N'Gai Croal: Will Wright's Spore

At almost every stage of his brilliant career, video-game designer Will Wright has been able to turn to the seminal designers Charles and Ray Eames for inspiration. His urban-planning game Sim City drew on some of their ideas about architecture, while his interactive soap opera The Sims incorporated their thoughts on furniture. Yet for years another signature work by the legendary husband-and-wife team rattled around in Wright's head: the short 1977 film "Powers of Ten." Wright, 45, can't remember how old he was when he first saw it, but the movie--which zooms out by factors of 10 from a man lying in a Chicago park to the farthest reaches of the universe, then zooms back in, past the surface of his skin to the cellular level--left an indelible impression, with its elegant illustration of the difficult-to-fathom concepts of scale: how big and how small creation really is. " 'Powers of Ten' gives us a superbig picture of where we are," Wright says, "not only in space but in time: the past, present and future of life."

For most of us, "Powers of Ten" was a welcome respite from our droning high-school science teachers. To Wright's wonderfully unhinged mind, the film turned out to be the foundation on which he could build a new computer game. Spore starts you off as a single cell inside a tide pool, consuming harmless cells and avoiding hostile ones, accumulating points all the while. Eventually you'll be able to develop your single cell into a stronger multicelled organism, then a complex reptile or mammal--which can mate, create offspring and evolve into an intelligent tribe that must compete and cooperate with other tribes developing independently on other parts of the planet. (Sound familiar?) Once your tribe develops the technology, you can travel to other planets, solar systems and galaxies, colonizing your way through the universe as benevolently or maliciously as you see fit.

Nongamers often ask when videogames are finally going to get their "Citizen Kane." But when Spore ships sometime next year, this infant medium might receive its Torah, its "Origin of Species" and its "2001: A Space Odyssey" all rolled into one. In lesser hands, Spore could be a stunning concept that turns out to be unplayable in reality. But like the Eameses' work, Wright's games have always been characterized by an elegant simplicity. ("What works," Ray Eames once said, "is better than what looks good.") The gameplay at each phase of Spore alludes to games that players will be familiar with: the tide-pool opening harks back to Pac-Man, the society-building phase to Wright's own Sim City, the clash of civilizations to... well, Civilization. And the art direction and design retain his inviting sense of whimsy: mating is scored with just-this-side-of-cheesy smooth jazz; interstellar travel is done in a UFO. By tapping into our collective elementary-school-level memories, Spore makes a host of complex ideas as accessible as the cityscapes and living rooms of Wright's previous hits. "So many people read science books in school, but never got the connections among physics and chemistry and geology and astronomy," he says. "We can express that through gaming, without losing the sense of wonderment. That's what play is--developing connections with the world around us through interaction."

The Eameses wanted to bring good design to the masses; Wright wants to empower the masses to be good designers. So he and his 30-person team have been ceaselessly revising the tools that allow you to shape and reshape your creatures and their habitat as if they were lumps of Silly Putty or LEGO blocks. Spore is playful enough to entice even nongamers into what Wright calls "epic creativity." " 'Epic' attracts the gamers, and 'creativity' attracts everyone else," he says. "I don't want players to feel like Luke Skywalker. I want them to feel like George Lucas."

An Electronic Arts slogan once asked, "Can a computer game make you cry?" Theimplication was that someday a game could be art, that it would be able to move you just as a great novel or movie does. So far, games haven't been very good at telling stories, because the designer has to stop telling the story so that you can play the game, and vice versa. Wright's games, by contrast, let you tell that story through your actions: look into Spore and you will see a reflection of yourself. What kind of deity would you be? Even at this early stage, Spore shows the towering ambition and laserlike focus that suggest that Wright and his team have another masterpiece. And somewhere out there, Charles and Ray Eames must be smiling.