I am playing SPORE, and it is actually fun. I'm surprised because every game that has ever had Will Wright's name on it I have never enjoyed much.
I confess. I am not a fan of Will Wright's games. I appreciated them. I see what's great about them, and I am happy games like The Sims are so popular. But brilliant or not Wright's work has historically not been my taste. God games just don't hold my interest, I guess because I want dramatic situations, and for that I need an avatar. I want to know who I am and why I should care. This is why I never was able to get into Sim City because I just can't care about a city, about crime rate charts and economic graphs. The Sims was a step in my direction, because I do care more about people, about their daily lives, fears, dreams, and heartbreaks. But even then I couldn't bring myself to be that interested, partially because suburbia is something I'd rather forget, but also because I'm still just playing with dolls. The worst that could ever happen is a few of them break.
SPORE is different because for the first time in a Maxis game I am someone. I'm my little creature. I have agency. I make decisions. I'm not a god. I'm just a spunky dude trying to survive. SPORE is all about creating the creature you want to create, about being what you want to be. The key word here is you. It's not about playing with dolls. It's not about managing charts. It's about waving goodbye to your mate and children, walking out into the wilderness, spying some weird creature, going over to it, and wondering if you should try to communicate with it or kill it. The feeling at all times in SPORE is that these things are happening to you, not some silly dolls you are creating. For players like me it is a very different emotional experience when I, me, make the decision to kill a mother and eat her eggs because I am starving and want my own children to survive.
The fact that SPORE takes all the explosive moral, social, political, and spiritual dimensions present in The Sims and Sim City and brings them crashing down into the first person makes it emotionally unlike other Maxis games I've played. I chose to make my species carnivorous just to see what it was like, but I began having second thoughts when I faced the dilemma described above. I made friends with a few races, but when I got too hungry I tried to pick the most alien-looking race to kill because I didn't want to feel bad. (Woohoo! I just evolved racism!) In the process I discovered there is no creature in SPORE that cannot express simple emotions like fear, love, anger, and sadness. Children would always squeal in terror when I attacked their parents. When threatened they would always run and cower behind the nearest adult. Cornering the last members of a species, tearing the last adult limb from limb, and then hunting the screaming children down and ripping them to shreds was more disturbing than anything I ever felt playing Grand Theft Auto.
Any game that gives me this kind of experience is clearly fantastic. It made me feel bad, but hey, that's Darwinism. That's what I get for choosing the path of a meat eater. Welcome to evolution. There's going to be a lot more children dead by the time we get into outer space and bring our culture, whatever it may be, to other worlds.
I've only seen a fraction of SPORE, but so far it's making me think of many interesting things. It occurs to me that the game isn't really about simulating evolution. It's about us, the players, with our supposedly civilized minds, stepping into the shoes of our ancestors and seeing what choices we would make given similar circumstances. The answer is both chilling and obvious: we would be forced to make the same brutal decisions they made. It's sobering to think that genocide might be a prerequisite to civilization. Would we not be here had we not made those choices way, way back in the day? Is it even fair to use the word "we" since we are an entirely different species now? But even if we are different from the uncivilized animals of the past, does the fact that we wouldn't be here without them make us connected in some way? Don't we still, in certain circumstances, act exactly like our animal ancestors?
I'm interested to see whether or not I can shed my barbarism as I aim for the stars in SPORE. Will Wright has said on multiple occasions that Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was one of the major inspirations for SPORE, that in a way SPORE is 2001 made into a system that users can play with. 2001 is about alien intervention in the course of human evolution. Highly advanced aliens give primitive humans the intelligence to use tools, which of course these barely sentient animals use as weapons to kill and conquer each other. This is the beginnings of technology, and the film draws an explicit connection between murderous brutality and technological development. Civilization is fundamentally a contradiction, always being built on the corpses of the defeated. This extends to the modern day, when space fairing humans are still poised to destroy each other with nuclear weapons. In the climax of 2001 the humans finally shed their own destructive technology and thus earn the right to join their makers in interstellar, evolutionary adulthood.
Will there be any such absolution in SPORE? I'm excited to find out. After millions of years will I really evolve? Will I really be more sophisticated? Or will the same might-makes-right logic apply in the age of space as it does in the most primitive, terrestrial life? If so, what does that tell us about the moral value of civilization?