Will Wright on Spore: Cute vs. Science

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This week, to make sure that Time was different from every other magazine and newspaper in the entire world, I wrote a piece about Spore.

I love interviewing Will Wright. He sort of interviews himself. He has some kind of built-in filter that prevents him from ever saying anything uninteresting. I only had a page for the piece, and I talked to him for an hour, so here are a couple of outtakes.

One of the things that interested me about Spore was the way the designers had had to adapt and distort the science to make it fit the demands of gameplay. This is a process that Wright is very aware of, and open about:

“There was a fairly interesting dynamic between certain members of our team that we ended up calling the ‘cute’ team versus other members that we called the ‘science’ team. This is a tension that remains to this day. The cute team was kind of representing the people who wanted emotional connection, something playful, that they can relate to. The science team of course wanted real science, in a really cool way, with everything accurate. We ended up splitting the difference between those teams. It’s a nice balance.

You can see this dynamic at work in the first level, the single-celled stage:

“The cells have eyes. That was an example of the compromise. At the same time you have the depth of field, everything is very translucent — you have the visual effect of looking through a very high-powered microscope. But the cells have eyes. And they make cute little sounds when they bump into things.”

I also wanted to know what kind of feedback he was getting from religious groups about the game. Being as how it deals with evolution and the origin of life and all. Not that I’m religious myself, but you know how the media is. We will cover any controversy, and if there is no controversy, we will make up a controversy. Then we will cover it.

Again, Will was very open to talking about it. But there wasn’t much controversy to talk about. And what there was didn’t play out the way I expected:

“There was this big discussion that started on our website. It was people that heard about the civilization phase, where religion is one of your possible strategies. Some of the religious superpowers [your civilization gets different superpowers depending on what strategy you choose] were kind of humorous things, like plague of locusts, stuff like that. On our website we had all these people who were very offended by this. But they weren’t the religious people, they were the hardcore atheists. They really didn’t like the idea that religion is in the game at all. They were asking for a switch that would turn off religion. Whereas the religious people were the ones who were saying, ‘it’s a game, get over it.’”

Also interesting was the way the structural demands of gameplay naturally pushed the game toward a kind of cultural relativism. I had hoped I could tease out some kind of ideological subtext from the game, or at least from Wright, but there was no ideological subtext to be had.

“In our civilization level, you can play as militaristic. We don’t make any moral judgments as to whether it’s better to play militaristic, but if you go out and conquer cities, you end up pretty much leveling them. To conquer them. So you end up capturing these piles of rubble, which you then have to rebuild. Whereas if you can capture them religiously, you get the whole city intact. You know? So each one has its pros and cons. You end up wanting a paper rock scissors dyanmic, where there’s no one right strategy.”

Insert local-newspaper-style pun about the ‘Wright’ strategy here. And scene.

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