A show dog. A Mastino Napoletano, a flawless specimen, claws and ears cut, straight-up head, huge skin hanging organized off its massive body. Sure, it’s impeccable, brushed, washed and raised with the healthiest diet a show dog can get, but it’s dead.
Layed out, a giant on a showlight-burned podium, tongue out and a dozen flies looping over its big, black head. Under rounds of applause and enthusiastic smiles, he’s awarded the golden medal – a perfect animal in the eyes of the jury. It’s just too bad he won’t ever be able to bring back your Frisbee or play with your kids. This is Spore.
And before you object or disagree, let me explain.
I neither support, nor deny Will Wright’s ingenuity – I don’t have the qualification or arrogance to claim I know anything personal about the guy, but it’s without a doubt that he found a very stable market by leaning on people who like to play God. More so, from a certain perspective you could say all Maxis games, from Sim City to Spore, have certain design and presentation qualities that make them particularly interesting, especially for people who don’t take video gaming all that seriously.
And because it’s been recently discovered that hardcore gamers aren’t as relevant as the casual ones, the hilarious statement on the Sims 3 flyer should come as no surprise – „What would happen if you had to live your entire life in one location… and then, one day, all of a sudden, you could go out and stroll around your neighborhood?” Sure, not everyone’s a housewife or a retiree, but there’s a huge difference between a simple game and an idiotic one.
The keyword here is „game”. The challenge, the thrill, with winners, losers, a ruleset, a bit of risk, perhaps even an interesting storyline on top of it all. Even if we like different genres – different games – different elements – we’ll always have one thing in common: we’re throwing away our boring everyday realities for a substitute that’s more fun.
And when we realize, sadly, that the substitute is interesting, but not fun; cute, but not phenomenal; accessible, but a bit thin – it won’t matter at all how good it looks or how original it is – we’ll just lay down in lethargy on our sofas, beds, desk chairs, looking for a spark of life on a dead screen.
Largely, Spore is an anthology of five simplified versions of games we’ve already seen, tied together with perhaps the most natural and well-made vehicle, creature and building editor ever created in a video game.
In the beginning, you choose your native planet out of a few premade formats. You choose whether the original cell will consume other living things or be a vegetarian. The game’s freedom, possibly its greatest asset, shows itself from the first five minutes – by using the editor and various accessories that can be added to your cell, even the diet can be changed: omnivore, carnivore or herbivore, regardless of your original choice.
The editing part aside (through which you may add cilia for speed, wings for faster turns, spikes, poison glands and other defense mechanisms or change your cell’s shape) the first stage is identical to Flow. The purpose here is to eat until you get big enough to be ready for the next stage, carefully dodging (other) predators in the process, and gathering various accessories to unlock them in the editor, and then adding them to your creature. Just like Flow, after a few growths you float up to the next level, where the clarity and lighting changes, indicating that your minuscule cell moves up in the world.
Depending on which path you choose for your species’ behavior in the world, you are shown a graph that depicts the stereotype you fall under and the rewards and special abilities it brings in future phases. This would be a very interesting aspect, had it brought functionality along – but the first four phases are so simplistic and short. So the graph is rather decorative than truly functional and useful.
The next step is a very sketchy RPG, during which you control your nest’s alpha male and interact with other species. If the first stage defined your species’ personality through eating habits, this next one has you either eradicating other species to obtain DNA points or imitate them to befriend (and later, ally with) them. And despite the whole sandbox mechanic, it’s all very linear – you gather potential limbs, mouths, wings and other such bio-accessories, and you either stomp or impress other creatures until you’re evolved enough to discover fire.