Spore – too clever for its own good?

There’s no question that the new EA game Spore is the creation of some very intelligent and smart people. It bursts with quality and creativity – rather like a Pixar movie. But does this translate into a decent game at the end of it?

I should make clear up front: if you’re looking for a game review then I’m not your man. I don’t really do computer gaming, never have – at least, not since a brief surge in the mid-90s when I got lured into the dark side of a first-gen PlayStation. I played the original Tomb Raider through to a finish (the first and only time I’ve managed that with a computer game), got rather good at Tekken (to the intense irritation of my friend who was a real-life martial arts expert), delighted in the old-fashioned arcade game feel of Soviet Strike, and of course indulged in many simulated Formula 1 Grands Prix.

Spore logo

Spore logo

Yet for the last ten years, there has been no computer gaming in my life – which makes my impulse purchase of Spore at launch three weeks ago a rather odd anomaly. I could explain it rationally – by saying it was the delight at finding a top computer game for the Mac being released at the same time as for the PC and PS3 and not a year later. Or the smug feeling that it was out in the UK three whole days before it went on sale in the US. Or that it demanded the very latest software/hardware specs for the Mac which happened to be exactly the spec of the new Mac I had just bought, so that for once I was perfectly set-up for it.

But in reality, it was the pre-release buzz on Twitter that set me up for the “impulse” buy. Not the official advertising and PR, mind – but the genuine, honest chatter of regular people, roughly divided into three categories: “What’s Spore?” “Have you played it yet, is it any good?” and “Isn’t it a huge disappointment?” For a few days it was the biggest topic in town, and I wanted to know more about the subject under discussion. Score (another) one for the power of social media.

So let me try and cover those three questions, starting with “What’s Spore?” The shortish answer is that it’s five loosely connected games which offer a strange highlights package of many other top-selling computer games of times past.

Spore cell stage

Spore cell stage

It opens with the “cell” stage where you play as a micro organism in a tide pool on an alien world. All you’re doing is going around trying to find things to eat and new DNA to assimilate, so that any time you reproduce you can go into the core of the game, the creature creator, and make adjustments to your biology so that you can become better armed, stronger and faster. if you succeed, you move onto the “creature” stage where your little organism achieves sentience and leaves the tide pool for the land, where it continues to explore, feed and evolve.

“Evolve” is the key word here, because what we have here is nothing more than an educational tool bringing evolution to life, and delightfully so. Creationists must be spitting blood, and I’m honestly surprised that there hasn’t been an outcry against the game in certain parts of the US Bible belt about the blatant sacrilegious heresy on display here, especially with much of the game’s advertising talking about the ability to become the “God” of your own universe.

After the biological stage, the game continues with social evolution – in the “tribe” stage your hero creature is now set and doesn’t change physically, but starts to acquire clothes, weapons, and places to live, sequing into the “civilisation” stage where the creatures are no longer in evidence and we’re working at a city level, with the ambitious aim of unifying the entire planet. And once that is achieved, then we arrive at the “space’ phase where we’re back with one hero creature as s/he sets forth into the universe to terraform other planets, seed them with creatures from other worlds, and watch them grow.

So is it any good? Well, to a non-gamer like myself – yes, it’s very good. It’s very sweet, very playable, and can easily suck several hours of your life from under your very nose. But for anyone expecting hard core gaming, with tough challenges combined with action and adventure, then I suspect that this is going to be one hell of a disappointment.

For one thing, this game feels very familiar from the moment you play it. The cell stage, for example, puts me oddly in mind of the ancient “Asteroids” arcade game, with your organism in the centre of the screen as you avoid perils coming in from all around; subsequent stages evoke memories of Civilisation and SimCity. That means there’s the problem of it feeling like a ‘compendium” of games, and as well as the familiarity, no matter how much you like one or two parts there are going to be sections that just don’t click with you: for example, I find myself rather cold on the “tribal” where you pick some creatures, tell them to go find food, eat, or attack a neighbouring village; and then you sit back and wait for it to happen. After the first person nature of the first two stages this feels rather uninvolving.

There’s also a problem with the depth of game play, and the difficulty. Even on the ‘hard’ setting, and even being a non-gamer, I found it impossible to fail or take too long on the first two stages. They feel more like children’s games – easy to get to grips with, and with infinite lives there’s no real peril involved, no real consequence to getting eaten or slain.

Creature stage

Creature stage

Yet paradoxically this is where I began to realise how clever this game is – while wondering at the same time whether that same cleverness might be a major problem with the game’s eventual success. Because they’ve made a greatest hits package, and they’ve made multiple levels so that there are parts of the game ideal for parents to play with their 3 year olds, others great for 10 year olds, and the later universe sections for the grown up gamers. It’s got something for everyone: but as an overall entity, does it have enough for anyone as a result?

As a non-gamer I actually like the lack of stress and pressure. If I play games at all, it’s for entertainment and relaxation, and I find the childlike pleasures of the “cell” stage to be thoroughly therapeutic, even down to the ambient “tide pool” background music. It’s what I imagine a sensory deprivation tank might be like … well, if they had a video game inset into the cover.

And here’s where the real cleverness of the game kicks in: because no matter how many times you play it, it’s always going to go differently. There are just too many differences in the way that you can modify your basic creature, too many decisions about what to eat and when, to end up at the same destination. Each time you get a different creature with different abilities, characteristics and – yes – even personalities. And each time, damn it all if you don’t become attached to that little critter. The lure of the game isn’t the challenge of ‘beating’ the game, but of doing right by the creature you’ve created and ensuring that he lives, grows and succeeds. It’s somewhat akin to digital parenthood, and it’s hard to walk away from responsibilities like that.

The other real clever aspect of the game is that it might just be the first “massively single-player online game” for the masses. You don’t interact directly with other players – so it’s no WarCraft, thank goodness – but you do interact with other player’s creations. It’s not just a small team of developers or even an artificial game intelligence bolting these wildly divergent and imaginative creatures together – it’s hundreds of thousands (ultimately millions) of people around the world, and every one is different. They appear as other creatures in your world, as yours do in theirs. Again, to use the child analogy, it’s like knowing that your kids are out there, leading their own life – and you want to know you’ve done your bit in making them successful.

In the creature section, you’ll occasionally see spacecraft flying around; sometimes they’re abducting other creatures. Sometimes they’ve crashed and been destroyed. It’s a fascinating detail even in this early, simple stage of the game: and it’s how the game comes together as a whole rather than just five separate games, because in due course you know that your creatures too will attain space flight, and you’ll design ships for them, and then you’ll be the one flying over the heads of other players’ alien creatures on other primitive worlds, abducting them and maybe being the one who crashes and burns. You’re glimpsing your creatures’ futures at the pinnacle of their evolutionary development.

That narrative gives the game an overall purpose, and the multi-player aspect makes this game deep in a completely different way from anything I’ve ever seen. Sure, it clearly builds upon the success of The Sims (which in turn builds on the SimCity game, the only other computer game I’ve ever played on a Mac back in the 90s) – so in a way, this computer game about evolution wears its own binary DNA evolution proudly and plainly on its sleeve.

As much as I like the game personally, and admire its ambition and attempt to do something different, I can’t help but wonder whether the hoards of computer gamers out there won’t be disappointed. It’s not for them; it’s a computer game for a wider audience, but whether that audience will hear the call and be tempted to dip a toe in the tide pool of video games I simply don’t know. I’m not convinced.

I’d like Spore to be a huge and lasting success like its Sims predecessor, in the same way that I’d like to love this game rather than admire it. But I suspect but might take some time to happen, and maybe not at all. Certainly the furore about the overly-restrictive digital rights management system (that limited the software to three installs) hasn’t helped its reputation among gamers, who have taken it out on the online review scores on sites including Amazon and resulted – ironically – in some of the highest piracy rates for a bestselling game of recent times.

And in the meantime, Spore gave me a major urge to go get the latest SimCity and play that instead. And while I spent a few hours merrily playing Spore one weekend, it was as nothing compared to the obsession that gripped me for hours upon hours building cities the next.

Which says a lot, I think.

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