For my final paper I’m looking at the Spore Creature Creator, which is pretty fun and awesome. What’s even more fun and awesome is you can download the Creature Creator for freezies. Go ahead and take a break, play it, get obsessed, and flunk out of school. Don’t worry, I’m already leading the charge on this one.

Spore is a game created by Maxis and that awesome Will Wright dude that lets you build your own creature, and then release it into the world to eat, fight or make friends with other creatures. The game lets you do a lot of other stuff too, like evolve your creature to a tribal phase, then up through civilization, and soon nuke every other species on your planet with atomic weapons thereby freeing you to conquer the stars and ruin other planets and solar systems with your newfound terraforming abilities… but really, the best part of Spore is the creature stage, and mostly the creature creation stage.

So really, I’m attempting to critique the most awesome of the most awesome… which may actually be more difficult than critiquing something that truly sucks.

What constitutes a creature?

Through its interface, the Creature Creator in Spore constructs its own definition of what constitutes a life form. A “creature” consists minimally of a body, which can be shaped and moulded like clay, with at least a single vertebrate. The player is then able to “accessorize” this body with body parts such as arms, legs, mouths, eyes and horns. This flat accessory paradigm allows the player incredible latitude and creative freedom in designing their own creatures, but certain rules must be followed:

  • Graspers (or hands) and feet cannot be attached to the creature arbitrarily, and can only be attached at the ends of legs and arms. Similarly, graspers and feet can only be attached in the same plane as the arm or leg. You cannot rotate them such that the foot is on backwards or the hand appears broken, for example.
  • Likewise, arms and legs can only be attached to the body. They cannot be affixed to accessories like horns or wings, and they cannot be attached to other arms and legs. However, any body part, including eyes, ears and even mouths, can be attached to the end of arms and legs.
  • Feet must always touch the ground. If feet are attached to a pair of arms, those arms will suddenly extend downwards to connect the new foot with the ground.

One could describe the Creature Creator as a language system, with its own unique grammar and syntax. Any body part that can be attached at any given spot is a paradigm, whereas any grammatically correct combination of parts is a syntagm. The completed creature, which may consist of multiple syntagms, is a text resulting from this unique language system.

Embracing bilateral symmetry along the axis of motion.

The Creature Creator deliberately subscribes to bilateral symmetry in its construction of life. Most animals, including birds, lizards, mammals and humans, possess bilateral symmetry, whereby a plane drawn through the middle of the organism along its axis of motion will visually divide it into two mirror halves.

As a result of this reflective symmetry, the user is prevented from haphazardly creating an imbalanced creature. Body parts can only be attached as single parts down the middle of the creature, or as mirrored parts on opposite sides of the creature. Likewise, the body of the creature can be molded and manipulated in amazing ways, but all changes are constrained by bilateral symmetry and must be mirrored along the creature’s axis of motion.

Perhaps this isn’t 3D at all…

Given the forced symmetrical nature of the Creature Creator, one could argue that what Spore offers is not a 3D modeling program at all, but rather a 2D graphics program cleverly disguised as 3D.

If anyone recalls the original Doom, I spent much of my youth building levels for that game. The most shocking discovery in Doom level-editing was that the vertical 3D nature of the game was entirely an illusion, in that it was barely more sophisticated than Wolfenstein 3D. Unlike Quake, which came a few years later, in Doom no spaces could overlap one another. The vertical dimension and visual height of walls, stairs, platforms and windows were simply a function of texturing, transparency and impassibility.

A wall was a vertical plane that was fully textured and impassible. A stair was a plane that was textured on the bottom, to form the front of the step, but transparent in the middle, so you could walk through it. The vertical plane of a window was textured on the top and bottom to form its frame, but not in the middle, so you could see through it.

Determining front and back, or “What, are you coming or going?”

The definition of “Front” and “Back” of a creature in the Creature Creator is, surprisingly, not tied to any part of the creature, but rather to its orientation in space. The backbone of the body does not have a front or a back, and the player is free to grab, bend, curl and distort it in dizzying ways. Rather, a stone arrow in the otherwise circular platform on which the player is constructing their creature indicates both the “Front” of the creature, as well as its axis of motion and thereby its plane of reflection. Thus, the creature is necessarily embodied in space, deriving its meaning and orientation from its existence in the environment.

Whoa, that’s quite a bong hit, there, ain’t it? Allow me to illustrate:

Here you can see a new creature body, with the stone arrow indicating the “front” of the creature:

When you add legs to the body, they always point to the front and are aligned with the arrow. This cannot be changed, even as you move the body around. The axis of the body, likewise, cannot be rotated, and is always aligned with the arrow:

Arms align with the front of the creature as well.

Front and back orientation concerns the axis of symmetry and motion of the creature, and little more. For instance, it is grammatically acceptable to construct a face on is the back of the creature:

The spine of the body has nothing to do with which side of the creature is considered the front and the back. Thus, you can construct creatures that have a vertical spine and are bipedal, or are quadrupeds (or more, or less) and horizontal. Thus, even when you grab the body of the creature and flip it upside down, the arms and legs remain spatially aligned with the arrow:

Thus, I can even point both ends of the spine toward the back of the creature, and the game still determines the front and back, as well as the plane of symmetry, based on the environmentally-situated axis of motion:

Leveraging your emotional sensibilities.

As the player constructs their creature, it begins to emotionally respond. It may look around, laugh, shrug, or even protest when a body part is taken away. Furthermore, in the Test Drive feature of the Creature Creator, the user takes control of their creature, and is able to make it demonstrate such emotional responses as happiness, sadness, fear and anger. The interpretations of these emotions are phenomenologically embodied, and it’s incredible how the game leverages our highly-developed ability to sense and respond to emotions even in wildly different lifeforms.