Tani and Temi Omorogbe have authored a number of Sims machinima serials during their time on YouTube, but nothing will ever top 16 & Pregnant. It began, in 2016, with a three-minute clip documenting a torrid love affair between a plucky teen and her hunky high school teacher, who somehow lives in a glamorous mid-century apartment far beyond any public employee's means. "What are we going to do? I'm going to lose my job! Go to jail!" he screams, as the teenager gestures towards him with a positive pregnancy test in her hand. Later, the couple kiss and make-up, and things are good and stable until the teacher is arrested for the murder of his wife.
That was a long time ago, though. Right now, the sisters are working on season four of 16 & Pregnant. The episodes have lengthened to about 20 minutes each, their subscriber count has ticked up past the 200,000 mark, and the content has ripened and mutated into its very own delectable, dramatic mess.
You know how Vanderpump Rules was supposed to focus on the daily routines of a restaurant staff, but now resembles something closer to a Dateline investigation? Yeah, the 2019 incarnation of 16 & Pregnant is the same way. Every season is full of abductions, affairs, love triangles, and deceit. The former teen mom and the teacher are no longer dating; she's all grown up now, and working at a Silicon Valley tech startup. In a recent episode, a handsome new hire is brought into the company, which causes her business partner to storm out of an all-hands meeting in a cuckold rage after discovering that he is dating his most recent ex. "Last thing I'm going to do is work with a guy who has no understanding of the bro code!"
Later, the teen daughter of the former teen mom spends some pool time with a Bieber duplicate, foreshadowing, in big gloppy spoonfuls, a future where she herself ends up 16 and pregnant. "Maybe that's who I want to be," the daughter says. "Fun and unpredictable."
According to the Omorogbes, this is the stuff they grew up on.
"When we were kids, we were watching soap operas like crazy. It'd be on in the background when our mom was watching it. We were so attached to all the twists and turns. We were just all overdramatic," says Temi. "If you watch our videos, that's what we create. That's why people are attached to our characters. The love interests, being able to survive the changes, and a cliffhanger at the end of every episode."
Sims machinima is as old as The Sims itself. As far back as the halcyon Windows 2000 days, I can remember superfans penning maudlin short stories starring their surrogate selves, and the neighborly treachery they'd encounter in leafy cul-de-sacs. In fact, early YouTube was dominated by Sims 2 reinterpretations of emo-pop classics. Was there any other way to be introduced to My Chemical Romance's "Helena" than by consuming Jaydee227's ultra-dark lover's odyssey? (A raven-haired girl is seduced by an asshole jock. They get married, he gets abusive, she finds solace in a perfect Gerard Way doppelganger.) What about Avril Lavigne's "Sk8ter Boi?" The pubescent, Hot Topic revenge tale is best served by mohawked avatars.
But the Omorogbes have elevated that initial framework to the stratosphere. They make television, in everything but name. The episodes in a series like 16 & Pregnant are not voiced or performed. Instead, the sisters produce everything within the Sims 4 engine, and rely on emotes, recontextualized animations, ethereal R&B, and letterbox text bubbles to get their narratives across. It is not dissimilar from watching a silent film, but despite those handicaps, they've been able to create a vast, interconnected universe of plot-points—like the MCU translated into lovesick Simlish.
16 & Pregnant is the main event, but if you look at their other series, like Almost Famous, Newcrest Academy, and Split Love, you'll see that they share characters, themes, easter eggs, and motifs. To get up close to the cult they've fostered, go ahead and scroll through the comment sections. Each of them are stuffed with devoted fans, who are more than willing to treat the Omorogbe sisters like the Russo Brothers.
"I was once a Jayde and Josh shipper but she couldn't make up her mind and Josh deserved better. I'm in love with this Bailey girl and her body. I'm rooting for her and Josh. They both deserve to be happy!"
"I think Ashley made the right decision. It seems like Kim genuinely loves Stephano now and wants to be in his life so why not give her a chance at redemption and proving herself."
"I want Moe to stay with Mark and April. It's unrealistic for them to easily be able to take her back. And as someone who plans on adopting in the future I relate more with Mark and April."
Tani and Temi both have day jobs. Temi is a lab assistant, Tani is a graphic designer who works for the Canadian government. They are 24 and 23, respectively, and live together in the greater Toronto area. Their creative partnership was established after Tani started making her own machinima within the Sims creative community, which made Temi eager to participate.
Both bring their own respective skillsets to the project; Tani handles all of the production, editing, and storyboarding, Temi writes the scripts. The workflow means that Tani, in particular, spends six to seven hours every day, after work, generating the reel for new episodes. She's been playing The Sims since her childhood, and has nurtured a deft, directorial instinct within the game. For the most part, she can summon any emotion she needs out of the blase EA presets. "She knew the ins and outs of it. How to manipulate characters so we could create a story out of it," says her sister. "You really have to understand the game, the interactions with certain things, to get [a particular] facial expression."
They have a Patreon, and earn the usual trickle of ad revenue anyone with a popular YouTube channel can expect, and that income is necessary to pay for the work they outsource to amateur Sims modders around the world on the secondary market. That's the thing with a drama as scurrilous and saucy as 16 & Pregnant: sometimes you need to make your Sims do things they are simply not programmed to do.
"[The modders] create certain facial expressions that make the stories better," says Temi. "My ideas started to get a little more crazy, my stories were going a little deeper, and the animations in the game just didn't gel with the vibe I was creating."
Neither of them can point to a specific ground zero for their success. It just sort of happened. The Sims community is vast and unwieldy, and virality is a difficult thing to track. Personally though, I believe the appeal is more structural in nature. Soap operas and reality television is a cynical business; populated by actors who believe they're slumming it, and crusty executives who will die in the chair. It's a system that keeps young women—especially young women of color—under a glass ceiling. So it's no surprise that when the Omorogbes circumvented authority and found a way to create the stuff they love without any hierarchical agitation, it caught fire. 16 & Pregnant is girls making soap operas for girls. That is an underrated formula. You can hear it most when they talk about their fans.
"When I'm watching actual TV, when a new season comes on and they don't listen to the response to the first season, I'm like, 'You guys have to listen!'" says Temi. "We have an opportunity, in our little YouTube world, to really see what people have to say about the story. It's not like, they say, 'make him die!' and we'll make a character die. But if there's a really large outcry, if there's a true attachment to a character or a storyline, we really try to listen to what they have to say. That's why I can't come up with an idea about season six when I'm on season four, because I want to see what they have to say about season four!"
Temi no longer believes her future lies in science. Her YouTube success has seduced her to the potential of the screenwriting business, where she could actualize the gooey theatrics she's perfected in The Sims in real life. She has already broken ground on a few original scripts, written outside of Simlish, intended to be acted by real human beings who can emote on command. Hollywood is slippery and bloodsucking, but you best not count them out.
Soap operas aren't that complicated, and it's no surprise that a pair of sisters were able to get the basics down with a few avatars and some Brentwood mansions. If the Omorogbes can break your heart with Sims, just imagine what they could do on Netflix.
"I spent my entire life wanting to be a doctor. I got my degree, I'm working in the lab now," she says. "But I realized that this is my passion. I could stay up all night reading people's comments, and loving their feedback, and wanting to get better. My mind is always reeling with ideas. And I was like, you know what? I want to live my life for my passion."