New Zealand Herald OCTOBER 9, 2008 - by Mark Webster


In a 'God game' you are the creator. The Sims has been a gender bending popular game for a long time now, and one of the few computer games played in large numbers by women and girls. In The Sims you create individual 'simulacrums' (hence the name Sims) that do your bidding.

You choose their physical characteristics, their characters and even their socio-economic standing. Then you let them loose in a virtual environment of fellow Sims and take over individuals at key points, prompting them to flirt, dance, get annoyed, arrive, leave and who they interact with, or to not do the cleaning or to be house proud, to educate themselves further and so on. I only tried it once - I'm a WWII based first-person-shooter fan myself - but my foray was singularly unsuccessful way back in the original Will Wright-created Sims game. I created two flatmates.

One left, the other killed himself. After hours of my work, too. Fail.

But millions of people had way more success than I. Rather than let the successful franchise falter, Maxis (now part of Electronic Arts) created Sims 2 and along the way whole new Sims environments, all sorts of different attributes became available, including magic, planting etc, entire new scenarios were created (a university town full of misdirectable youths) and even new beings, like strange green plant people.

But I'd lost interest and turned over any Sims-related reviewing tasks to my daughters, who eagerly learnt hacks and downloaded new Sim items and furnishings when they could.

But how could Maxis go one better than The Sims? Hah, not possible, I thought. Without thinking. (And note that Sims 3 is currently in development.)

OK, so how about a whole new game in which you create an amoeba or microbe, and it evolves and you nurture this blob into a little beastie and eventually into a big beastie, and then the thing builds villages, forms clans, then towns, then cities and then starts travelling through space? Yep, that's what happened. That's Spore.

Sounds like a really silly idea to me. But it's not, as it turns out. My long-term Sims devotee fifteen-year-old just can't get enough. Call me old fashioned, but the good thing is that she has to get a certain amount of school work done before she's allowed to play.

This is what she reports:

"By the makers of The Sims, Spore brings God games to the next level. Skip neighbourhoods, you are now ruler of an entire universe.

"The opening video for Spore shows a comet colliding with the planet of your choice. Inside this comet is a two-dimensional cell. Its main function is to eat. You get to decide whether the cell is herbivore or omnivore, which impacts not only the food it eats, but its entire future. Herbivores jet around under water looking for plant particles, and carnivores look for meat-like objects.

"Using a 'mating call' you are able to reproduce, and while inside the egg, engineer aspects of the new cell. More flagella make the cell faster, spikes deadlier and eyes just generally cool-looking. You're also able to modify the 'paint' or skin of the cell, creating a unique look. As you eat more, you grow: each food particle is a stepping stone to a more evolved being.

"And then you grow legs. The ocean gets dull and with enough food you're ready to explore new ground, and with it, new options. At the creature stage you roam the land meeting - or eating - its other inhabitants.

"I chose my first creature and called it 'Robert', designed to kill and eat every creature it met, earning it/him/her the reputation of a warrior. And I felt so mighty. In the creature creation stages, using the DNA collected from bone piles, I gave the Roberts as many weapons possible, so they would eventually wipe out all other creatures on the planet.

"Within an hour of play-time, Robert grew a brain big enough to create fire, and with this new power, the Roberts became an intelligent tribe, with their own hut and the ability to make tools. The Tribe stage also focuses on befriending or destroying the other tribes. Of course, the Roberts killed off the other tribes and burnt their huts to the ground."

There were two more stages after that - Civilisation and Space. In a nice note for science trainspotters, the music is by Brian Eno.

Ary went on to create a second group of creatures who were the absolute opposite to the Roberts - these were called Julians (erm, she thought of the names, all right?). These herbivores like to sing and dance and they're very peaceful: they prefer to make friends with all the other inhabitants. They have never killed other creatures.

Ary's next project was to make a third group as close to humans as she could. These are distinctly creepy pink things. The 'humans' do everything possible to gain power and will make alliances, but only if necessary - they don't hesitate to kill others, either.

Spore introduced a whole new way of interacting online, too - in most games you wither compete with others online or collaborate (or not) and shoot other player's avatars.

But in Spore, by using Sporepedia you can inspect other beings made by other players, and they can also enter into your own games. This is kind of like a social connection - Ary says it's like you own a bit of territory in the Spore universe and all the territories can interact.

Ary's ultimate project is to see how the three different being she has created will interact when they meet one another in the space stage.

Spore was released simultaneously for Mac and PC - there's even a version for iPhone/iPod touch.

Do you think you'd like Spore? Because to me it sounds like science homework. Oh, that's a good thing?