After our likeness : “Spore”

In Will Wright’s Spore, your task is to take a primordial life-form and evolve it to stand upright, form tribes, and ultimately traverse space. If this sounds complicated and ambitious, it’s because it is: Spore is a veritable five-course meal of a title – five “phases,” each built around a different game genre, all packed into one box. You start out in phase one helping a single microbe become the big fish in a little pond, and you wind up in phase four directing a civilization to conquer the world. The corresponding gameplay also progresses from arcade to shooter to strategy. Whether Wright is mapping the history of video games onto biological evolution or vice versa, in his universe life began when a seminal meteorite plunked into a receptive pond, and video games began with a coin dropping into Pac Man.

Given that premise, Spore could have resembled one of those science museums that uses computer kiosks to jazz up the taxidermy. But Wright is a curator who wants you to not just touch the velociraptor, but rearrange its skeleton. In phases one and two of the game, you reshape your organism to better overcome the challenges of survival. It’s like Mr. Potato Head for high school biology, where an herbivore becomes a predator by swapping mouths. In phase one you’ll have a limited anatomical palette to customize your 2D microbe, but phase two’s grander 3D canvas lets you create anything from flying snails to two-headed spidersaurs. Let go of the mouse and, like some doodler’s daydream, your new creation springs to life, warbling or grunting or chirping a greeting. It’s tempting to look your creation in the eye and sense a soul peering back.

Few developers have aspired as Wright has to marry player creativity to deep gameplay. Sure, many games let you dress up your characters (see Webkins and Club Penguin) or even conduct full facelifts (Wii’s Miis and Oblivion). Wright’s particular genius is to attach meaningful consequences to your design choices. In his Simcity series, laying out a neighborhood invokes both practical and aesthetic considerations. Putting homes in the shadow of power plants not only looks ugly but also spawns unhappy Sim residents. Spore expresses a similar ambition to interweave design with play, and the game initially nails it. It imbues the act of creating a microbe with the same pleasure that gamers get from assembling the perfect fantasy baseball team, Pokémon deck, or Elven magician. Put spikes on the front of your microorganism to impale rival pond-dwellers head-on, or move them to the back to thwart pursuing predators. Sadly, however, this what-you-see-is-what-you-get feeling of efficacy doesn’t last long. In phase two putting spikes on the tail of your creature does not let it thrash enemies like a Stegosaurus; it will still charge like a rhino, as if you had placed horns on its head. This is only a minor disappointment – seeing your creation walk at all, not to mention dance and sing, still deeply flatters your imagination – but as Spore shifts perspective from the individual to the social in phases three and four, that cushion of charm disappears, leaving behind very little of meaning in their respective canvasses. Designing clothing or buildings or vehicles for your creatures, as you’re asked to do in those phases, has little to no effect on the game. Worse, your work product is barely even visible on screen.

It’s the fifth and final phase of the game, set in space, that reveals the core principle underlying Spore: scale. In phase five, a few spins of the mouse wheel lets you zoom out from wild spidersaurs bounding across a pink prairie to the entire, wide, luminous galaxy. And your canvas becomes whole planets, which you can populate with favored species or scribble on with rivers and mountains. So it’s clear how phases three and four went wrong: they failed to match the scope of player creativity to the scale of the gameplay. When thinking about your Pterosnails’ tribal life in phase three, designing costumes seems much less relevant than articulating their social structure (do Pterosnails form hives, flocks, or prides?) and establishing symbioses with other species (does befriending the rhinoctopus give you a new hunting partner, steed, or source of eggs?). And as important as architecture may be, it seems a lot less central to civilization (phase four) than security, prosperity and sustainability. (The game apparently agrees, given that redesigning factories and homes has no effect on gameplay at all). Considering that Wright made urban planning a fit subject for games, it seems he missed a chance to lift the eyes of gamers to similar, perhaps even grander concerns.

Spore adopts the general theme of biological evolution (the National Geographic Channel even made a companion DVD for the collector’s edition), but it’s a “God game,” and Intelligent Design necessarily trumps Darwin. In this, game developers and theists have common cause: agency is central to why we play games, and more deeply to our intuitions about why we exist. Even if God didn’t literally create us in His own image, humanity must be the telos of evolution, just as Spore must be the culmination of video game history. (Wright subtly makes this point in phase five, when you can tweak other planets’ creatures and thereby play Spore-within-Spore). Of course that sense of agency is mostly illusory, generated when we hand ourselves over to the auteur more fully than we might for any film. But even if Wright retains the role of demiurge, playing at an Olympian godling has its own pleasures. If you like, you can fly around the galaxy swatting lesser creatures for wanton sport. I had more Promethean ambitions, planting a monolith amongst a primitive tribe of walking cucumbers that, 2001-like, uplifted them to civilization and then space travel. Presently, I watched in horror as my newly enlightened, spacefaring pickles began conquering their neighbors. As I blotted out this emerging menace to my virtual galaxy, I wondered what, here in our own universe, humanity’s Creator might make of us.