Spore: Turning Gold into Lead

What’s wrong with Spore?

This is the question that’s been occupying me this week. With the help of about an hour on the phone to India I managed to resolve my DRM issues and played the game for days and days. It leaves me a bit cold.

But frankly, I expected Spore to leave me a bit cold, since I’m one of the 2% of the population that doesn’t like The Sims. The interesting thing is the particular way it leaves me cold, which I didn’t expect, and that I’ve noticed is that it’s leaving other people a bit cold, people who should like it. I think this is worth examining in some detail.

Early previews and PR surrounding Spore pitched it as a sort of “sim to end all sims.” You didn’t design creatures, you “evolved” them. The implication, or at least the inference many of us made, was that Spore was primarily about designing species and then watching them do their stuff; in other words, more like Sim City than Space Invaders.

The truth is, sadly, more mundane. As Yahtzee noted in his brilliant video review, instead of being a unified simulation, Spore is actually 5 old games remade and stuffed into one package. For my purposes, I’ll call them Pac-Man, Street Fighter, Dune II, Civilization, and Master of Orion.

In the Pac-Man segment of the game, you swim around an oceanic maze avoiding ghosts (“carnivores”) and eating pellets. In the Street Fighter phase you wander around a lanscape and either beat up other races or charm them into allying with you. Dune II is a sort of real-time strategy segment where you destroy (or, again, charm) other tribes by moving your tribe members around, and Civilization involves conquering other cities around the world. Lastly, in Master of Orion (Yahtzee compares this part of the game to Star Control, which is also fair) you try to conquer the universe through means fair and foul, by flying a ship around, talking to other species, and settling and terraforming other planets.

Skeximoose

Skeximoose

Throughout all of this, you are constantly designing creatures, buildings, and vehicles, so Spore probably holds great appeal for those who love tweaking the visual appearance of on-screen creations. I am, alas, not one of those people. But I don’t hold that against the game.

What I do hold against the game, however, is how quotidian each of the segments is. The common thread, the unifying missed opportunity is that in each segment of the game you are in complete control.

Your creature isn’t swimming around the ocean looking for plants to eat: you are steering it into the plants.

Your creation isn’t wandering the primal landscape dancing with (or fighting) other creatures, you are telling it “Dance. Now sing. Now pose.”

Your civilization isn’t trying to conquer an enemy city through propaganda, you are ordering them to build the trucks, then telling the trucks to move to this spot, then telling them to broadcast.

The promise of Spore was, in my mind at least, a world of automata, where there’s always the chance that your creations may do stupid or boring things, but where there’s a chance that, every so often, they might do something rich and strange. But in Spore, there is not richness in the gameplay. There is richness in the player-created art – and let’s be honest, that’s really all we can call the creatures and houses and vehicles, visual art – but there is no richness in the gameplay. Anyone who wants that sort of, dare I say it, numinous experience should put down Spore and pick up Dwarf Fortress instead. More surprising and interesting things happen in 10 minutes of Dwarf Fortress than happened to me in a week of Spore.

When I reached the Space stage of Spore, I had to confront my extreme sense of non-achievement. Talking to a friend about it, I said “The Space stage is probably the most interesting part of the game, but by the time I reached it I felt like the game had sapped my will to live.”

The craft of game design is something akin to alchemy. And, unfortunately, it seems to me that the creators of Spore have transmuted their raw materials in the wrong direction.