Spore: A Review Of A Game From 2008

It takes a perverse labour of love to keep producing clutches of simulation games but Will Wright has reliably been churning out a whole assembly of them for nearly two decades, resulting in one of the most well-received franchises in the industry. His newest pet project, Spore, offered real genre-hopping simulation: it’s part MMO, part RTS, part Sandbox game, and features some of the most impressive character design possibilities in anygame that I’ve seen. This would be great if the thing was actually any fun to play. Instead Spore is more of a high-concept creature creator that straddles the divide between “creative” and “almost stunningly dull”, relying on hours of grinding through tedious mini games just so you can rack up enough money to buy a new leg to grow in the middle of your creature’s face.

You start the game playing a cell in what amounts to a ten-minute-long eating simulator with all the tedium that implies. Your main goal may as well be to loiter around aimlessly until something that you’re able to digest accidentally bumps in to you because the controls are too horrible to even bother with. I literally covered my cell’s body with spikes and sat around while poor, unsuspecting protoplasm filleted themselves on my face as they swam by. It took about eight minutes of floating around but in between hurtling myself against pieces of broken meteor enough times to somehow become sentient, and eating the remains of my filleted peers I was finally able to leave my watery, Java applet-worthy purgatory. This entire section seems to only really serve as piss-poor exposition for the rest of the game because once you get on land anything you took from your cell stage naturally becomes completely useless to you.

But what it leads to is probably the one impressive part of the whole abysmal game: the character creator. Thanks to the truly amazing character customisation options you have almost limitless design possibilities. With this I was able to plan out as evolutionarily hopeless a creature as I could devise and set him off on the world to see how long he could survive, and thus Theresa was born. My species amounted to a bulbous, bowling pin disaster whose head was cracked all the way back so his eyes faced in the opposite direction at all times. Two arm stumps grew out of his neck like massive pinkie fingers and he was held up by two more fleshy pegs which made him pretty much too inept to do anything other than spasm around silently. For finishing touches I left him completely hairless. When I was done Theresa looked like a cross between a Vienna sausage and a Thanksgiving turkey.

The second phase of evolution seems to involve more horrible point-and-click navigation as you stumble across herds of creatures that look like they’ve crawled out of a drainage lagoon. At this stage you can choose from two equally non-entertaining game tactics: to befriend them or to attack them. If you’re starting to feel increasingly apprehensive about the game then don’t worry, your anxiety is well founded. Spore’s creature phase raises the bar of almost cripplingly boring game play to unparalleled heights by catering to the niche fan-base of people who have been waiting for a game to fulfill their intense desire for a weirdly grueling series of Simon Says. Befriending other species requires what feels like an endless chain of miming dances and posing for your peers in hopes to somehow impress them. After doing this innumerable times you can enlist the help of fellow genetic-reject mercenaries on your road to befriending and attacking countless others. Considering Theresa had no hands his attacks were limited to somehow biting his attackers with his perpetually upright grimace and after wandering around for a few minutes my creature was killed by some kind of walking bee. Getting killed at this stage just reloads your last save, but because it’s so mind bogglingly easy to retrace your steps there is almost no consequence to dying whatsoever.

By both the tribe and civilisation stage your creature is stuck with the same design and characteristic you gave it during its original creature phase, only you can give them hats now.  Both tribe and civilisation stages are nearly indistinguishable in their real-time strategy game play but bizarrely it’s during the RTS that you realise there’s no real strategy involved at all aside from flinging troops in to battle endlessly in an effort to make it to the final sandbox phase: Space. This probably sounds deceptively non-horrible to those of you casual gamers who just want simplicity for simplicity’s sake. But with the vast amount of stupid, repetitive simplicity this game is just shy of causing me physical pain.

In the end Spore is essentially the “man against nature” of sim games in that it is a constant battle against the natural forces of irritation and boredom just to keep playing. It benefits almost entirely from its creature creator mechanic but the actual game elements come across as badly composed filler.

A Little Less Love

A friendly hello to all youse waging wars on the Internet. I’ve got not a whole lot to chime in with – too busy building this bunker while you’re pontificating the meaning of JLaw n00dz and ethical decay, Oof!  

I’ll continue to watch the dialogue unfold from afar into even more slimy David Cronenberg whatthefuckery, but for now let’s leave with this – Kurt Vonnegut on love and decency and making things work, from his semi-autobiography Slapstick, which you can buy here

I have had some experiences with love, or think I have, anyway, although the ones I have liked best could easily be described as “common decency.” I treated somebody well for a little while, or maybe even for a tremendously long time, and that person treated me well in turn. Love need not have had anything to do with it.

Also: I cannot distinguish between the love I have for people and the love I have for dogs.

When a child, and not watching comedians on film or listening to comedians on the radio, I used to spend a lot of time rolling around on rugs with uncritically affectionate dogs we had.

And I still do a lot of that. The dogs become tired and confused and embarassed long before I do. I could go on forever.

Hi ho.

One time, on his twenty-first birthday, one of my three adopted sons, who was about to leave for the Peace Corps in the Amazon Rain Forest, said to me, “You know – you’ve never hugged me.”

So I hugged him. We hugged each other. It was very nice. It was like rolling around on a rug with a Great Dane we used to have.

Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go looking for it, and I think it can often be poisonous.

I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, “Please – a little less love, and a little more common decency.”

The Games Industry Is Just A Spectator Sport

It started, as it always does, on the Internet. Xbox fans who moments earlier were imagining clasping their new Titanfall posters, a single community united as one under Microsoft, defiantly pointed to Sony’s business decisions as proof that the Xbox One was no bipartisan healer uniting console owners and guys who just want another way to watch Game of Thrones.

The Xbox fall-from-grace is the Vaudevillian macronarrative we the audience have been watching for, arguably, years. The gripes that persist between Sony and Microsoft are one thing media watchers have always been able to count on, a David/Goliath display normally relegated to the hallowed halls of Pay Per View wrestling narratives. But in recent years we’ve begun to see a new power struggle emerge from that pit. The role of the gamer is shifting, now playing a central part in a seachange in the games industry that is transforming how consumers relate to producers of entertainment.

It’s only at times like this – when the video games industry appears at the height of its own lawless turbulence – that words spoken by Vince McMahon, the heaving and beligerant patron-saint of professional wrestling, can have the resonance of a Zen Koan. 2013, a year that will introduce two new generations of consoles and cultivate two rabidly blustering schools of fans, marks another step in this industry’s transformation into populous theatre, in a way McMahon could only predict.

Because no one knows better just how important an audience is to a spectacle.

In the words of the venerable McMahon, the “crossover of whether [something is] entertainment or news is the biggest crock of B.S. in television today, because it’s all entertainment.” For McMahon, the face behind pro-wrestling behemoth World Wrestling Entertainment, that statement was central to the industry he helped build in the early ‘80s. His vision of the WWE was driven by a stoic sort of principle. “We [in the WWE] look at everything as an entertainment vehicle,” he said in a 2001 interview with Playboy. “Nothing is sacred.”

Today it’s safe to say that same philosophy has independently risen in our own industry. The games industry has unintentionally emerged as a symbol of modern spectacle that shares a defining and universal truth with McMahon’s ideology: It just isn’t clear where the entertainment ends anymore.

Where games once were the centrepiece of our industry, publishers, studios and even individuals are gaining a place alongside them as a part of the show; the result of a new kind of relationship between the participating audience and the entertainment itself.

Likewise, McMahon had made his business in blurring the already murky territory between business and entertainment, something that in an older era of entertainment was referred to as Kayfabe, a term originally used by carnival workers to mean the portrayal of fiction as reality. The walls typically seperating performance, business and audience members could be broken down with this, and as a result McMahon could capitalise on a theatrical call-and-response entertainment with levels of interaction.

Wrestlers assumed two possible personalities intended to either encourage the audience to cheer or to draw the ire of spectators. Narratives would be fabricated, an open-secret in its industry, while writers pieced together in-show subplots that often co-opted real-life problems ranging from contractual issues to injuries.

For McMahon, he used this to show above all a moral plotline of good versus evil. Often, individual matches would be part of a bigger plot arc that followed conflict between characters: the Babyfaces and the Heels, the morally just and the defiantly bad, respectively. The audience would help drive this. The idea of paying up is essential in wrestling, and leads to an immanent kind of justice – the baser the action from the antagonist, the more the crowd calls out for a deserved punishment.

It’s a familiar kind of story. It’s easy to feel the games industry is a spectacle to jeer at.

The balloons have dropped. The party’s over. The last unenthused body with a press pass has politely been escorted out of the conference hall and Don Mattrick stands languid in a dark room waiting for his next day at work to start. It’s months since the first reveal of Xbox One and in the meantime we’ve had all this time to think back on its message while we brace for the next comedy of errors to come out of the bowels of the games industry.

But for all the nihilistic machismo of the games industry, it – like McMahon’s ring-side theatre – is equally rooted in a deep sense of morality and justice.

Game fans – the would-be consumers of the industry – are finding a new role as commentators of our own theatre, and as a result manufacturers of entertainment have become the centrepiece of our attention. Now, seemingly ruled by a mass market that finds it increasingly difficult to distinguish between the entertainment makers and the entertainment, the games industry appears to be on a trajectory to becoming pure spectacle.

It’s only in recent years that popular social media has shown its talent for irrevocably breaking down the fourth wall separating consumers from the games industry. In an era of TMZ mentality, one where every action is followed by an equal or greater reaction, the Internet has for better or for worse become the world’s greatest barometer for knee-jerk justice. Now, like a theatre of the rounds, audience participation is at an all-time high.

We in the games industry have our own morality story, although I’m still unsure whether we’re aware of the narratives we help to build as an audience. Villains emerge, so do team allegiances. Gamers align with a protagonist, take in the inevitable plot twists that unfold moment to moment in sport. Ultimately there’s a feeling that we are directly involved with what we’re rooting for and connected to their rise and fall. Gamers and the media implicitly encourage the industry’s transformation into pure spectacle.

Now more than ever it’s the spectacle that appears to be running the show.

Congratulations, you are now a Kotaku commenter

“Congratulations, you are now a Kotaku commenter” is an interactive fiction game that puts you in the shoes of a Internet commenters during the fallout of the short #1ReasonWhy sociopolitical movement-turned-meme you might remember from earlier in the year. It’s written in response to the Men’s Rights commentators who turned up on games website Kotaku immediately after the site began corralling quotes from this Twitter dialogue which revealed some of the harsher realities of being a woman in the games industry. All quotes used are from actual real-world Kotaku commenters. It also has a great recipe for goulash!

http://writer.inklestudios.com/stories/bpfh

Havisham and Morrissey: A Sims 3 Story

I was reminded about the Sims 3 playthrough I wrote about a few years ago. Placing it here to take up space.

Imagine the magic spawn of Xtreme sports enthusiasts and guys with proto-aspergers and you basically get Robin Burkinshaw’s Sims drama “Alice and Kev”. Alice and Kev was an extreme minimalist playthrough of The Sims 3, a kind of mawkish human interest story about fake homeless people. Now imagine homeless Sims competing to see who can stand around idly for the longest without inevitably dying from insufficient waffle intake and you have what’s essentially the plot arc of Alice and Kev.

Apparently just leaving your Sim in a pool and deleting the ladder is passe and the only way to be venerated by gaming virtuosos is by creating a blog based on watching Sims develop a thick crust of piss fumes around their torsos over the course of months. So I figured while I’m scratching the bottom of the barrel for DreadfulBlog topics I may as well make a desperate grab for attention by repeating more or less the exact same thing.

So hey Robin Burkinshaw. I see your Alice and Kev and I raise you Havisham and Morrissey. Yeah! And the pictures on your blog loaded a bit slowly for me one time. How does that taste?

Like any Greek tragedy Havisham and Morrissey is a multi-layered story about adopting six babies and succumbing to exhaustion and disease after I briefly walk away from the computer. On its deepest level it is a commentary on socio-economic issues in Northern England and therefore much better than whatever is happening here. Unlike Robin’s in-depth study of the harsh realities of eating spagbol out of a bin, Havisham and Morrissey would be an attempt to see what affect family responsibilities and class fatalism had on pre-programmed SimSuccess.

Thanks to the game’s Character Traits and Lifetime Goals attributes I was able to design Morrissey to be destined for musical stardom. Morrissey would enter the game in a relationship with Havisham, a woman whose Character Traits and Lifetime Goals were polar opposite to his own. Her desire for adopting babies would be insatiable but her selfish, child hating and lazy Character Traits would place the onus on Morrissey to do the bulk of child-rearing. So are Sims programmed to have their traits and goals overwritten in this situation? To answer this question I built a house with three rooms and forced Havisham to repeatedly order babies from the adoption agency to rack up maternity leave cheques.

The main protagonist of this story isn’t Havisham so much as Morrissey: a struggling musician who is probably quite good but it’s impossible to tell through his thick veil of twat.

For the most part he spends his time standing about and looking like a bit like a 13 year old Winona Ryder while his wife uses her free time to loiter around the kitchen counter for the three hours that’s required to make a dinner.

I started the game by giving him the ambitious and musically-inclined loner traits which basically forced his reptile brain to pick up a guitar the minute he entered the house, spending the rest of the afternoon strumming for 15 hours to get to the end of one verse of Hot Cross Buns, all while avoiding all distractions ranging from eating to sleep. In fact for the first three days he really didn’t move away from the corner where he spent his hours creating rubbish rock tunes, only stopping occasionally to agonisingly piss himself, just like the real Morrissey. Had I not soon intervened by trying to order babies on the telephone Morrissey would have been destined for stardom, having quickly perfected his musical skills over the course of days.

The DreadfulBlog XTREME social experiment would see whether the family life forced on him would cause his dreams become dashed on the rocks. The answer, poetically, was actually that he would starve to death in front of a herd of toddlers who wouldn’t move out of the way of the fridge.

Part II

A few years ago after starting the episodic Sim epic and introducing the story’s sulking kitchen boy, Morrissey, I introduced Havisham.

Havisham is Morrissey’s horrorwife.

Havisham is like what you would get if you crossed The Penguin with a sticky theatre curtain from Nevada rockabilly club. Her personality traits were meant to make her the worst person imaginable: a sort of venomous, black eyed widowmaker who is too lazy to cook actual meals so she just eats fly-laden leftovers that were never thrown out because I forgot to buy a sink. She briefly worked as a cook when I accidentally clicked something.

As far as I can tell, once your Sim has a job, at any point that you manage to get a baby you’re automatically given a weekly allowance as some kind of child care policy designed in to the game. Also part of The Sims’ deeply ingrained child rearing policy is that baby adoption is a service run with the same efficiency as pizza delivery.


Out of Africa

Other useful true-facts:

  • Babies don’t need diapers changed!
  • Babies are immortal!

In fact it seems that in between feeding sessions you can largely ignore them until their toddler years and they only seem to come out of it lightly unhinged as evidenced by a previous game where I tried this and he just grew up to be actor Steve Buscemi:

However, even after programming Havisham to hate, she automatically coos and picks up the nearest doll-faced adoptee she sees when it starts to cry. Regardless of how the character’s traits were formulated all Sims appear identical in how they react tenderly to the endless deathpit of baby screams. What resulted was a treadmill of coddling and forcefeeding babies over 18 hour stretches, pushed by the game’s inherent pro-baby protocols and resulting in mass tragedy for Havisham and Morrissey.


Part III

Arise fair Havisham

Havisham is a gentle pink siren and she wants you to know how hard her love can be. Havisham wants you to lay your eggs in her, then she’ll recharge and refuel on the liquid in your spine.

Morrissey and Havisham are star crossed lovers, crossed because Havisham is out of her mind while Morrissey’s heart beats only for the sound of passable but largely rubbish mid-eighties rock. It’s a complicated relationship and like any 90lbs schoolboy in his position Morrissey treats their hideous, unemployed, unhappy, unloving love with the scared eyes of a large lost deer, bolting between the two giant passing vans of Havisham’s hammy thighs.

As I explained previously, their house is a handsome combination of a room with a guitar in it, a bar and a toilet-kitchen with beds that I would later delete as part of a sinister test to see how many phone-ordered babies it would take to break Morrissey.

The house that love built

I posited that he’d turn to the drink in a matter of days, hoping it would turn in to an interesting commentary about Simclass undermining Simtalent and its effect on the Simwill-to-live.

At the start of this playthrough, Morrissey spent most of his time outside in a park, taking hour after hour to perfect his guitar skills while slowly starving to death. Unemployed, he spent most of his time in a park somewhere where I couldn’t be bothered to scroll around looking for him. After a day and a half of him trying to avoid Havisham, his SimAtrophy finally kicked in and I found Morrissey a couple of blocks away passed out on a bench and drenched in his own stinking fluids.

In the meantime, Havisham had already begun to accumulate her spawn over the phone, along with the free maternity leave cash the game provides when Sims with a previous career start adopting children (see: Accidental Cook). Luckily Sim Government laws are lax enough to not enforce any sort of adoption check-up that might look into if she’s melting babyskin into lamp covers.  When the adoption agency shows up to the door with a basket in hand no questions are asked.

Havisham lovingly assembles all of her new babies on the floor.

The adoption service came by on an hourly basis until their carpets looked like a bioluminescent ocean floor with babies growing out of it like stinging fronds and I had to move out most of the furniture to make room. Then the game stopped letting me order babies.

Evening sets on Sims 3.

After pressing something in Build Mode Havisham and Morrissey’s dole bunker now opens out onto a spectacular view of lawn jutting out through SpaceTime from a cosmic forge in their front yard. Thanks to the truly amazing customisation options now their patio pond towers like a giant weird finger over the neighbourhood, keeping silent watch over the six baby adoptees.

Baby JohnMaddenXXL gets left in the specialty leaking shower room

Like the devil himself Havisham has many faces, but the most prominent one is unconscious on the floor. Since the adoptions she now takes turns with Morrissey to feed the babies then pass out in a wintery slumber, eating only food I left on the ground at some point.

Havisham’s deep outdoor hibernation is peppered with occasionally waking up from her induced coma to spend time making a Geocities shrine for the actor who played Andrew on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”.

While Havisham is busy in her coma during the day, Morrissey becomes the brains and driving force of the family at night. Now instead of busking in forests, he spends hours on end holding babies while his Mood – which represents his need to eat and sleep – drops to a dangerous red-coloured low. Even Havisham would make a bee line for the nearest Simbaby when she was conscious. They would do this for hours when awake, moving from one baby to the next in an endless production line.

VISUAL METAPHOR

He hasn’t touched his guitar in days. He does not sleep. Morrissey wanders the moors of his offspring and takes an hour trying to get from the fridge to the toilet while avoiding the stacks of plates and newspapers that have been accumulating like a defensive border made from bits of stuff found in an Olympic vomitorium. The ground is crusty with newspaper that hasn’t been recycled since they moved in.

His vital signs have plummeted and he hasn’t been able to eat since the babies created a human wall by sleeping in front of the fridge. Eventually child services returned.

Soon after the babies were whisked away into some sort of portal by an adoption agent, as apparently by a certain point you’re not meant to tab out mid-game. Then, with only salad made weeks earlier to sustain them, Havisham and Morrissey died.

SHATTERED DREAMS

The playthrough lasted roughly two days in real-time, with both Havisham and Morrissey having their pre-programmed needs largely overwritten by the robotic obligation to pick up babies until their clockwork wound down. Silence now covers the house and Morrissey’s tombstone sits next to his untouched guitar.

Remembering Matt Hughes – Depression in the Games Industry

About four weeks ago Matt Hughes’ death was all but passed over thanks to another industry talking point that’s bellyached its way to top of games journalists’ list of professional tragedies.

Hughes was a freelance games journalist whose work appeared on Joystiq and GamesRadar among other sites. His apparent suicide, which was first reported all the way back at the beginning of November, should be remembered for two reasons.

One, because like most dealing with depression Hughes suffered it in silence, making it all the more necessary to put it back on table and onto the blog circuit where with any luck it will keep from getting swept back into obscurity. And two, for making almost no visible impact on the industry whatsoever.

Hughes’ death roughly coincided with the start of DoritosGate one month ago, out of which was born a full-blown journalist-led investigation into the blurring lines between professionalism and commercialism. Fits of anger are de rigueur among games bloggers right now. While the industry is being hauled out to the Stocks for possibly aligning itself too closely with commercial entities, particular effort has also gone into providing a cold bucket of water for any journalist who’s still enamoured with the way things are.

Regardless of where you stand on all of this, the result, at least in retrospect, has been an impressive show of what can happen when journalists throw their weight into their favourite pet issues. Weeks of extensive self-analysis in the industry.

About the same amount of time has passed since Hughes’ suicide, but the significance of this whole dreary saga of Lauren Wainwright, of corruption, and the now semi-iconic Geoff Keighley Emperor Palpatine impression has continued to read fresh because of the work of a few impassioned Internet users who have been burning the midnight oil on this stuff.

Comparatively, one week and a few blog posts following Hughes’ suicide, his death was already downgraded from a few online eulogies to a passing human interest story. It comes down to priorities. It’s nearing December now and the neighbourhood watch surrounding the Wainwright narrative seems to be quieting down. But now even in these brief moments of tranquility, of which in this industry there are very few, I think we’ve got our priorities all wrong.

Take it from me, depression is a monster of a thing but it can’t be dealt with alone.

It’s been sarcastically referred to as The Artist’s Reward, but I prefer this description, which I’ll paraphrase:

In military vernacular there is a term called “the fog of war.” This originated after the Napoleonic war, at a time before the invention of smokeless gun powder when shots from muskets would result in a fog so thick soldiers would lose sight of the enemy, making it impossible to tell apart friend from foe.

The first person to write about this in depth was the Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, whose solution, in part, was this: “The first thing [needed] here is a fine, piercing mind, to feel out the truth with the measure of its judgment.”

Which makes Depression, perhaps, the ultimate expression of the fog of war. You can see the result of that enemy’s attacks but you can’t see the enemy, and worse, that fog can become your reality; Worrying then, when as Clausewitz says, we can only rely on our heads – Because it’s hard to rage against a war when it’s going on in you.

Which is why we need to rely on each other. And in the past month we’ve shown, even at its most maniacal, the industry can make a difference just by talking.

Date-A-Gamer From All Corners of the North

Internet website sensation Date-A-Gamer has had its video series teaching gamers how to fuck living women  pulled from YouTube, so DreadfulBlog commemorates it in text.

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