New over the news tickers today is the suggestion that failed Maxis “masterpiece” Spore, released to tepid reviews but hella sales in early September, underwent some significant changes to up the simplicity and cute factor and back-burner the SimLife science originally planned by Will Wright and his team. The conjecture is that Maxis employee and outspoken industry dude Chris Hecker is responsible for the change. Whether or not that’s true, the cuteification of Spore actually caused a very different result than intended: it turned what had apparently been a pretty hard core evolution sim into a panegyric for Intelligent Design.
Chris Hecker has a small reputation for impolitic outbursts, but anyone who claims he’s bombastic or consistently out of line is being unfair. In my few dealings with him, I’ve found Chris to be affable, extraordinarily intelligent, and highly driven to realize the potential of games as both art and entertainment. The suggestion regarding Spore is that Chris was concerned that making the game over realistic would limit the audience.
In fairness to Chris, he’s denying that he spearheaded the whole “make Spore cute and simple” thing, and I believe him. Spore was made by a team – a large one – and it’s unreasonable to lay the responsibility for such a major shift on a single person. If Spore did in fact transition from being a hard simulation to a squishy and pointless sandbox, it was a group decision, not an individual one. But that’s not the interesting thing.
The interesting thing is that no matter what, it’ll be seen as “Will Wright’s Spore,” not “the hundred-odd people who work at Maxis and happen to count Will Wright as one of them’s Spore.” As a result, any potential political or social statements Spore makes will be attributed directly to Wright.
This is relevant in the context of the de-sciencing of Spore because all of a sudden, the game is practically a cheerleader for the neocon Intelligent Design movement, itself a poorly-hidden attempt to legislate the teaching of (Christian) creationism in public schools. In Spore, there is no such thing as an evolutionary failure. Not only can you not die permanently, but it’s quite possible to construct a creature for whom survival would be absolutely impossible in a Darwinian model. A creature with no eyes and legs on its head, for example, or a creature composed of nothing but ears. Or a creature with eyeballs in its ass, or a creature with a mouth physically incapable of reaching food.
Look at it this way. In a Darwinian model, the Giant Sloth presumably became extinct because it was both giant and slothy – a dangerous combination. The creature was so huge that it needed to eat a mountain of eucalyptus every day, but it was just too fucking lazy to do so. In Spore, and in Intelligent Design, the Giant Sloth became extinct because some higher power hit ESC and then clicked “Exit to Windows.”
Will Wright is a huge science nut, a fact made clear by his many and wonderful presentations at the Game Developers Conference. He’s also apparently a Republican, which is to say he’s a member of the party that, among other things, opposes science and adores Intelligent Design. Thus when I played Spore, I assumed that this game was little more than Wright’s artistic vocalization of support for the concept; something I admit I found rather surprising given his love of all things scientific, but hey.
And now it’s being suggested that Hecker and/or others railroaded the team into making Spore more cute and less realistic in the interest of broadening the audience. In so doing, Maxis seems to have dramatically altered any implied or inferred political statement the game was making. Perhaps more important, though, and more disappointing, is the fact that very few reviews of Spore have discussed the game’s obvious affection for the Intelligent Design model of evolution. Whether Maxis intended it to be so or not, Spore is a very strong statement in favor of conscious, intelligent creationism unguided by Darwinistic principles. Theoretically any game of the Civilization style is a “god game,” meaning that you as an omniscient guide are responsible for the development of your people. But in no other game is it possible to bend the logical rules of reality without penalty to your creation. If you take action that would directly injure your species in Civilization, your species suffers as a result. In Spore, it doesn’t work that way. You can make a creature that couldn’t possibly survive, and grow to dominate not just your own world but the entire galaxy.
Remember, in any art form, the creator’s intent is far less important than the consumer’s inference. Maxis can say that Spore isn’t trying to make a political statement until the cows come home, but I see it as one, and I’m not alone. What’s interesting in this case is that whatever Maxis intended, the interpretation of the game’s philosophy may stem from a marketing decision rather than any political views on the part of its creators.