You know the anti-drug commercial from the 80s that everyone makes fun of? The one with a fried egg? 'This is your brain on drugs', that one?
Alright, now think about The Sims 4. Think about the vanilla character models for it. This is your Sims 4:
This is your Sims 4 on mods:
Holy shit. Drugs, I mean mods are amazing.
That image is from the blog of Praline, a pair of Croation sisters operating as one Sims modder. PralineSims makes CC (that's 'custom content') of all kinds including eyes, eyelashes, makeup, accessories, piercings, and overlays for skin tone and shading. That's not to minimise their work with architecture and clothes, but it's the facial stuff I find more striking, and fascinating. And maybe a bit terrifying.
Just look at the difference between the two pictures. It's a bigger difference than between your brain and your brain on drugs, because your brain on drugs is just you but slightly more annoying to anyone around you who's sober. The real life equivalent of this modding is being handed an actual potato and told strangers on the internet can turn it into a beautiful boyfriend doll, at no cost to yourself save the initial potato outlay. The header image isn't an official Square Enix screenshot of Ignis, it is a modded sim with Ignis-specific eyebags. They've done the whole Final Fantasy XV squad.
But once you get past the incredible look of it all, there's another layer. Exploring the modding community is like Alice falling down the rabbit hole (new mesh: Wonderland Hair, 22 colours, works with hats). Most of them maintain blogs on Tumblr, where they share detailed photo sets that resemble fashion shoots. In the corner of a spread in Hello you would find a restrained footnote, a list of brands who supplied the outfits. The modders do the same, after a fashion: 'Pants by @sims4-marigold / Pose by @dearkims / Hair by me / Top by EA'
Each of them has a list of FAQs and TOU, usually along the same lines: don't claim their work as your own or profit from it; don't re-upload it; conversions to The Sims 2 or 3 are allowed. Among the community they have a special status, and it is understandable when you look at what they make. Some maintain work-in-progress areas of their blogs and fans will eagerly await the full downloads. Players will send them requests for hair, suggestions, or just messages saying that they love them, they appreciate their work, thank you, thank you, thank you.
Stealthic, one of the most famous modders, makes hair. His mods have been downloaded from The Sims Resource (commonly abbreviated to TSR) almost 13 million times. His hairstyles all have dreamy, artistic names: Erratic, Cadence, Aquaria, like the guy who has to name the Dulux paint tones if he was freed from corporate constraints.
Stealthic is a 21 year old guy from the USA who uses Snapchat a lot. He recently flipped his car, and started out making mods for Skyrim. He focuses on hair mods, and a few months ago there seems to have been some drama that involved another modder named toksik quitting the community. Stealthic will never make a manbun hair mod because he, personally, hates manbuns. I know all this because a) he freely answers questions about these things and b) he has been interviewed about his work in a magazine that is entirely focused on The Sims 3 and 4.
An entire magazine! That's a focused, passionate community right there. Many in it feel a lot of warmth for the modders. One, named Darko, who has a propensity towards wearing ripped jeans that I can really respect, was recently anonymously asked if they had any advice for someone going through depression and anxiety, because the asker looked up to them. And Darko answered kindly and said that 'If you or anyone ever needs someone to talk to I’m always here to listen <3'
On the other hand there are people who demand, rather than ask, and who forget that in many cases the creators are creating for free, in their own time. One of the sisters behind PralineSims was modding when she wasn't otherwise engaged in being a dental hygienist, so next time you go for a check-up consider the possibility that the person holding your spit cup is daydreaming about the new choker they want to start work on. Scroll down far enough on any of the modders' blogs and you'll find a mention of drama or hate they've received from the community.
And everyone in the equation has a slightly strange relationship with EA. The modders are elevating The Sims 4 to stratospheric quality levels without EA having to do a damn thing except allow it. Why does EA need to make a Sims 5 when fans have sort of done it themselves? They've modded in custom poses and done things like make the pregnancy mechanic definable rather than random.
I've seen comments from people who say they wouldn't play the game if it weren't for the mods, and modders themselves will often say things like 'The Sims 4 would be a decent game if EA worked on it.' EA, for its part, will occasionally push through game updates that clash with the custom content installed, requiring quick patching. It's a weird dance where everyone is stepping on each others toes, but they're all super into this song and their makeup looks fucking great, so no one's going home just yet.
And that's okay for now, but some of the artistry on display here is staggering. I don't even play The Sims 4, but I'm happy that there are a great number of skilled people out there who do, and apparently dedicate a huge portion of their time using it to set up fashion shoots of people I wish I could go out with. These talented young people are working out meshes and overlays because they can make something cool and beautiful with them, in their apartments with bad internet connection, often without formal training and in their spare time after checking people's teeth. Imagine what they could do if you gave them more.