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Cottage Living dragged my Sims outside to meet their neighbors

Each Saturday, the townspeople of Henford-on-Bagley descend upon the village square for the weekly fair. There are booths for fresh flowers and local vegetables, with picnickers huddled around woven baskets from which they pluck jars of canned fruit. Mushrooms grow wild in the nearby brambles, as mischievous rabbits and foxes play in the mossy groves nearby. Henford-on-Bagley is a self-sufficient community and an idyllic, pastoral paradise — one that feels like it’s been plucked from the coziest of fairy tales.

The Sims 4’s newest expansion pack, Cottage Living, fully embraces the fairytale, cottagecore aesthetic that’s become increasingly popular over the past year. In the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, cottagecore was a way for people to reclaim the reality that forced some people — but not all — into the isolation of our homes. Cottagecore transforms the trappings of domestic living, like baking bread and canning fruit, into an embraceable aesthetic designed to cover up the grim realities of the world. Cottagecore’s mainstream explosion is due, largely, in part to TikTok and Instagram, where the shareable and cozy content can be passed around and admired with ease.

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Although cottagecore went mainstream this past year, it’s been around for a while. In The Sims 4, players have been creating and maintaining cottagecore worlds for years. Before Cottage Living came out, The Sims 4 players filled their internet spaces with tutorials and custom-made content for fans who wanted to create moss-draped cottages nestled deep in the woods — or, at least, to create the best approximation of that.

Image: Maxis/Electronic Arts

So it makes sense for developer Maxis to give in to the trend, to release Cottage Living near the height of its popularity, to a group of players who have been eager to fully embrace the aesthetic for years. The irony of cottagecore, as Vox’s Rebecca Jennings put it, is that it’s an aesthetic that largely exists online, “posted and participated in through a smartphone from cluttered apartments or suburban bedrooms.” The Sims 4: Cottage Living takes it a step further, allowing its players to not just interact with these idyllic worlds online, but to create and live in the world — just as a Sim.

And I have good news: Cottage Living is excellent at doing just that. The expansion pack, which will be released on July 22, is built upon the cottagecore legacy that Sims players have embraced for so long, including community-built lots made by fan-favorite creators. The aforementioned new neighborhood, Henford-on-Bagley, has the charm of a rural English village. Larger lots are essential for expanding gardens and newly-built chicken coops. Cottage Living has it all: an Instagram-worthy, Smeg-esque fridge, iconic Dutch ovens, and twee-patterned fabrics. It’s the cottagecore dream I’ve seen only on the internet.

Except that Cottage Living takes the fantasy in a new direction. Cottagecore — at least, the version of it that rose to prominence during the pandemic — has often been about romanticizing the idea of isolation. That made sense in a time when large numbers of people were encouraged to just stay home. The fantasy was about idyllic survivalism and self-sufficiency, something less scary than the forced isolation brought on by the pandemic. In The Sims 4, though, the cottage aesthetic is less about isolation and more centered around community. It’s refreshing.

Though Cottage Living has added plenty of ways for Sims players to create self-sustaining households — including the ability to only cook using only the items you have on hand — the expansion heavily encourages the player to seek out others in Henford-on-Bagley. There are no new jobs added with Cottage Living; instead, players can seek out tasks from the premade Sims living in town, like the mayor, grocery delivery folks, and village merchants. These are ways to get to know the other residents, with each little request unspooling minor story details that flesh out the English countryside.

It was initially surprising to see more concrete story details, however small they are, embedded into the Sims. Typically I don’t seek out the ready-made Sims; I favor using my own longtime favorites or newly made families. I also tend to stick with using a single lot at a time, building out the perfect, singular world around the perfect, singular house. The appeal of the Sims, for me, was about what I could create rather than what stories I could tell. That’s still the appeal of Cottage Living, but it’s convinced me to put more of an emphasis on the world as a whole. The Sims in Henford-on-Bagley feel necessary to the world in a way that other premades haven’t for me. They’re not just populating the world; they’re an integral part of it. And so, rather than centering my own Sims in a single, isolated household, I find myself driving them all over the map, chasing rabbits or seeking out mushrooms, participating in the vibrant world around them.

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The small questlines from Henford-on-Bagley’s Sims are not merely fetch quests with a story attached. They’re a compelling way to experience everything that the expansion pack has to offer. It’s helped me focus on parts of the game that I wouldn’t otherwise seek out — like caring for any Sims but my own. These small favors, as they’re called in the game, aren’t excessive or even full stories; the discrete size of them feels just right for a Sims game. They’re minor enough that they can be ignored in favor of more traditional gameplay, if that’s your speed.

Image: Maxis/Electronic Arts

There is plenty to do in Cottage Living if you do want to focus more on building houses and families. The Simple Living lot attribute is one way to get a feel for everything the expansion pack has to offer; you literally can’t cook without scavenging for your own ingredients. That could mean buying them from the farmer’s market, growing your own vegetables, trading animals for meat (lol), or fishing. Or it could mean ordering delivery. Cooking feels more robust, like something you’ve got to plan for. It gives more depth if that’s what you want, but if it’s not, it’s something you can turn off, too. It’s the same for the other new lot trait, which gives foxes free rein to terrorize your chickens.

There’s a lot of room to make Cottage Living the experience you want. For me, that meant finding new ways to play The Sims 4, to embrace the built-in storytelling instead of isolating my gameplay to a single lot. It’s a reimagining of self-sustainability than that of the pandemic-fueled uptick in cottagecore-esque isolation, refocused on the pieces of the aesthetic that center on community.

The Sims 4: Cottage Living will be released July 22 on Mac, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was previewed on Windows PC using a build provided by publisher Electronic Arts. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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