BY MATT HUTCHINS
Will Wright is a game designer whose entire career seems to be bent upon the creation of the perfect sandbox. Sim City, the classic game of urban planning, was one of the first video games which encouraged the player to experiment and learn in a way which revealed principles of the real world. Its deceptively simple formula of building infrastructure and zoning out plots for homes, businesses, and industry was a huge success and launched Wright alongside Sid Meier and Peter Molyneux as one of the gurus of the god-gaming universe. Wright and the team at Maxis made history again with the virtual doll house game The Sims, which quickly became the most successful game ever. The Sims allowed American consumers to finally live out the perverse dream that by filling a house with junk they could create the perfect environment for the fulfillment of all of life’s needs. The quest to build the perfect virtual reflection of a flawed reality attracted millions of new gamers and taught them how much better life could be if you took out the garbage and got enough sleep, while at the same time giving them the perfect excuse to do neither.
Spore, Wright’s newest title, has once again redefined the limits of video games by combining Sim City’s build-and-grow mentality with the infinite customization of The Sims to create what is possibly the most grandiose and dynamic sandbox ever conceived. The scope of the game’s conceit could not be broader: allow the player to take a single-celled organism and evolve it to be the master of a galaxy. Despite its grandness, the experience, broken down into five stages, is surprisingly fun and light. In each stage, the player collects some new resource that advances the status of their species within the cosmic fishpond, acquires new tools and techniques for the domination of the environment, and makes choices that will affect the permanent character of the species.
In the cell stage, the consumption of food, which contains DNA, and collection of new parts allows the species to go from being a big paramecium in a small primordial soup to a small fish in a big pond. Once the player has eaten enough food to gain the genetic complexity for a brain, the leap is made from the water to the land. At this point, the cell’s status as an herbivore, carnivore or omnivore is locked in for all of eternity. On land, the player roams about in a landscape populated by other evolving creatures, collecting more parts and earning DNA by impressing other species or hunting them to extinction. The choice of food in the cell stage locks in certain types of body parts, and this results in lock-in guiding carnivores to a become more aggressive and herbivores to become more friendly. The creature creator, where the player designs their breed, is a startlingly powerful tool with an agile interface that a child could master. The Mr. Potato Head building blocks available can easily be combined and repainted to create an endless number of bizarre pets and monsters from the fantastic menagerie of a psychedelic children’s cartoon. The creature then goes out into the world to prove its survival skills and collect new modifications that allow the domination of more complex species and the development of the intelligence necessary to lead a pack of brethren.
At the end of the creature phase, the player gets a final opportunity to evolve their creation before entering the tribal phase. At this point, all choices, including the form of the species and its nature as social, adaptable, or a predator, are again locked in. The tribal and civilization stages allow the player to command a group of the creatures to either conquer or ally with all the tribes and then cities on the planet, and once the player’s civilization has become the supreme form of life on its homeworld, the species makes the jump to space and begins encountering empires from across the galaxy.
When the player moves through the civilization and space stages, the customization focuses on vehicles and buildings. This can at times be cumbersome, given the detail which is possible in each building, but when creative juices are lacking and time is short, a rich catalogue of structures and vehicles is available from the designers at Maxis and from other users. Indeed, every creature, building, vehicle, and alien race will be different in every game the player creates. Over time, the catalogue begins to fill with the player’s own creations, and some long-forgotten six-legged omnivore with cute flowers covering its back, crafted by the player’s own hand, might appear as the dominant species on a newly discovered world. The space stage allows players to move from colonizer to master of creation, progressively moving toward a seamless ability to interact and mold species that are at each of the other stages of the game’s developmental cycle. As these species are cultivated and collected, the player can then spread them across their collection of previously barren worlds, employing an array of terraforming tools to adjust the temperature and atmosphere of each planet to just the right level to sustain life.
Serious gamers will find that although Spore can be somewhat facile at times, it is never boring. The gameplay is quite addictive, given that at every moment there is some narrow mission available to direct the player toward their next step forward. This chase-the-carrot structure is made all the more enjoyable by the recursiveness of the sandbox tools. When the game itself becomes tiresome, the various designer tools provide a break. Once the design process becomes tedious, a new stage opens and the process is reset. SimCity players and the scientifically minded may be frustrated by the lack of any real planning on the part of the player.
Whereas the evolution of a creature presented numerous potential ways of demonstrating the catastrophic failure of misdirected development, there is no wrong move in the path to galactic dominance. In this sense, the evolutionary model in Spore resembles intelligent design more than Darwinism. It is nonetheless a rewarding thing to look backward across the arc of history from space wizardry to one’s own origin in a pool of proteins. To the extent that Spore provides a way for a five-year old to experience in the course of their play time some of the basic principles of evolutionary development, social organization, climatology and cosmology, it is a game which has the rare potential to spark the intellectual and creative curiosity of the young generation.