The girl in the booth has a remarkable talent. She's Nikki Rapp, one of the stars of The Sims 2 and, now, The Sims 3. She can talk in Simlish, the strange fictional language of the Sims.
She's here to record the latest dialogue for the child characters. On screen, a bald six-year-old of indeterminate gender is pissing itself, while Robert Kauker, Audio Director of the Sims games, offers direction.
"I need you to do more horror. More embarrassment."
"Icka Booga. Daka. WHY."
"Hmm. It's not working. Try sadness, then real shame."
The animation continues to play, the poor little character on-screen in a loop of perpetual urination.
"Oehhh. Err. Ewwwww."
"That's it. Brilliant. Now let's move on to file 2311: motive underscore distress one."
A slightly different-shaped puddle appears underneath the Sim. He or she has had another accident.
Who knew that tormenting little AI people, watching them wee all over the floor, go out, make friends, have babies, and buy bigger better flatscreen TVs would result in such massive success?
In two games, and fourteen expansion packs, The Sims has created an empire for Electronic Arts. 98 million copies of Sims games have been sold worldwide (it's probably passed 100 million by the time you read this). It has a cultural relevance way beyond most games (EA count over 100,000 machinima movies on YouTube released by Sims players), and an appeal that extends way beyond the traditional gamer market.
EA estimate that around 60% of their playerbase is female (by contrast PC Gamer has an almost exclusively male readership), and around 20% are under 17. Your sister, your girlfriend, and your mum: they all love it.
The gibberish whining from the booth is a sign that full production is beginning on The Sims 3, the first really new, full-price game the studio has produced since The Sims 2 four years ago. Nikki faces hundreds of hours in the studio, making up words, pretending to be a six-year-old of indeterminate gender but high emotion. She's not alone.
Ten other voice actors have signed on to speak gibberish, alongside legions of animators and artists. They have a huge task: they want to draw and simulate every human emotion, and every human motion. If you can think to do it, it has to be in the game.
The scale of the production is extraordinary. Talking to the team, you can see that they're proud of their success.
But when you talk games to the engineers and the programmers and designers who develop the game, they talk of the same titles we play. Oblivion. Half-Life. World of Warcraft. Even, wonderfully, Dwarf Fortress. They use expressions like 're-roll', love text adventures, and obsess over RPGs. It seems they've made a conscious decision to bring gamers like us back to the game.
Rod Humble is the creative director of the Sims 'label'. He's smart, funny, rake thin, and what we'd call a hardcore gamer. Originally from Birmingham, he moved to America to be part of the original EverQuest team.
Two years ago, the Sims team was spun out of Electronic Arts and given a kind of creative autonomy. That autonomy, under Rod's creative leadership, has paid dividends. Unlike the typical view of this publisher, where we cynics bemoan recycled updates of the same old games such as FIFA 2008 or NHL 2010, the Sims games have been quietly innovating.
Rod explains that the Sims team has a single goal: creativity. "Our mission is to create new original games that innovate and take creative risks on established franchises. The one thing that we don't do is make the same game every year. Some people hate some of the things we do, but at least we don't do the same thing every year. We really try to take risks."