Tooling around Deus Ex
Beautiful simplicity

Spore and the rush to judgment


Spore is a disappointment. That's the word on the interwebs and bloggoworld. Seven years in the making, the game generated unprecedented cross-media hype and sky-high expectations. Now, a full one day after most of us finally got our hands on it, Will Wright's magnum opus has been met by what feels like a collective 'meh' from the video game cogniscenti. Nice for the noobs, but too simplistic for us vets. Sort of an interesting toy, but where's the gameplay? Five so-so games "smushed together in a casual-player-friendly manner."[1] Actually, "Spore is kind of boring."[2]

The prevailing opinion seems to be that there just isn't enough game in Spore. As simulators go, it's incredibly ambitious, but most reviewers seem to think "real gamers" will find little to enjoy in Spore, at least until they reach the Space phase. The Sporepedia is interesting if you like looking at other people's stuff; and wow, people sure are making a lot of stuff.

I wonder, in the rush to judge the game and assign a review score to it, are we fairly seeing Spore for what it is, rather than what it isn't? How much do we really know about Spore at this point, given the intrinsically organic nature of the game, its content, and the many ways players will discover to mold, create, and play with its malleable universe? The standard process for evaluating games - advance copies sent to journos; hours spent playing through the game; reviews written and published in time for game release - may not be the best or most appropriate way to fairly evaluate every game. It seems to me a fair assessment of Spore should require more time.

I haven't finished Spore, if finishing it is even possible. But I have devoted many hours to it, and I consider what I've seen so far a stunning achievement. Astonishing, really. Playing Spore - experiencing it all for the first time; imagining, creating, and exploring the game as a vast universe of places, creatures, and ideas - is unlike any gaming experience I've ever had. Approaching Spore as a game with its own utterly unique agenda; and accepting, even admiring, its insistence that this experience be accessible to gamers and non-gamers alike - both are pivotal to understanding what Spore is all about.

Is it possible that by misconstruing certain stages as "Sims-lite" or "Civ-lite" we are missing the forest for the trees? Spore intelligently generates a complete, diverse ecosystem based on the design and evolution of your own unique creature, integrating an eco-appropriate sampling of creatures designed by other people around the world...all seamlessly, and beautifully on current-gen PC/Mac hardware.

And here's the thing: it all works! I haven't even mentioned the procedurally generated music or the eighteen different types of editors available to the player. As my son likes to say, 'Are you joking me?'

Part of my concern about the critical reception to Spore (I should mention the European scores are notably higher than the U.S. scores)  is the limited and restrictive definition of that word we all love to hate: gameplay. The problem, say 1UP and IGN and Gamespot, is that Spore mimics a hodgepodge of gameplay modes from other genres, but none of them especially well. If Spore were really about action, RTS, RPG, or any other familiar game genre, this criticism would be warranted. But it's not. Not at all, actually.

Spore enables the player to create her own experience, her own narrative, her own meaning. What you get with Spore isn't a formulaic set of genre-specific gameplay modes, despite the trappings of these in various phases of the game. What you get with Spore is the most phenomenal and breathtaking toolbox any game has ever delivered. Inside that toolbox are the most wonderful and fantastical tools any game has ever offered. What we will do with them, how they will evolve, and what impact they will have on our "gameplay" is still anyone's guess.

I have no idea at this moment what Spore means or if/how Spore will matter in the long run. But why do we need to know now? Why can't we wait and see what happens? The necessity of release-date summary judgments and final scores has never been clear or obvious to me. In the case of Spore, I think such treatment does the game a disservice. I think I'll hold off awhile before deciding what to think about Spore.