Like a lot of people at the end of the Covid-19 restrictions, I made the mistake of checking out a few self-catering holiday sites to try to book a late break for the family. I could almost hear the online availability calendars laughing at me. Anything that was still available would have required me to mortgage our own house and sell the car. Sadly, it looks like I won’t be spending a week lounging around in a tiny, leaky Dorset cottage, living on a diet of cream teas and fish suppers. It’s almost unconscionable.
With amazing good timing, however, Electronic Arts has just released its Cottage Living expansion pack for Sims 4, the latest themed addition to the long-running life simulation series. As ever, you create a sim character then build a house for them, but now there are lots of design components drawn from idealised English country house architecture. Stable doors, stone-trimmed windows, ancient oak floors and decorative country pub signs allow you to indulge your cottagecore fantasies. You can also choose to be off grid, meaning you have to grow all your own vegetables – and you can keep cows and chickens for your milk and eggs, and llamas for wool – although they are incredibly demanding, requiring regular feeding, cleaning and treats. I had to abandon my career to look after them, like a modern simulation of The Good Life – which is why I designed my sims to resemble Tom and Barbara.
What I love about the expansion is that it wants to simulate not just the appearance of country lifestyle, but the sociocultural quirks, too. There is a weekly country fayre where you can enter giant vegetable competitions – the village folk are also incredibly … um … present. Everyone seems to know each other, and they drop round continuously, sometimes bringing cake. I like the way this can become slightly uncomfortable at times – just like a real country holiday. When I first built my new cottage in the game’s Henford-on-Bagley location, a couple of locals came by to say hello. I don’t know what quirk of AI caused this, but while I was talking to one young woman about Victorian furniture (sims have their own nonsense language but a little speech bubble pops up with an icon representing the theme of the discussion), a man I didn’t know wearing a green body warmer and wellington boots, like something out of Shooting Times magazine, wandered off into my bedroom, got into my bed for a second then walked through to the kitchen and raided my fridge. Naturally, I was too polite to say anything.
There’s also a neat favour mechanic, which gets you to do little chores for villagers – delivering things, growing specific vegetables, visiting lonely locals – in exchange for money or other rewards. It enhances the feeling of a joining a closer community than the sprawling suburbs we’re used to in this series, and the fact that you can form complicated relationships with other villagers makes the whole thing feel as if you’re living in a Joanna Trollope novel, which in my experience is harder to achieve on a real-life self-catering holiday in Westward Ho!
This evening, I sat out on the balcony I built for myself, watching rabbits frolic in the garden (if you’re nice to them, they’ll eat your weeds for you), and waving as delivery boys wandered past. It is so relaxing, this faux rural life – I get from it the same vicarious pleasure as watching Countryfile or Escape to the Country; designing a new stable complex provides a nice break when you’re working from home.
It’s weird how the locking down of the UK has been bookended by pastoral video game releases. At the beginning was Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which allowed locked down friends to arrange virtual house parties or little walks together through sylvan woodlands. Now we have Cottage Living, which gives you a naturalistic rural community to join, livestock to rear and all the trappings of a English cottage holiday without the inconvenience of gridlocked single-lane roads, overpriced pub food or actually having to leave your own house. Maybe next year we’ll get away on an actual holiday. Until then, I have a really demanding cow that needs milking.