After seeing Hereditary, James Donner, a 26-year-old digital marketer from Boston, fired off a tweet about the eerie similarities between watching the film and playing The Sims. The joke caught on, and when Donner told his friend Emily Kanzer about the surreal popularity of his tweet, she immediately began rebuilding the Graham house within the game, Paimon treehouse included. Donner, Kanzer, and Donner’s girlfriend Rachel Wolf set out to make the tweet a reality.
Reenacting Hereditary on this digital scale echoed Annie’s art form of recreating her life on a miniature dollhouse scale, as well as larger themes at play within the film, like predetermination and a lack of autonomy. As James explains, “It’s a family trapped in a cruel and merciless predicament they can’t really control.” For that, James explains, “there isn’t a better game than The Sims.” We spoke to Donner and Wolf about the process behind their passion project, the eerie significance of setting a Sim on fire, and playing by the rules of a larger system.
When did the idea to recreate films within the Sims universe occur to you?
James: I got back into the game last summer when I bought The Sims 2. I had never gone beyond the original Sims as a kid, so I had no idea that I was going to end up in a near daily black hole of staying up until 1:00am every night.
After binging a game for a while though you do start to see diminishing returns unless you change things up. Remaking an existing narrative rather than doing the traditional “trying to make it as a Sim” gameplay was an interesting pivot.
Hereditary works because there really isn’t a better game for subjecting a family to a terrible situation than The Sims.
How long did this project take, start to finish?
This was made in two sessions. When Emily built the house, that took around 2-3 hours. Executing the scenes themselves, our second session, took another 2-3 hours. I think had we been more ambitious we would have gone beyond key scenes and gone into every individual detail. But basic shots we assumed would take 30 minutes ended up taking hours.
What was the process for building this out?
Emily had a lot to work with as Sims 4 provides the flexibility to make anything from a hyper-modern architectural design all the way to basement serial killer aesthetic. The Sims gives you great tools to work with and frankly the things you can make with it are astounding.
How difficult was it to rebuild the house?
I think the biggest challenge definitely comes down to the proportions and overall architecture. Surprisingly, the furniture matched most of the movie’s aesthetics perfectly. You end up comparing things frame by frame and trying to add all those details in a micro view, as opposed to remaking the movie from a macro perspective.
Who do you think turned out most related to their likeness?
Well Peter certainly acted the most like his character. He reeked by refusing to take a shower so he looked like he was smoking weed a lot with the green fumes from not bathing. He wanted to go out and party and talk to girls , and he didn’t really want to hang out with Charlie.
Design is fun at a visual level but it’s even better when you watch the traits of these characters unfold while you play the game. Seeing characters think about the relationships in the family and their wants and needs organically and it mirroring the movie is surreal.
Did you have free will on or off?
Off. Turning off free will means that you have to do everything for your Sims. In a way, it’s sort of like directing except instead of paid actors you have video game avatars who need to be taken care of to avoid them crying or peeing on the floor. If you think that by directing virtual actors that things will be easier, you’re in for a tough time.
Was it surreal building a virtual miniature of Annie building her miniatures?
Rachel: It felt very cool. It had been a long time since I played The Sims 4 so I wasn’t sure what objects there would be to work with. But when I saw they had that giant dollhouse I was like “Fuck yeah.” Also, the worktable was a bonus.
Ok, how hard was the fire to coordinate?
James: This took at least an hour. Maybe longer and I lost track. I ended up using cheat codes to increase the probability of a house fire, but even that wasn’t enough.
Rachel: Setting someone on fire really is a trip. It’s so strange because in Sim world everything comes down to the attributes of a certain object, mood, and probability. We looked up online basically a bunch of what we felt like were scenarios that would be in Manchester by the Sea early drafts and tried them all. Giving someone with really bad cooking skills, a terrible oven, and a super tired mood was the spark that caught flame.
Did this project change your understanding or opinion of the film?
James: The project ended up being about bringing a joke to life in often painstaking detail. If anything, it sort of made me dive deeper into the filmmaking process itself. Not to say that recreating stills from The Sims is the same as going out and filming a movie, but there’s a lot of coordinating and painstaking detail to capture the perfect image regardless. I would definitely pay $15 to see a Sims remake of Hereditary in Simlish with English subtitles.
What reactions do you hope to achieve or evoke in viewers of your work?
Mainly humor. I think there’s something not only unique and hilarious about the Sims aesthetic, but it’s something a lot of people grew up on in the ‘00s and is a truly iconic game.