Will Wright is lying flat out on the floor behind me, his head resting awkwardly on a small pile of books. Pieces of string are tied around his face and pinned to the carpet, with a plastic menagerie of weird alien figurines placed around his head and balanced precariously on the side of his face. I'm trying to play Spore on one of Maxis' laptops, and it's awfully distracting.
The Sims creator has barely moved a muscle for the past quarter of an hour, as an undaunted photographer squats over him, nonchalantly snapping and prodding away. It's a shoot to accompany a profile piece in a British newspaper: the picture is meant to evoke the image of Gulliver in Swift's great satirical novel, tied to the ground by the diminutive Lilliputians.
The implication is, of course, that the freakish inhabitants of Spore's universe collectively have a power far greater than their modest size suggests: and in Wright's case, the power to overthrow their creator and claim a life of their own. It's an appropriate visual metaphor for the game, more so perhaps even than the photographer realises, since if Spore delivers on its promise, it will evolve along a path the development team cannot fully predict, one that is determined by the individual actions of its users, collectively expressed.
If you've been keeping a keen eye on Spore since its unveiling at GDC three-and-a-bit years ago, it's a thrilling, intoxicating prospect. As a mainstream videogame it is unprecedented in its scope and one which, despite its esoteric scientific and social influences, can charm and wow an audience in moments, as I witnessed at Comic-Con in San Diego last month (and you can, too, on Eurogamer TV).
Wright is a brilliant, articulate man and a compelling ambassador for the games industry: the ultimate geek with an unshakeable belief in the transformative potential of interactive entertainment. And, having sold over 100 million copies of a virtual dolls' house, he's earned his stripes.
Until recently, discussion of Spore has been dominated by so much brow-furrowing over its portrayal of complex issues related to subjects as diverse as biology, sociology, astrophysics, technology and environmentalism.
That Spore can form the basis of thoughtful broadsheet articles, where Wright expounds on the collective 'metabrain' and gaming's treatment of the human condition, is an unalloyed good for those eager to see the industry taken more seriously. But with the game due for release in four weeks, there's a rather more pressing question on my mind: is it actually, you know, fun?
To begin to form an answer to that question, I've been whisked away to Maxis HQ in San Francisco to spend a few hours with a practically final build of Spore and speak with Wright and his team as they enter the home stretch of a mammoth seven-year journey. (You can read the full interview with Wright elsewhere, and watch highlights on Eurogamer TV.)
Eurogamer's previews of Spore thus far have come with the caveat that only surface-scratching is possible in a limited time frame. That is unavoidably the case here, too, but with playtime in each of the game's five phases - Cell, Creature, Tribal, Civilisation and Space - the impression is now clearer.
So, let's begin at the beginning. The Cell phase is Spore at its most straightforward - compared by Wright to Pac-Man - and the one I have the lowest expectations for in advance. It's actually magnificent fun. You start off by choosing a star system and planet on which you want to begin your journey (remember that each system will be uniquely populated by user-created species in the final game).
Each Phase has easy, normal and hard difficulties, and in Cell you choose to become either an algae-chomping herbivore, or a plankton-and-other-organism-scoffing carnivore. The choice feels superficial now, but has palpable implications over the course of your species' evolution.
A cute intro sequence highlights Spore's take on the origins of life: the theory of panspermia, life seeded from outer space. The camera follows a rock sweeping past the sun and crashing into the planet's surface, sparking the beginning stages of life in the primordial goo.
Topdown and in 2D, Wright wasn't lying about the Pac-Man link: you have to guide your organism (created in a simplified version of the Creature Creator tool released back in June) through the water, gobbling up food to earn DNA points. You can spend these on new parts to add to your creature to expedite its evolution: to do this you must mate with another organism in a charming sequence reminiscent of Viva Pinata's romance dances, which takes you into the editor where you can add things like spikes, jaws and extra protrusions to help you swim faster.
And you'll need to, as danger is never far away. There are beasts of all shapes and sizes lurking in the waters, all genetically hard-wired to gorge on anything that fits into their hungry mouths. This leads to some surprisingly tense gameplay as you dash to snaffle scarce morsels of food while avoiding the clutches of large enemies (with an attendant darkening of the bubbly music), and survive the attacks of your direct cellular rivals. I become dinner on several occasions.
Eat enough food and you evolve a step, which produces a neat zooming-out effect as your organism grows in size. All the while, massive species linger in the background with menace. It's a simple yet terrifically well executed arcade game that smartly introduces you to the basics. And, significantly, as I evolve enough to enter the Creature phase, I'm already feeling curiously attached to my personalised critter (meet Kylie: head-spikes, four eyes, shocking pink with green spots, GSOH).
The Creature phase is immediately familiar if you've already tinkered with Creature Creator. Here the game switches into three dimensions, and as your species wriggles onto dry land, the editor pops up so you add essentials like land-ready limbs.
Again, this section is relatively straightforward, mainly concerned with easing you deeper into Spore's themes and toolsets as you unconsciously strengthen your attachment to your creation. Elements are added bit by bit: Creature introduces the Test Drive, where your genetic experiments in the creator tool can be given a run out before going back into the game.
As a carnivore, my species is again predominantly tasked with scavenging for food in order to grow and evolve, but further gameplay choices are offered: do you attack other species, or engage with them socially? The latter involves rather twee mimicking of actions either to try and win their trust; the former is aided by new skills that can be gained. The evolutionary path I have chosen, incidentally, appears very precisely to date the genetic origin of the chav, as I acquire Spit and Charge skills.
It's less engaging than the desperate fight for survival of the Cell phase and seems more geared towards familiarising you with world exploration and 3D character creation, with the added draw of never knowing just what kind of human-created penis monster is waddling over the next hill.
Complexity increases further in the Tribal phase. You begin with three members of your species at your disposal, which can be selected and controlled individually or as a group, and your appreciation of the world is raised further by the addition of a free camera.
At this point physical evolution is complete, and survival becomes a matter of learning to use tools, mastering your environment, interacting with rival tribes and breeding to grow your tribe and protect the gene pool.
As you progress you accumulate points as before, which can now be spent on more practical items, such as a larger hut - essential if you wish to grow beyond three creatures. This is Spore's RTS-lite section, with a growing number of elements for you to manage and keep track of. As soon as my guys are sufficiently tooled up, I head straight for the nearest tribe and start kicking the crap out of them.
Progress to the next phase requires you to become a civilization, which is visually symbolised here by building up a totem pole in your village piece by piece; each new section is the reward for conquering or forming alliances with other tribes. Depending on whether you choose a combat or more social path, your playstyle begins to inform the autonomous behaviour of your tribe, shaping their nature. In each phase, a progress bar across the bottom of the screen tells you at a glance how far you are along the evolutionary path.
There's undoubtedly a lot more subtlety in this phase than I can appreciate in the available time, and rattling through as I am as quickly as possible, it becomes more like a frantic levelling-up ritual. But as with the rest of Spore, you'll spend more time in the areas that play to your tastes as a gamer.
The Civilization phase massively expands the complexity of the experience, and will be familiar territory for fans of Wright's SimCity, or Sid Meier's Civilization series. It's an age of technology and transportation, where you must construct and manage a society.
The brilliant simplicity of the Creature Creator toolset transfers effortlessly to buildings and vehicles in the section. The same principles apply: you can choose from a range of parts and styles, depending on what you can afford, and everything can be stretched, squeezed, spun and styled to your precise tastes. Or, if you really can't be bothered, Sporepedia provides instant access to the fantastical creations of other players. But, as with creatures, its absurdly easy to knock something up in mere moments.
The procedural music generator, courtesy of Brian Eno, has received a fair amount of attention. Here, it allows you to create a distinctive anthem for your society via a simple set of adjustable parameters. A line of notes illustrates the melody: this can be randomised with a single-click, or fine-tuned by dragging each individual note vertically, which moves it up or down the scale. The colour of the notes reflect their harmonic nature in the context of the key of the tune: red for dissonance, green for consonance. The timbre of the theme can be further altered by selecting from a range of backing tracks.
It's a little fiddly at first, but an impressive technical achievement; and with a little patience, I'd like to think I will ultimately be able to Rick Roll rival cities into submission.
Your society is either Military, Economic or Religious, which impacts greatly on how you can achieve the end goal here of seizing control of the entire planet. As a religious society, for instance, you can target unhappy cities and attempt to convert them to your cause using a special power. This is represented by the unleashing of amusing holographic tele-evangelists around the perimeter of your walls, brow-beating them into submission. Although only scratching the surface, it's the first phase I've encountered where it's plausible to imagine more seasoned gamers spending a great deal of time experimenting.
Access to the Space phase is granted when your civilisation has advanced to the point where it has designed space craft. This is the end game and where the majority of Spore players will spend the bulk of their time.
There are nine different archetypes for this phase, such as Warrior, Trader and Shaman, yours determined by the way you have played through the game. Emerge from the Civilization phase as an economic power, for instance, and you become a space-faring diplomat.
One of Spore's best features is the timeline: this stores up all of the significant events that have happened during the evolution of your species, stretching across the billions of years from cellular organism to space age civilisation. It's a brilliant, instant visual history of your journey through the game, and also shows how the choices you made have directed the course of evolution.
You have to earn access to the entire galaxy. The Space phase leads you by the hand initially with a series of missions designed to familiarise you with ship construction (as superbly satisfying as the other editors), flight, exploration of other planets and so on.
Ultimately, if you take the game seriously, it becomes about learning to create successful colonies, managing the atmosphere and biosphere of individual worlds, creating and maintaining species, transforming inhospitable worlds into fecund cradles of life, or exploding entire planets just for the hell of it.
Global warming is simulated on a planetary level, and overheating results in rising sea levels, the extinction of species, and oceans can evaporate on the path to total meltdown, for example.
As Wright explains: "It's an exaggerated version of what might happen on Earth. But playing with these toys you get some sense of how fragile an ecosystem can be, and how much life can actually stabilise the life on a planet."
Planets can be changed through terraforming as you acquire the necessary tools. You can create a volcano, for instance, to change the atmosphere of a world, and pulling back you actually see it gradually thickening.
Wright wants you to get a feel for what a galaxy is really like, and his team has gone to extreme lengths to realise this vision. To take a single example, once you unlock the Wormhole Key, you are able to use black holes like a subway system to traverse great chunks of space. On seeking out black holes, Wright advises: "Usually the best way to look for a black hole, oddly enough, is through the gravitational lensing.
"We wanted to have a lot of the same things you would see through the Hubble telescope appear with fairly reasonable frequency in the game. We wanted to convey how huge and massive a galaxy really is." Mission accomplished.
As noted, the Space phase is where you will probably spend the overwhelming majority of your time in the game proper - although one of the more intriguing aspects of the title is that there will likely be many users who barely bother with the game, preferring to tinker endlessly with the creation tools and content sharing functionality.
Zooming right out to the galactic viewpoint for the first time is a real wow moment, and there's a palpable sense of wonder about the endless solar systems stretching out into infinity, each awaiting discovery and populated by a unique and unpredictable array of species created by you and I. If you run into Kylie, say hi.
So, is it fun? Absolutely. Whether this sense of wonderment can extend and translate into an engaging, rewarding long term experience becomes the critical question. With just a few hours' frantic dabbling, questions remain over the relative strengths of the various phases, answers to which will arrive with review code in the next few weeks.
But when taken as a whole, there are at the very least intimations of greatness. It's a remarkable achievement. And having dedicated over seven years of his life to creating Spore, you can hardly blame Will Wright for wanting to lie down.