A few weeks ago I made a rather odd purchase: both Spore and Grand Theft Auto III. This was to be my first GTA experience. I had always assumed the series was just lowbrow entertainment riding on shock value. I bought the game because I felt I needed to know about it as an academic, not because I expected to enjoy it. Spore, on the other hand, I fully expected to love. The creative potential in designing your creature, cities and armies, combined with the expanse of time and space contained in the game, made me wonder if you could ever run out of ways to play and things to explore.
Having played both for a few weeks now, I am forced to admit that I don't particularly enjoy Spore, yet GTA3 has been non-stop entertainment. Part of me really feels bad about this (as though I am now a stereotypical gamer), so I have been trying to understand the reason for my preference.
While they seem quite different, these two games are both about exploration. Exploration is the fundamental promise of Spore: a whole universe populated by the strange creations of people all across the world just waiting to be your backyard. Not long after the release of the creature creator EA and Maxis announced that over one million creatures had been uploaded to their servers . The idea of cruising across the universe, encountering creatures weird and wonderful, was an idea that appealed to many. Even your home planet would be populated with these creatures.
There was also the prospect of exploring the system behind Spore. How would other creatures react to me? What strange things could I create, and how would the game handle them?
However, Spore does not allow for this kind of leisurely exploration. The game creates an environment where the struggle to survive is just that, and inaction equals death. From the very beginning Spore pressures you to act, as bigger fish in the pond start trying to eat you. At this early stage it's easy to outrun them or quickly evolve some defenses. In the creature phase, the game adds more pressure in the form of migration. After the first time your nest migrates the game does a poor job of alerting you. When you discover your nest has moved, finding the new nest is an immediate priority, otherwise you cannot heal or mate. This happens frequently enough that, when combined with basic survival, you always need to be doing something.
In the tribal phase your nest is constantly attacked, either by other tribes or wild animals. Even tribes you have never encountered somehow know you are there, and will walk across the entire continent to attack you. In order to keep up you must deal with the other tribes to expand your village and your population. The civilization stage is no better. Soon after evolving I was confronted by two foreign boats: the first offered a trade route, the second was shelling my city, and the situation deteriorated rapidly. As with the previous phases, inaction leads to defeat.
The worst case, by far, is the space phase. Almost immediately after blasting off I was confronted with numerous other races. The first two or three were benign, interested in establishing trade routes, buying my spice, and sending me on errand-boy missions to find stuff on their own planets. However, it wasn't long before I started receiving ominous transmissions to the effect that someone hates me and we are at war. I'm not really sure why, maybe it's because Matt evolved racism. I largely ignored these messages, assuming the game would give me a chance to comprehend this new phase.
My first goal was to establish an economy. I started a few trade routes and went about terraforming a few planets. However, it wasn't very long before those ominous threats turned to action, and I soon found all of my planets, and my allies' planets, under attack. I had no time to do anything but run around the galaxy fighting off the invaders, which really isn't what I wanted to do in the first place. Of course I was unable to stop all of the attacks, and before I knew it my allies had been conquered. I was broke and alone in an extremely hostile universe.
Throughout the whole game the only opportunity I had to explore was at the end of the tribal and civilization stages. At these points I had control over my immediate surroundings and was free from hostility. However, that glowing button demands you continue your evolution, never hinting at what awaits on the other side.
Frustrated, I turned to Grand Theft Auto III, and was surprised to find that the game was made for exploration. There is so much you can choose to do even on the first island that just exploring the game space is fun. Aside from the mundane places like the gun store and the hospital, there are plenty of hidden shortcuts and ramps waiting to be found. The game rewards knowledge of such places: shortcuts make timed missions easier, and launching your car off a ramp can result in a monetary bonus.
The game system behind Liberty City is even more fun to explore. I spent quite a few hours just learning the behavior of the police. I learned that shooting at their car usually gets you two wanted stars, while running down a pedestrian or carjacking (within police sight) nets you just one. I subsequently learned that grand theft auto and manslaughter are equal offenses. I also noticed that if the police ram your car into a crowd of pedestrians, subsequently squashing a few of them, nobody stops to help them.
There's also plenty to discover about the civilians in the game. If I steal their car and don't go anywhere, will they take it back? How much can I push them around before they attack me? Answering these questions and finding new questions is incredibly entertaining and rewarding. I have to believe that Rockstar knew this, and that is why the game does not pressure you to move forward.
While there are always missions you could be doing, there is no penalty for ignoring them. Early in the game no agent seeks you out and incites conflict; it is entirely possible to play endlessly without any conflict at all. Once a conflict ends, it is forgotten. That guy you ran over? Nobody from his gang comes seeking revenge. Previous arrests? The police don't notice. The people of Liberty City live wholly in the present. Even if you have a one-star wanted rating the police will give up if you just wait it out. This lack of pressure gives you ample opportunity to explore both the game's space and system.
Exploring a game can be a great source of fun and excitement, as seen in one of gaming's favorite traditions: the Easter egg. Hunting for hidden items, techniques, and spaces is essentially the same as the large-scale exploration present in games like GTA3 and Spore. Finding that secret room is like finding the hidden ramp or (I would imagine) the strange new species. It seems to me that the discovery of the unexpected is a source of limitless fun, and in this regard GTA3 is far more successful than Spore.