custom neighborhoods in the Sims 2, and spent hours building restaurants, hotels, apartments, bars, garbage heaps, and much more. The most joy I got out of it was when I eventually moved into town with a family and saw my meticulously built institutions actually being used by Sims controlled by the computer! There is something deeply satisfying about watching the computer utilize your creations and systemically bring them to life without you having to move a single finger.

Image: Render of a Minecraft creeperSame with Minecraft: the projects I put in the most energy were not simply creative buildings, but rather adventure maps with custom NPCs, where I could fill my builds with NPCs who have a routine and can give a player quests, for example. In GTA San Andreas, I used to replace various car models with other models, only because it was extremely satisfying for me to see the game spawn in my own car choices instead of the basic ones.

Even when I exercise myself in worldbuilding, the most enjoyment I gather is from watching the things I created interact with each other, creating multiple instances of a generalized category and seeing how they differ (e.g. multiple cults or religions on the same template, for example). The most surefire way to keep me occupied with a worldbuilding project is to prompt me to create many different versions of something; multiple different gods, captains of spaceships, ship classes, mission types...

Image: Render of a Cardassian freighter from Star TrekOn a more metaphysical level, it does not only extend to things I have created and customized myself. Even when I consume media, I stick to those the most that work in "categories" and instances of these categories being used dynamically. Or in a less abstract manner of speaking, one of the weirder reasons why I love Star Trek is because you have ship classes, ship types, and then individual ships of these classes and types that have their own crew, missions and complements. They are all similar but differ in key points; yet they all fit certain templates. It's only more exciting when you try to imagine what a long-range hauler looks like for the Federation, but also for the Klingons, Romulans, Bajorans or more obscure civilizations. This putting together of generic categories and filling them with specific details is oddly satisfying to me.

Same with object-oriented programming, where the same principle applies! Or even my linguistics degree, which honestly was motivated by me constructing languages where the most enjoyable part was to actually derive words from generalized rules applied to other words (think attaching -ism to a root to make a new word). Thinking about it, a lot of my interests are directly motivated by this odd, obscure emotion that I never have seen put into words by anyone else.

I wonder if it has something to do with autism, because while I am not autistic as far as I know, a fascination with categories is something you often hear mentioned in the same breath with it.

I have never met anyone who expressed even close to the same ideas, so if you feel the same or know whether this might be an indicator of this or that personality trait, feel free to reach out to me via the contact options on the about page of this website! I am always looking for game suggestions if you have any. =)