Time is a curious thing. If you were to take every single second you're ever statistically likely to live and made each one last an entire year, you'd still only live for about half as long as the Earth has existed.
Once you start thinking about scales of time relevant to major geological events things tend to become a little fuzzy. If you've ever felt ill at ease waiting for a set of lights to change, you're hardly likely to want to watch the Himalayas rise, for example, and if waiting for a bus to work isn't the highlight of your week then you should be thankful you're not relying on the continent you're standing on to move you there instead.
Will Wright is a man who understands time well. Not only has he made countless millions of people lose track of it by introducing The Sims to the world, he's also spent what seems like an entire age developing a game that had an original working title of SimEverything. That game became Spore, and although you hardly need to squint to see the legacy here, what Wright and the developers at EA Maxis have achieved is something rather unique.
It's not often a game is shipped with a manual you could hammer a nail in with, so from the very start there's an unnerving feeling that things are going to be incredibly complicated. Fortunately, there's a fair amount of hand-holding from the in-game tutorials, so if you're not much of a page-turner you'll be able to keep up without too many problems.
You make your entrance to the world of Spore on the back of a meteor, which makes landfall in a suitably grand opening cinematic. The concept of life hitching a ride all over the universe is known as "Panspermia" to scientists, and "passing the buck" to anyone who was expecting a detailed hypothesis as to the origin of life. Once you've chosen to be either herbivore or carnivore, you can jump straight into the first, "Cell" phase. Spore is comprised of five phases in total, so in order to understand Wright's vision you really need to pull apart each one and ascertain its relevance to the big picture.
It's also important to note at this point the underlying mechanic of Spore, which is technically a Massively Single-player Online Game. The content you create, as well as every other Spore player connected to the internet, is shared amongst everyone playing the game. Although you share content with other users, you're not actively playing against them as such - the computer assumes that role and utilises their creatures to populate the game world for you.
This is probably the lightest part of the entire game, as all that is really required of you is to move your creature around and eat other creatures, or conveniently floating chunks of food. This intake of food provides you with "DNA Points", which are redeemable at the Creature Creator and will provide you with the ability to modify your creature in many varied ways. If you can master the fairly basic requirement to eat, you'll eventually stumble across sections of the meteor that you arrived on containing various body parts which can be added to the Creature Creator, giving you the genetic edge over other balls of slime floating around the tidepool.
What this section lacks in gameplay it makes up for in animation. Your critter can't help but invoke paternal instincts in even the hardest of gamer, as a plethora of finely tweaked facial expressions, body movements and cutesy sound effects force you to actually care about the well-being of something we'd now refer to as limestone. The Creature Creator continues this trend; in order to access it you need to sound out a mating call and swim to another member of your species before being permitted to spend your DNA points on upgrades. This is perhaps slightly more clinical than dinner and dancing, but in all fairness its worked well for billions of years.
Most upgrades at this phase consist of attributes likely to either propel you along faster, or prolong your life. You can choose from various defensive spikes, jaw designs, or additional tails to provide a speed boost, and you can tweak the positioning of various existing body parts to alter your appearance. You can even equip some fairly nasty poison-emitting ducts that can help you take down creatures much larger than yourself.
After you've spent about half an hour swimming around (roughly 800,000,000 years in Spore time) you eventually become large enough to migrate to land, and leave behind some truly nasty looking creatures that permanently lurk in the backdrop of the tidepool. Sure, the game needs to keep moving, but there's no real sense of achievement when such large critters go unchallenged. Also, even on the hardest difficulty setting it's not rocket science, and it really just seems that Maxis have set this up to be the most frequently skipped phase in the game, which is a shame as a little more attention in the direction of conquering the tidepool would have really made this phase stand out. Nevermind, onwards and upwards.
The transition from sea to land marks an important point in the evolution of life on our planet. There are many scientists who dedicate their entire careers to understanding what caused this fundamental shift, but just quietly if this happened to swim past I'd be the first onto the beach, legs or no legs. For all the relative safety prehistoric land offered over the deadly sea, it wasn't without its own set of dangers - volcanoes, earthquakes, extreme weather and real estate agents all contributed to make our early world a frightening place to live in.
In the Creature phase of Spore, this element of danger hasn't been lost. Upon setting up your nest on the beach you're greeted with the first 3D free-roaming environment in the game, as well as an invitation to once again tweak your creature, allowing it to adapt to face a new set of challenges. Although at this point my redesign was perhaps slightly more comprehensive than it needed to be. Due to this, the continuity was lost on my particular character, which really hammered home the futile nature of the Cell Phase and kicked off the Creature Phase in a relatively negative light. You can't get away from what you've been - there's a comprehensive time-line detailing each Creature Creator event, and I'm pleased this is only a simulation otherwise there would be some extremely confused palaeontologists wondering how a small shrimp-like creature suddenly morphed into a giant mosquito.
The purpose of the Creature Phase is to either eat or socialise your way through your environment to accumulate DNA points. The former is easy - simply eat from the many fruit trees if you've chosen herbivore, or initiate an attack on a rival nest if you're a carnivore. Socialising requires a bit more work, as you'll need to perform a combination of singing and dancing to mimic other creatures, at which point they will either ally with you, or most likely look disgusted at your inability to reproduce their particular dance steps or musical tune. Those who have played with the previously released Spore Creature Creator will recognise some of the dance steps available here, although despite trying innumerable times I was unable to convince a single species to ally with me. I therefore relied on advancement through gastronomic means.
You are utterly alone in your wanderings throughout this primitive land, and death is frequent. You can be attacked by creatures far more powerful than you (denoted by a numerical value attached to each creature) or simply run out of food and starve. Each time you die you are hatched again back at your nest, which forms the focal point of your fledgeling community, and in order to access the Creature Creator screen you need to return here and use your mating call in a similar fashion to the Cell Phase. Scattered around this primitive land are the bones of less fortunate creatures, and by looting these piles you can add new genetic improvements to your stash in the Creature Creator.
I found the first half of this phase to be pretty disappointing, as there really isn't anything enjoyable about wandering over the same ground, socialising with the same creatures and getting your dance moves rejected constantly. I've learned to avoid nightclubs for the same reason, so as an experiment I used some DNA points to add a set of wings to my creature. Immediately the game transformed, as taking to the skies I was able to not only cover a great deal of land at a faster pace, I could perfect swooping attacks on unsuspecting nests and illicit a bit of payback on those who had shunned my clearly talented moves earlier. Enthused, I redoubled my efforts to chomp my way through the level and the second half became a much more enjoyable affair.
The detail built into the world again is simply phenomenal. Not only are whatever changes you make to your character reproduced perfectly across every facet of the game's animation engine, Maxis has added world events such as meteor impacts, a full day/night cycle and accurate weather effects to add to your Spore experience. Of course, time waits for no man, and after eating everything in sight my creature was imbued with enough sentience to make it through to the next phase.