In the fall of 2006, the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine published dueling Spore previews in the span of four weeks. John Seabrook, writing in the New Yorker, said that the game was "anticipated with something like the interest with which writers in Paris in the early twenties awaited Joyce's Ulysses." Steven Johnson, writing in the New York Times Magazine, predicted that the game would help change humanity's conception of itself by fixing a perspective he dubbed "the long zoom" in the popular imagination. He hypothesized that a classroom of fourth graders could spend an entire year playing the game and learning from it.
Surely you remember Spore? Designed by Will Wright, the creator of SimCity and The Sims, Spore was supposed to simulate the evolution of life, from single-celled organisms to small creatures to tribal human societies to an advanced civilisation exploring outer space. It was largely a single-player game, but the community of online-connected players would seed everyone's games with the life forms that were created in other games — a kind of Darwinian version of intelligent design.
In short, Spore was No Man's Sky — the universe-size game of space exploration with planet-size planets, which Sony announced this week would be released by Hello Games in June — before No Man's Sky was cool. Like No Man's Sky, you read about Spore in the New Yorker. Like the lead designer of No Man's Sky, the lead designer of Spore talked to Stephen Colbert about the game's unfathomable scale. And yet you still were never quite sure, despite the head-spinning talk about how the game was going to simulate an entire universe, what exactly players were supposed to do inside it.
Instead of transforming the human race's understanding of itself, or even our understanding of video games, Spore became the last game — at the moment, at least — that Will Wright ever designed. Alongside Howard Scott Warshaw's E.T., Spore became a punchline, a game remembered only for being a letdown.
But what hype it was! The New Yorker's Seabrook salivated over how the game would "replicate algorithmically the conditions by which evolution works, and render the process as a game." Some players would, Johnson wrote in the Times, "create entire galaxies populated by artificial life forms." The game would "simulate an entire universe."
"What I'm trying to do," Wright told the Times, "is connect the almost inconceivable universal scale to the deeply personal." He later added, "I wanted to make a game that would recreate a drug induced epiphany." The musician Brian Eno said of the game and the perspective it hoped to bring to its players: "We're a tiny blip on a tiny radar screen. I think this is a feeling that people are trying to come to terms with, the feeling of where do we fit in all of this."
Playing the entire game, the New Yorker noted, would take 79 years for a thorough player. The game's "crazy ambition" was "to simulate the limitless possibility of life itself." The profile contains a No Man's Sky-ish moment, when the game designer zooms out to show the "vast galaxy of other worlds" that are contained within Spore. "More worlds than any player could visit in his lifetime," Wright says. The story ends, much like Raffi Khatchadourian's New Yorker feature this year on Sean Murray and No Man's Sky, with the creator of this universe steering a starship into the unknown.
It would be easy to laugh and scoff at these stories for their credulity. But Will Wright was — is! — one of the greatest game designers of this or any age. It is impossible for me to read this stuff, as I did today, and not get excited all over again about Spore and what it represents. I own a disc, from when I bought the game in 2008, when it was finally released. I barely touched it back then. I had a job helping to edit the op-ed page of the Times, and we were in the middle of a presidential campaign. By the time it was over, Spore was regarded as a dud, a flop, an interactive Ishtar or Hudson Hawk. I moved on.
You surely didn't notice, but Electronic Arts put Spore's servers back online last week. EA had shut them down for maintenance in July, four months after closing Maxis, the studio behind SimCity, The Sims, and yes, Spore. In 2006, it was unimaginable that Will Wright's newest game could ever be put into the shop for three months with barely anyone making a peep about it.
So I'm going to play Spore now, years after the hype has dissipated and the game has been all but forgotten. I've installed it on my Windows PC. I will be back to tell you if it's any good. And what if, separated by a decade from expectations that no game could possibly fulfil, it is?