Fangirl Plays Spore, Part 1

Whee, I'm doing backflips in the primordial soup!

So finally I got Spore. When it was released in 2008, I heard much about it, of course, and continued to keep an eye on it. It wasn’t one of those games I’d buy for full price on release date, so as usual I waited a little. The criticism I read at the time (and since) was always a mixture of enthusiasm and disappointment. Enthusiasm because the game was quirky and fun – disappointment because it lacked behind the promised epicness of true evolution. Eventually, I forgot about it, as I suspect did everyone else, since Spore never became the historic hit to rival The Sims. Apparently Will Wright later said that the game was supposed to be aimed at more casual players, and yet he claimed it had “more depth” than The Sims. [1]

The first statement is certainly true from what I can judge right now – and yet the game seems just a little too particular, a little too special to make it truly casual in the sense he might have meant it. I found it easy to get into, but at some points quite convoluted and needlessly complex, and I can see how someone might lose interest along the way. (I read “casual” here as meaning either children or adults who aren’t usually that into games.) I don’t think Spore has more depth than The Sims, simply because I have seen the incredible and never-ending creativity that players have brought to the latter, making it much more “deep” than it was probably intended to be. Spore was set up to interface in a similar way with a fan base, with self-made objects and designs implemented into the game. It doesn’t look like that ever took off the way it should have… the online community certainly looked like I was about 20 years too old to feel comfortable there.[2]

While I really was intrigued by the whole evolution mechanic (which of course was then criticized for being almost nothing like how evolution works but more on that later), I disliked the comic graphic style and was put a little off by the DRM debate. Yet my original interest was awoken once more when someone pointed out a guy called Nerd³ on Youtube, who does some seriously cool Let’s Play stuff and more. And he did a month on Spore last summer, which is hilarious, go see it. I realised that I’d never really seen much of the Spore gameplay before, mostly only screenshots, and, well, and the rest is a surprisingly hassle-free (and apparently DRM-free) purchase on Amazon Downloads. Hooray!

I am going into this “review” without any prior knowledge, so bear with me should I reverse my opinion half-way through to the end, and I’m writing this pretty much to the moment. I had no great expectations, really, I was mostly curious. So that is probably why I was so positively surprised by Spore in general. A few negative points to begin with, though: The controls are really sluggish. They’re pretty much the same as in The Sims, and I don’t like the camera pan there, either. It just always feels like I’m dragging my mouse through pudding. Why would I wanna do that?! Seriously, guys, you can design a game that emulates evolution (kind of…) but you can’t design proper controls? Also, you cannot change the key bindings, you’ll just have to accept them for what they are. The options are rather limited in all respects. The graphics still look decent though. The resolution scales nicely, and the performance is better than The Sims 3 on my computer, which is not much younger than Spore.

So, let’s dive right into the primordial soup with our little critter. I am usually all for socializing over fighting – hence my green swimming thingy will be a vegetarian. Eat plankton, not war! Or something like that. The Cell Stage is pretty much just swimming around and eating. Swimming away from predators (which look awesome in the background, btw) and eat some more green stuff. If you “evolve” your dude some bad-ass choppers you can attack other critters, too, and if you’re into meat, you can chomp them down. You can start parallel games in one universe, which is pretty neat, so my boyfriend moved in next door and created little pink predators! So I got a good look at the carnivore side of the game, and actually, it is not pretty. All the comical graphics cannot make up for the nasty crunching, chomping sound you make when you eat an opponent. *shudder*

As simple as the Cell Stage is, it is still somehow a lot of fun. When you’ve eaten enough and absorbed some DNA from meteor rock fragments, you get to the “evolve some legs” phase pretty fast. However we both had so much fun swimming around, we almost overstayed our welcome in the comfy embrace of the water.

But eventually, you tire of the pointless swimming around, glue some legs onto the little buddy and evolve to the Creature Stage. Everything still looks pretty underdeveloped now, but soon, we shall RULE ZE GALAXY.. er, I mean, build huts and stuff. The moment my creature called out to its fellows and crawled on land and made a nest was actually really sweet. The planets look awesome, there’s a glorious night sky and I enjoyed the atmosphere.

What’s interesting here is that we tried to figure out the gender of our creatures. You mate with another from your tribe, complete with little pink hearts and “appropriate” romantic music! That’s Maxis for you, I guess – at least they didn’t call it “woohoo”! Ah well, actually the mating dance is adorable. Then, my little avatar crawled into the nest to lay an egg. (There’s no choosing how your creatures reproduce, so no mammals I guess.) So am I the guy or the girl? It really doesn’t matter, but I kinda like that they deliberately leave it open. For all I know, my species is hermaphrodite, or even asexual, and the mating’s just for fun!

The Creature Stage is really great in its simplicity. I explore the world, collecting DNA from “ancient bones” and eat delicious fruit. Or, in the case of the pink, aggressive Carax, you run around eating your neighbours. Honestly, the crunching sound is … pretty horrifying! I’m usually not the squeamish type, but… seriously, Maxis! Who recorded this!

By this point of the game, I no longer care about “proper” evolution. It’s so much fun to attach new legs, arms, poisonous pimples (!), spikes, antennae etc. etc. to the creature! To re-colour them, every time! To completely re-design them! No consistency needed, wheee! Experimenting is fun.

 

Okay, I admit I did stay mainly close to my original (lame) dinosaur idea. My boyfriend got a little more creative with the Carax, as you can see.

Yes, they have poison-spewing glands on their lips. THEIR LIPS. (Actually, this does seem useful.Think of how easily they can get out of any romance-gone-wrong.) This is the reason we are both having so much fun with this game. You can keep it conservative, if you wish, but you can also just go batshit crazy on the creature designer. It’s pretty funny to see the baby versions of them… in the case of the Carax, their eyes almost smush into each other, it’s ridiculous. I’m not posting any videos here, but the way they walk is also beyond hilarious. I could just look at these pink dudes waddle around all day, with the sound their little hoofs make on the grass… and then they murder some innocent tribe and eat THEIR HEARTS OUT. Seriously, they grab the other animal, rip a chunk out of them that looks like their hearts. The body even wobbles a little from the tearing. And the crunching.

No, I am obviously not getting over this. I thought this game was for kids.

Meanwhile, my adorable little dinosaurs are making friends with the neighbours. And OH MY GOD THEY’RE DANCING. And singing. Oh god, this is so adorable. It actually took me longer than I care to admit to figure out the whole “social” system of the game, and not only in the Creature Stage. There is a little bit of a tutorial going on, but it didn’t really help that much to be honest. You have to choose new body parts (as many as you can, really, which makes for the ridiculous looks) that give you certain skills. Funky fronds make you “prettier”, and the right nimble footwork lets you dance better, so you can impress other species. Or you could just put poisoned pimples, hooves and horns on your creature and take it from there.

So my dinosaurs got prettier (at least I thought so) and impressed a bunch of races. Some of them don’t like you from the start, and if you cannot avoid running into them you should invest some DNA into a bit of a defense. Even the gentlest vegetarian won’t make it without some spikes… or wings, to fly away with! I did have to experiment a little with the wings though. As you can see, my little duck dinosaur here is having slight balance issues.

Eventually, I got them the better model of wings. Yeah, that’s just the kind of generous God I am. (Am I the God here? Or am I the creature? Or are we dancer?? Moving on…)

Eventually, as I said, I had to make my Prine a bit more resilient, and gave them cool-looking dinosaur spikes. Also, they got better hands, which almost looked human. This I found a little creepy; it looked like someone had sawed off human hands and crafted them onto the Prine. *shudder* And I got to kill stuff, too. Although when my dudes accidentally ate the flesh of their victims, they puked it all out again. The game kindly reminded me that they were, ahem, herbivores, in a tone not unlike really convicted vegans sometimes do in restaurants. (No offense.)

It’s quite laughable actually how the game makes it clear who the “bad” guys are: Aggressive, carnivorous races have aggressive-sounding names, spikes ALL OVER them and usually really mean, squinty eyes. The nice creatures will be fluffy, colourful, have cutesy names and – seriously – eyelashes!

In the case of these pear-like … birds?… over here, I thought my attack was entirely warranted, just out of superiority. I didn’t eat them, but hey, survival of the fittest, dudes! Grow some LEGS, for crying out loud!! Didn’t you collect ancient bones for DNA points, like I did?!

As you can see, I am having tons of fun in the Creature Stage. My species even got so good at dancing, singing and posing that I managed to charm an Alpha creature; they’re lone warriors without a tribe that roam the countryside and generally eat everybody else, so I felt pretty sophisticated for charming this one. Eventually though, you got all the DNA points you need, and you get to “finalize” your species. The game kindly suggest that it might be a good idea to get your dudes some arms and hands for the next stage, otherwise holding spears and building huts might be kinda hard. I think I will actually try that the next time – make a race of cows, with no hands, only hooves, and let them progress into the Tribal Stage, just for the lolz.

But for now, let’s move on to the next Stage – stay tuned!


[1] Interview with Will Wright in 2008

[2] I realize that according to the numbers Spore seems still very popular, and yet I know nobody of my acquainted gamers who played it. A friend of mine laughed when I told her I played it now, and she said they referred to it as one of the great Fails – since it failed to deliver according to expectations.

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