When I hear about people using games as creative platforms, my mind tends to skip to the more obvious choices. Architectural recreations or elaborate machines in Minecraft, complex and painterly scenes in TiltBrush—even MarioPaint song covers and Skyrim mods come to mind long before I might think of a game like Spore.
For many, Spore's relevance begins and ends as a cautionary tale about pre-orders and excessive hype, one more disappointment in the annals of video game history only spared from the fate of being forgotten thanks to Polygon's Monster Factory video series. That's what makes Rebecca Frewin's work so intriguing to me, both because her work is undeniably amazing and because the environment she's chosen to create it in is so unexpected, and too easily dismissed.
Spore offers her something unique which has held her attention for nearly a decade, and her designs are some of the best out there. Her audience of over 150,000 YouTube subscribers would likely agree. Years after its initial release (and eventual metamorphosis into a gaming community punchline), Spore has retained a dedicated following of players who use its polygonal creatures as a canvas of flesh and bone, scale and feather, and produce some incredible works of digital art in the process.
Frewin, better known as DarkEdgeTV, is one of these creators. From her home in England she uses Spore to build everything from prehistoric fish to the towering Tallnecks of Horizon Zero Dawn. She's even assembled a ridiculously accurate model of the Normandy and a slew of classic game characters (as I previously covered here on Waypoint), all in a program ostensibly designed to spawn customized, cartoonish critters who dance at and/or eat each other.
Knowing her daughter's passion for dinosaurs and other ancient lifeforms, Frewin's mother (herself an ardent fan of The Sims franchise) introduced her to the then-new evolution sim around the age of 13. "For the first couple months I was as obsessed as a kid could be with a new game," Frewin told me when I asked about her roots in the game, "Just repeatedly replaying the campaigns from start to finish, especially enjoying the creature stage and editors." Soon enough she'd discovered Spore's online features, which opened up a window into what players around the world were creating. "Other players [were] making some incredible pieces of art," Frewin explained, and she was compelled to join them.
Now 22, Frewin's turned her longtime hobby into the equivalent of a part-time job by posting her timelapsed creature creation videos to YouTube. She now uses Spore almost exclusively as a creative tool rather than playing it as she once did. And with nearly a decade of creature designing under her belt, she explained, "the difference between what I can make now and what I first started with is astronomical."
"My earliest creations really were the standard basic stuff you'd expect to see from anyone," she continued. "Some were very lazy and rushed because I just wanted to play the campaign." But by Frewin's account, her experiences drawing and dabbling in more traditional forms of art helped her find value in realistic proportions and characteristics, pushing the limits of what the game provided as a starting point.
The game's modding scene helped nurture that impulse, Frewin told me, giving her a reason to stick around and find renewed inspiration long after the point when her interest may have otherwise waned. "Spore's editors are too limiting," she said, adding that the cheats players can use to remove some of the built-in restrictions still aren't quite enough.
But two mods changed all that; Davopotamus' Dark Injections mod and CamBen's color parts. "With [Davopotamus'] mod alone, I can add far more details, the 'canvas' area is significantly larger, and there's a tremendously greater library of parts to pick and choose from." Frewin's enthusiasm about installing these mods is like witnessing a painter enthuse about when they discovered their favourite pigments or tools. "Suddenly, everything [felt] possible! And I can not give these two users (and the rest of the modding community) enough credit."
But even with the bevy of boundary-breaking mods available to Spore's remaining userbase, it's still built to be a game and not a flexible platform for creativity. There's no replacing more versatile and purpose-built tools in that regard. It's not so surprising then that Frewin also dabbles in more traditional 3D creature modelling. "I had a lot of encouraging support from viewers and subscribers suggesting I should try out 3D art and recommending various software," Frewin told me. This lead to her experimenting with both Sculptris and more recently ZBrush, both pieces of highly technical software used by many professional 3D modellers. "It can be time consuming to make anything, but I always feel proud of the results, and I am extremely grateful that I have an audience willing to watch, learn, and critique."
Community is a crucial part of Frewin's work, but she's had to change where she looks for it over time. "The Spore community has been very interesting over the years," she told me, "However I can't tell if the community has changed, I have grown up, or a combination of both." As is often the case, "interesting" may have been a diplomatic choice of words on Frewin's part.
It's a story that might resemble quite a few game communities, particularly those built around creative expression. "The art-scene early on was incredible," Frewin recalled. "The forum communities were both welcoming and competitive, [with] various clubs and contests for various themes and a hierarchy of more popular creators that I strived to be a part of. However over the years, it feels like all of the original 'masters' have since moved on with only a handful of us still kicking around. The forum community nowadays is... odd, to be polite."
Politeness appears to be a big part of the rift that's formed between her and her old haunt. As the community shrinks and becomes more insular, tolerance for interference or outsiders unfamiliar with the forum's norms has declined as well. Frewin described a climate of tension and harassment against new faces and long-standing moderators alike, which makes the distance that she described between herself and the group that originally nurtured her hobby all the more understandable.
But while older communities began to fail her, Frewin found and formed a new one through the DarkEdgeTV channel. "The Spore community within YouTube," Frewin gushed, "That is an entirely different thing! For a game that many seem to think is dead, the community that hangs around my channel is incredibly active and enjoyable, with people always asking for more, trying out their own creations, learning how to mod and create, and quite frequently, new names popping up not even knowing what Spore is. It's a wonderful experience being a part of it!"
As for the negative opinions that still linger around Spore itself (namely the idea that it's a much better joke than it is a game), Frewin's attitude remains pretty positive. For her and many other creators and fans, Maxis' maligned evolution sim has proven itself anything but a disappointment.
"While I do get the occasional 'Spore could have been better' comment, I do hope that our community sheds some light onto the subject, and that although the grand evolution-simulator certainly did fail, there's still a light-hearted creative aspect that one could lose themselves in for hours."