There’s revolution in the air.
There’s mutinous talk in strange tongues, on planets red, blue and green, in galaxies spiral, shiny and nebulous. Tentacles and arms and appendages raised in unison—demanding change. Demanding an end to narrow assessments, and numerical scores. An end to gaming reviews.
Spore’s arrival (mostly from the extra-terrestrial depths of designer Will Wright’s mind) has shaken things up a fair bit.
And on message boards, chat rooms and wikis throughout the Internet—places as central to Spore’s vision as the game itself—there are some interesting questions being asked.
Seven years of development and $50 million (around Rs228 crore) have gone into making Spore—and playing through it, you’re almost tempted to ask why a game that seems to be about bug-eyed monsters slowly and painfully going to space cost such a princely sum to make.
Evolution: Spore allows gamers to start with simple organisms in a tide pool; and develop them into complex creatures (below and left).
And therein lies the rub, and the brilliance of Spore—it borrows everything that video games have refined and polished over the last two decades—the aesthetics, the technology, the user interface—and blows the door wide open on what you can do with them. It’s an incredible experiment into something games have grappled with since their inception—how do you tell an interactive story? How do you teach while still remaining fun?
Spore’s answer is simple—let the players be the storytellers and teachers. The game then becomes not a product, with a determinate set of possibilities, but a process—a generative system that grows with the participation of the player. It sits back and watches your movie, instead of playing its own.
But game reviews are often verdicts—with a cursory numerical score attached to help make a purchase decision. With Spore, this becomes a sticky problem.
The idea of reviewing Spore is a bit like reviewing the Internet. Sure, from a technical standpoint, you could point out inconsistencies in structure, lapses in gameplay, some dodgy graphics, but everything you point out will be overridden by one single question—doesn’t that miss the point?
Like the Internet (admittedly a lofty and ill-chosen analogy), Spore isn’t what it is, but what it can become.
Spore lets you control your very own creature through all the stages of evolution, from a microbe floundering in a tide pool to inter-galactic civilization. It does so through five stages of gameplay, starting with the arcade-like cell stage, which plays like a hybrid of Pacman and Snake in a naval setting. From there, your critter sprouts a pair of legs to move to land, then on to forming little tribes, then organized civilization, and then finally into space and beyond. Gameplay in the middle stages loosely resembles popular strategy titles like Civilization or Age of Empires.
Choices made in each stage (Herbivore diet or carnivore? Economic dominance or military?) affect how your creature evolves, and a timeline keeps track of all your shenanigans over the millennia.
Also connecting these sometimes disparate stages is your creature itself, every aspect of which you can modify and tweak through the game’s in-game editors (using “DNA points” accumulated through completing gameplay goals). Later stages allow you to design buildings, vehicles and aircraft for your civilization. Your creations are uploaded to an online “Sporepedia”, and each time you play a game of Spore, the game draws on what millions of other players have created and uploaded to populate your game universe. Indeed, your creatures have secret lives of their own in other people’s games—sometimes succeeding where you failed in global domination.
This underpinning of a collaborative, user-generated library is central to Spore’s approach— there are already more than 8.5 million creatures uploaded online, and animated discussions under way on the possibilities of modifying the game platform. What if we could have fire-breathing creatures, some ask. What about space stations? Realistic dinosaurs? What if someone could recreate all the species on earth? Or the Star Wars universe?
This is not to say that everything is perfect with the game.
The installation takes a fair amount of time, and occupies 4GB of hard disc space. Be warned, though, that the game’s copy protection compulsorily requires an Internet connection before you can start playing, and limits you to three installs per copy of the DVD. There is at present no (legal) way around this.
There are other gameplay annoyances too—the AI’s path finding is often silly, and the strategies for stages 2, 3 and 4, are painfully, painfully simplistic to anyone familiar with games. Spore flounders a bit in these middle sections, losing some of the vice-like grip it commands in the first and last stages.
But these pale in comparison to its triumphs—the procedurally generated music, which works excellently, the animation system, which handles just about every abomination you throw at it with panache, the charming art style and cheeky sense of humour and the liberal sprinkling of laugh-out-loud pop culture references.
Spore, then, is easy to recommend but tough to defend. For as many people who’ll find something enthralling, there’ll be others who’ll grit their teeth in frustration and wonder what the fuss is about. For experienced gamers, the very ambition that drives Spore may seem to drag it down into a jumble of half-realized ideas.
But even if everything about the game seems cutesy and gimmicky, Spore is undoubtedly a part of video game history in the making. So, go on then. Go forth and spo-create!