Spore: A Universe to Play In
The Good: Charming sense of wit; diverse game play; user-generated content
The Bad: Disappointing graphics; simplistic early game play
The Bottom Line: "Sim Everything," indeed
An asteroid hurtles toward a distant planet. Smacking the surface, the rock sends a blush of glowing red ash into the air. In the steaming gloop left behind, a soup of new life, countless amoebas begin vying for evolutionary supremacy. It's the beginning of the world as they know it—and I feel fine.
The game I am playing is the long-awaited Spore, to be released Sept. 7 by Electronic Arts (ERTS). Spore, of course, is the brain child of Will Wright, the creator of the best-selling Sims series and the closest thing the gaming industry has to its own Einstein—a super-genius with the chutzpah to attempt to devise a unifying theory of everything. Or, in this case, a game that simulates everything from life's first steps to the clash of advanced, space-faring civilizations. Spore is billed as a "universe in a box," and after three years of delays and mounting anticipation, that's exactly what the game makers have delivered.
Spore lets players design and guide a species through various stages of evolution, from Single Cell to Space Age. As players' characters become more advanced, the gameplay also changes drastically. The first stages are like a graphically rich Pac-Man whereas the most sophisticated space-faring stages include elements of strategy and role-playing games. The emphasis is on creativity, apparent in the object and creature editors that allow players to morph their characters. (In later stages, players can use these tools to design buildings or vehicles, too.)
Spore's chief innovation is a heavy reliance on user-generated content. By piping in creatures and worlds designed by other gamers who have connected their copies of the game to the Internet, players can explore a nearly infinite assortment of virtual universes. Gamers interact with copies of others' creations, not with other gamers per se. (The game's designers have also prepackaged the game with a zoo's worth of quirky creatures.) All this content can be browsed via the game's so-called Sporepedia, a library of all the creatures being created by other players that's useful and easy to navigate.
Experiencing a Whole New Universe
The result? An openness and variety that imbue the game with a palpable sense of discovery. In just a few weeks of prerelease testing, the variety of creatures flourished impressively as other journalists and testers' creations were uploaded. Given the creative potential, I wouldn't be surprised if players are still delving into Spore's mysteries a decade from now.
Spore's designers have also baked in a sense of wit and humor, something sorely lacking in many games. Initiating a mating sequence in the Creature level, for example, the characters launch into a kitsch dance to a tongue-in-cheek bossa nova soundtrack. In Civilization, as creatures begin to become more sophisticated, a short sequence parodies Stanley Kubrick's famous simian scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. This kind of whimsy makes the game not only accessible to children and adults, but also charming to play.
Spore isn't an unqualified success, however. Designers have adopted a cartoon-like style that will likely age well, but on the basis of early demonstrations of the game, I was hoping for more sophisticated graphics. I also found myself rushing through the game's comparatively simple early stages to get to the more advanced later gameplay, which made it hard to appreciate the subtleties of the earlier levels. And, most important, Spore is less a game than it is sophisticated software. This is not so much about gameplay as spending time in another universe. The experience takes time to fully appreciate.
Still, on balance Spore delivers on its ambitious promises. Anticipating its release, eager fans cavalierly referred to it as the "God Game" or "Sim Everything." Will Wright & Co. really have created just that.