Videogame (2008). Maxis. Designed by Will Wright. Platforms: Mac, Win.
The Panspermia theory formulated by the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Svante Arrhenius hypothesizes that life is spread throughout the universe by drifting seeds, or spores. The game of Spore begins with a single cell, deposited in the ocean of an unknown planet by a convenient meteor; the player's goal is to evolve this organism into an intelligent species capable of building a starfaring civilization. Gameplay is divided into five distinct phases, beginning with a two-dimensional subgame in which the player must survive in the primordial soup, eating and avoiding being eaten. Food can be either other creatures or vegetable matter, depending on whether the player has chosen to adopt a herbivorous or carnivorous nature. The process of evolution is mimicked by the acquisition of body parts which can be combined with the creature's existing form, using a remarkably sophisticated and powerful software tool. At the end of this phase, the player's creation emerges from the oceans and moves on to dry land. Here it participates in a similar three-dimensional subgame in which it can either prey on others or attempt to ally with them, with the eventual goal of evolving a brain. Once this stage is complete, the physical form of the species is fixed, and it moves through phases representing tribal and technological civilizations, both of which resemble simple three-dimensional Real Time Strategy games. Again, it is possible to either cooperate with other cultures (the herbivore's approach) or conquer them (the carnivore's preference). These phases end with the (peaceful or otherwise) unification of the entire planet under the aegis of the player's civilization. The fifth, and final, stage of the game (for which Walter Jon Williams wrote the dialogue) is by far the most flexible and open ended, recalling Spore's working title of "SimEverything". In this phase the player can roam the galaxy in their own spacecraft, Terraforming and colonizing other planets, engaging in conflict or diplomacy with alien civilizations, and involving themselves in the development of primitive species (see Uplift). The design draws on both space exploration games (see Space Sim) and God Games, in a universe which has been modelled with considerable attention to detail.
The overall effect of the gameplay is remarkably charming. The player created species are consistently appealing, with a "phenotype" of elegant and amusing animations generated automatically from the "genotype" supplied by the player's decisions in the creation tool. While the central themes of the game are evolution and social development, they are approached in a manner reminiscent of a children's cartoon; the biology is poetically rather than scientifically accurate. New physical characteristics are either found or taken from other creatures and then passed on to offspring, a model which only vaguely resembles the Darwinian theory of evolution. Spore is also notable for its status as the first "massively single player online game". Unlike Massively Multiplayer Online Games, only one player at a time participates directly in the game. However, each player's experience is informed by the others' actions. The various species created by Spore's users, and the behavioural patterns demonstrated by them during play, are distributed across the internet and appear in the worlds inhabited and visited by each participant. Considerable effort has been devoted to supplying players with powerful tools that make constructing their own creatures, buildings and vehicles as easy as possible, employing the collective creativity of huge numbers of individuals to populate the game's simulated universe.
Structurally, Spore is perhaps best described as a God Game in which the player moulds the physical and social evolution of an entire species. It is, however, not a flawless work. While the first stage is well crafted and the last is an excellently designed, highly involving experience, the intermediate phases can become repetitive. A potentially more fundamental problem is the limited degree to which the player's actions in earlier phases affect their creations in later ones. With the exception of the basic approach taken to other creatures – peaceful or aggressive – acquired characteristics are generally only important in the stage after which they were gained. The physical form of the species, for example, has little impact on the final phase. Regardless, the creatures are clearly the stars of the show. The true goal of Spore is not, perhaps, to progress through the phases, but simply to experience the joy of shared creation.
Related works: Spore Creature Creator (2008 Maxis, Mac, Win) designed by Will Wright is a standalone version of the tools used to build species in Spore, released before the main game. Spore: Creepy & Cute Parts Pack (2008 Maxis, Mac, Win) is an expansion pack for the original game which supplies new components from which species can be constructed. Spore: Galactic Adventures (2009 Maxis, Mac, Win) is another expansion pack, one which adds additional complexity to the play of the game's fifth (and final) phase. Notably, players are able to create their own missions and share them with other participants on the internet, similarly to the way in which new creatures are distributed in the original work.
Many associated works have also been created, some of which appear to have little in common with their original beyond a desire to take advantage of its marketing budget. Spore Creatures (2008 Foundation 9, NDS) is a Console Role Playing Game (see Computer Role Playing Games) in which the player adopts the role of a creature kidnapped from their home planet and transported to a hostile world, an action which players of Spore can perform in the fifth stage of the game. Spore Origins (2008 Barbaroga / Tricky Software, iOS, Phone; 2009 WinPhone; 2010 Android) is an extended version of the first (two-dimensional) phase of Spore. Spore Islands (2009 Max / Area Code Entertainment, Social) is a much simplified version of the original game in which every participant controls a single Island, but every island is inhabited by species created by multiple players. Spore Hero (2009 Electronic Arts, Wii) is similar to Spore Creatures, but distinguished by the presence of a computer-controlled opponent which must be defeated. Spore Hero Arena (2009 Maxis, NDS) is a more combat-oriented variant of Spore Hero; its gameplay seems more suggestive of that of the Pokémon series of monster fighting games than that of the original Spore. Darkspore (2011 Maxis, Win) is an "action RPG" (see Computer Role Playing Games) in which participants form teams of creatures with which to play through a linear story of galactic war against the eponymous Hive Mind (see Interactive Narrative); reviews were mixed. [NT]
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