Towards the end of our time at Maxis, we find ourselves talking with the studio’s founder, Will Wright, about his love of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Spore, Wright says, is a game partly inspired by the magnitude and subject of that earlier project – the player’s actions scaling from survival in a rockpool to galactic conquest just as Kubrick’s camera continuously refocuses to capture the ascent of life, from mindless beast, through sentience, tool use and high technology, onwards to infinity.
Just as Spore’s biological scale expands with each of its five phases, so the game gently sweeps through a gamut of increasingly complex game mechanics. Starting with a Pac-Man-like fight for survival at the cellular level, the game quickly introduces a three-dimensional landscape for your emergence on to dry land at the creature stage, before giving you increased social abilities at the tribal stage and RTS-style global domination at the civilisation stage. The final space phase is an open-ended mixture of demanding strategy game and sandbox, where the ability to shape worlds and their inhabitants is entirely placed in your hands – or claws or suckers, as the case may be.
“The basic backstory to 2001 was that the people who hid the monolith went around the galaxy discovering species and trying to give them a nudge in the right direction to become intelligent,” Wright explains. “And for them that was the most creative endeavour they could do. And that’s the same thing you do in Spore – push this intelligence again and again into the galaxy.”
But as comparable as Spore may be in its matter and scope, it is as distant from 2001 in aesthetic as it could possibly be. Kubrick’s use of scale was matched by a profound emptiness; the importance of intelligence in the universe was underscored by its rarity, constantly overshadowed by the threat of terrible loneliness. Wright’s game, meanwhile, is dense where 2001 is sparse, splitting at the seams with life – nearly all of it created by other people playing the game (see ‘Share trade’).
Nonetheless, it is not as hyperbolic to suggest some shared DNA in the scope of Spore’s ambition, if not the manner of its execution, with that most revered of cinematic creations. Wright, like Kubrick, has attempted to in some way depict the smorgasbord of sciences encapsulated by the epic drama of astrobiology, from survival of the fittest, through sociology to the principles of terraforming. But whereas Kubrick’s love of science manifested itself in an attempt to visualise the social dynamics of apes and future technology with rigorous fidelity, he sees Spore as a platform to enthuse players about topics with which they wouldn’t usually engage.