A meteor from some unknown point in space crashes to the surface of a small planet and scatters bits and pieces of red-hot space rock over the landscape and oceans. As the quickly cooling rocks sink into the depths they break open releasing tiny microbic organisms. And a new life-form takes hold in a once barren world.
That may sound like a "coming soon" promo on the History Channel. But it's actually the opening scene in Electronic Arts' already here video game Spore—the latest creation from Will Wright, famed architect of the immensely popular game series The Sims. Wright's newest brainchild can easily be labeled as one of the most ambitious video games ever made for the E10+ crowd. And it's not that it's a particularly complicated or difficult game. In fact, its more like three or four simple games rolled into one. But compared to your average Sims title, this is literally a whole different animal.
Gods and Monsters
In the expansive Spore, gamers are set up with the godlike ability to evolve their very own "different animal" from primordial ooze beginnings to a world-conquering future. The centerpiece of this march toward sentience, and arguably the most imaginative part of the game, is the creature creation tool. During the first two stages—Cell Stage and Creature Stage—the tool helps you evolve your critter and give it the traits and physical hardware you think it'll need to survive. Starting as a blobby carnivore or herbivore, your little guy—let's call him Fred—grows by eating plants or the meat from other blobby wrigglers. Slowly, it gathers shape-changing DNA.
When the DNA meter hits a decent level, Fred gives birth to his next generation by meeting up with another of his kind and dancing a cute mating ritual, complete with floating hearts (a brief interlude that confirms Grandma's admonition that dancing will surely lead to babies). Now it's time for the gamer to roll up his sleeves and get down to the real work of evolution.
Players shape and refit Fred's resulting offspring with whatever fins, spikes, legs, arms, mouths, wings, etc. that their gathered DNA can afford. Each part of this artfully beautiful (or slapdashingly repugnant) creation can then be twisted, tuned, resized and reshaped to produce just about any animated creature imaginable.
And, boy, do people seem to love creating these critters! When the game's designers pre-released a creature-designing module in hopes that online players might come up with some inventive creations by the game's official release date, they expected 100,000 or so. By launch they had over 4 million unique beasties to add to the gaming mix.
Eventually, Fred the Fifth (or Sixth, or Seventh) will sprout some legs and take his show up on dry land. There he'll wander around and make advancements by either learning how to sing, dance and charm other groups of animals onto his side—or by evolving into a sharp-taloned, pointy-tusked killing machine that will aggressively claw its way to the top of the heap. Whichever path he chooses, though, he ultimately establishes his basic traits and gathers enough virtual DNA to grow a reasoning brain.
Gameplay changes at this point as the creatures stop evolving and players stop dictating what a single Fred will do. Instead, you're put in charge of a tribe of Freds (Tribal Stage), then a society of Freds (Civilization Stage) and, eventually, a space-exploring race full of Freds (Space Stage). Each of these sections is essentially a real-time strategy game that demands players devise a plan to influence the world (and the galaxy) around them.
You do that by 1) aggressively attacking other cities, 2) winning others over with economic dominance, or 3) turning enemies' hearts through religious conversion. Regarding the first option: Onscreen military assaults avoid all but the most minimal physical signs of damage or blood-and-guts casualties. As for the third: Vaguely gospel-ish music is as close as this game gets to what you might think of as religion. Spore isn't really faith-based or spiritual, but consists of civilizations that "harness the power of words and ideas to convert other nations to their way of thinking."
On the subject of religion, designer Wright describes himself as, "Definitely an atheist. Well, agnostic atheist maybe." And that definitely, well, probably explains why his game is hardly heavy-handed (just look at a few of the creatures that've already been created if you don't believe me) but still makes no bones about accepting the theory that a single-cell organism can slowly develop the ability to walk upright and think its way into organized societies.
"I think the game is really trying to give an overview of evolution in a way that is very toy-like and caricature-like. We put the player in the role of an intelligent designer. When we first started the prototypes [of Spore] that wasn't the case," Wright said in an interview with USA Today. "We had the game carefully mutating things and it just was not emotionally engaging. When we put the players in the role of intelligent designer, then people were much more emotionally attached to what they made. But if you step back from it, you see creatures over many generations get more advanced. All this happens over billions of years. So, however you slice it, it's definitely not a creationist universe. You might say it has aspects of intelligent design."
That's a pretty fine line for a video game filled with Freds to walk ... once Fred figures out what appendages to grow so he can walk, of course. Thus, some will see Spore as a creative and involving apologetic for Darwinian evolution. Others may decide its ludicrous "process" and wacky creatures diminish the idea that brainless blobs can somehow come up with a game-plan for world domination.
Wright won't care much either way. "A game like this can actually generate interesting meaningful conversation between people," he said in Time magazine. "I think that's the best thing it can do."