In my previous post about Isabella Rossellini and Green Porno, I mentioned reproductive biology as something I have always found fascinating. I want to return to this subject by talking about the Creatures game series.
Released in 1996 by Mindscape, Creatures was one of the first artificial life simulation games. Centered around a little creature called a Norn,1 the user guided their ward through its life cycle until its inevitable death. Along the way, the Norn would explore the world, learn vocabulary, and breed with other Norns. The complexity of the game’s inner workings was amazing for the time: the Norns were controlled by an advanced AI program, influenced by digital chemicals in their bodies, and the game had an entire genome built in, so offspring resulting from breeding were not just simply determined or randomized, but specifically generated from the parents’ “digital DNA.”
The first Creatures game was quite successful, with such notable figures as Richard Dawkins and Douglas Adams singing its praises, and the game was awarded the 1996 International EMMA Award. An entire online community—one of the first of its kind—sprang up in which players exchanged Norns, mods, and more. Creatures 2, released by Creature Labs in 1998, was just as enjoyable as the first game, if not more. There were more interactions with the Norns; more complicated Norn genetics; a world twice as large as the original; and a “complete working eco-system, including weather, seasons and a functioning food-chain.”
Creatures 3 followed in 1999 and—in my opinion—is where the series begins to decline. Creatures 3 and the later additions to the series became increasingly simplified and child-friendly, which was a mistake. While the genre of virtual pets is almost inherently associated with children, a virtual pet game does not have to have children as its main audience. Even though I myself was a child when I discovered Creatures, I appreciated the challenge presented by the game, its refusal to dumb down the complicated nature of artificial life. Creatures was my first encounter with science: I was compelled to learn something of genetics, to open up the various “kits” in the game to examine a Norn’s physiology and health, inject it with the correct medicine when it was ill, etc. Because of the Creatures game series, I considered studying to be a geneticist for the longest time—I even did one of my school science projects on Norn genetics.
In researching this article, I discovered Creatures 4, or Creatures Online, is in the works, being developed by Fishing Cactus. At first, I was ecstatic: Creatures was my absolute favorite game growing up, and I would love a modern release in the series. But, in reviewing the developer’s official website, I am not thrilled with what I see of the game’s development. Since Creatures 2, I have not enjoyed the 3D art style that has taken over the series. In addition, Creatures Online will be a free-to-play game, with microtransactions optional, daily quests, and a demo video appears to show it is partially a tapping game. From this, it sounds as though the game is becoming even further simplified, which is to be expected when the game will be supported on touchscreen mobile devices: there are really only so many interactions possible with a touchscreen.
Where is the complexity and challenge of the original game? The open-ended quest for knowledge and understanding of how Norn artificial life works? That began to decline with Creatures 3, and it appears that Creatures Online will not be returning to the standard set by Creatures and Creatures 2.
How disappointing. I can only hope that Creatures Online delivers more than what the developers have revealed so far.
If you want to play the original Creatures games, they are available from GOG for fairly cheap, and I believe the software will run on modern systems better than the original software. I still have my original CDs, but unfortunately it is difficult to run the original Creatures game on modern computer systems. I was able to run Creatures 2 a couple years ago, but I imagine it will soon be unsupported as well. Digital obsolescence is one of the sad facts of the digital age: unlike a physical copy of a book which will always be readable, software is phased out and becomes unsupported by modern computers.