Intelligent Design


I finally got to play some of Spore tonight, ending up just partway through the tribal phase. I’m in danger of overusing the word, but I can’t think of a better one to describe it than “wonderful.” (I could be biased, since several of my friends are on the team, but then we’re not that good friends, because I haven’t talked to them in a long time since they’ve all been busy making Spore).

The game is proof that videogame reviews are broken. The negative reviews I’ve read complain that there’s not enough to do (a common complaint about The Sims, and we’ve all seen how poorly that series has done). Or, they compare Spore to Flow (or Pac-Man) plus World of Warcraft plus a real-time strategy game plus Civilization plus Master of Orion or Elite, and then fault the game for coming up short. It’s “dumbed down” or “oversimplified,” we’re told. Or it tries to be too many games, but just comes across as mediocre mini-games, none of which is as good as “the original.”

Then it’s compared to The Sims, but it’s not as good as that because of reason x (most commonly, that you can’t model your friends and family like you can with The Sims). And plus, the reviewer’s girlfriend or wife loves The Sims but is bored with Spore, which is proof that they’ve lost their audience.

Before I’d actually seen the game, and just seen snippets of videos online, or gotten cursory progress reports from friends over the past couple of years, I thought the complaints could be valid. After seeing the different parts — as I said, I’m not even halfway through yet — work in concert, I think that the complaints are missing the point on a colossal scale.

Spore does borrow the mechanics of other games, but it doesn’t use them in the same way as those games. To make a tortured analogy: dismissing the game for being a “dumbed-down” RTS would be like looking at a poem written in French and dismissing it as gibberish. The letters are the same, but it’s the meaning that’s important.

If it should be compared to any game, it’s The Sims. Not for this mysterious audience of “casual gamers and women” that people who un-ironically call themselves “hardcore” gamers don’t understand, but for the experience of interactive discovery and creation that it brings the player.

After just a few hours of playing, I’ve already had a dozen moments that aren’t quite like anything I’ve seen in a game before: surprise, and discovery, and wonder, and experimentation. As a cell, you’ll see dim shadows of huge predators, knowing that it won’t be long before you’re big enough to eat them. As a creature, you’ll walk over a ridge and see a pack of bizarre creatures created by some stranger. A meteor storm will come out of nowhere, sending other creatures running in panic. A spaceship will fly overhead to check everything out. It’s all familiar, but alien at the same time. And there’s always something pointing you forward to the next stage.

That widget at the top of this post should let you see parts of the evolution of my creature (plus some older ones I made with the Creature Creator), but you can’t see the same feeling that I did when I opened up the Sporepedia after a few hours playing. In the full game, they’re all lined up for you, from single celled organism to Tribal Chieftain (and beyond), and I can remember each step, but am still surprised to see the progression. Even though the game is about evolution, and constantly mentions helping your organism “evolve,” and showing you the evolution on a graph at the end of each stage, you still don’t really get the sense of evolution until you take a step back and see how the thing really has changed over time.

And every moment is filled with that sense of creation; you can’t get away from it. As fits the theme and the subject matter, everything you see is about that spark of life, that moment of creating something new. This is the only videogame that could accurately (but fruitily and pretentiously) be described as “fecund.” The creators aren’t add-on modding tools (although you can get to them individually, if you want); they’re key to the whole experience. Many of the previews I’ve read mentioned that everything in the game is created in one of the editors, but that makes it sound like a “nice touch” or a “bonus add-on,” or a marketing bullet point on the back of the box. It’s only when you get in there that you understand that creation and change are what the whole thing is about.

The other common complaint is that it’s a spectacular toy, it’s just not a game. From what I’ve seen, neither word quite does it justice. Spore‘s UI gives the player all kinds of scores and graphs and meters and objectives, and game reviewers seem to be going after those objectives and then complaining that it was too easy (or later, too hard). What they’re missing is that the objectives aren’t the end, they’re the means to an end. Shadow of the Colossus isn’t about beating bosses, it’s about that feeling of loss and loneliness and obsession and majesty. Rock Band isn’t about filling a star meter, it’s about performance and about hearing music in a new way. And if Spore is “about” anything, it’s about that sense of creation, and exploration, and discovery, and bounty.

That said, the DRM does kind of suck.

1 thought on “Intelligent Design”

  1. I’m really glad I read this. I’ve not played the full version of Spore yet, although I did buy the $10 Creature Creator.

    My reasons for ignoring the full game largely spun from the realization that if a PC game isn’t a MMORPG or (sometimes) an adventure game, I simply don’t spend much time with it. More of a monetary thing.

    That said, the reviews have been kind of mystifying. It’s kind of like when you read a review of a $10 Wiiware or XBLA game and the reviewer is upset that it doesn’t have more and more and doesn’t last more than 10 hours. That is more of a construction argument than a gameplay argument, but I find it to be of a similar mindset.

    I’m not sure what preconceived notions reviewers are required to have when they play a game, but it’s generally amusing reading the things and picking up on just how many things about the game they’re choosing to remain oblivious to in the interests of pigeonholing the title into a certain, understandable label.

    I guess what bothers me about a lot of it is that it is incredibly, incredibly rare for me to read a review that actually gives me an idea of how much fun the player had with the game. Usually if I do, they’re not from the obvious places.

    Maybe I’m just cynical, though.

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