Let's Replay: Creatures

Release Date
11 November, 1996
Single Player
Creature Labs

Ever since HAL first locked his human counterparts outside the ship’s airlock, people have wondered whether artificial intelligence will ever become sophisticated enough to rival our own. While many attempts at creating a convincing AI have been made, none have ever managed to convince the world that machines can be capable of independent thought. However, the Creatures series is probably the closest we’ve got.

Before even the virtual pet craze and tamagotchis were a thing, computer scientist Steve Grand created what remains one of the most ambitious attempts at artificial life in the public domain. Creatures released on the PC in 1996, and was initially something of a sleeper hit upon its release. The game tasks you with the care of a whole species called Norns, furry little humanoid critters that are at once inquisitive and nave. Your task is to guide them, teach them, and gently steer them away from danger.

Norns are far more sophisticated than any virtual pet. When they are babies they need to be taught how to speak, otherwise they’ll babble incomprehensible gibberish. Luckily, there is a teaching computer near the hatchery that will teach them various useful verbs such as Push, Run, Stop, all of which will come in handy when you communicate with them. The beauty of this system is that, while you can teach Norns a similar vocabulary to a toddler and communicate with them, if you don’t teach them, your Norns will invent new words instead. Norns will also learn new words from each other, so if you don’t teach them that a flower is not called a “flib”, then this word will become common use among your Norn population.

The teaching computer is invaluable in teaching your Norn to communicate.

Creatures is still the king of what is known today as “emergent gameplay”. Nothing is scripted. Norns will make their own decisions and, while you can advise them, they can choose to listen to you or not. You can reinforce behaviours through reward and punishment (tickle them when they get something right, slap them if they do something wrong), but a Norn isn’t compelled to listen to you at all if it doesn’t want to, and will behave according to their basic needs, or through what they’ve learned.

Norns will often have strong, unique personalities, with accompanying behaviours. For example, one particular Norn of mine become obsessed with the music box, and, even when a long way from home, she would suddenly blurt out “get music”, then head back in the direction of the music box. While this put a dampener on my plans to explore a desert island on the other side of the world, it showed that my Norn was making decisions based on her wants and desires, and that she didn’t want to venture too far away from her beloved music box. God knows what she’d have been like if the music box played One Direction.

While on the surface Creatures appears very simple, there is actually a complex biological and neurological simulation going on under the hood. The game will let you glimpse its inner workings through tools such as the Health Kit and Science Kit, which give you detailed analysis of your Norn’s biochemistry, emotional drives, and decision making. These tools offer you graphical data on hormone levels (useful to find out if your Norn is pregnant), nutrition, brain activity maps, and much more. The biological models on display are surprisingly deep and offer further insight into what makes Norns tick.

Ultimately, your goal is to breed your Norns, but first you have to guide them towards adulthood. Like cats in the old saying, young Norns will kill themselves through curiosity. They’ll happily scoff down poisonous mushrooms while trying to play with the nefarious Grendels (another vicious species that exists outside of your control). Adolescent Norns often become notoriously stubborn and refuse to listen to you. Occasionally they will refuse to eat despite starving to death, even when you waft a block of cheese in front of their nose and spam the words “eat food”. Typical teengers.

Curious wreckage under the Albian Oceans.

However, once your Norns reach adulthood, they will usually do a good job of looking after themselves, but still benefit from a guiding hand once in a while. On the other hand, they don’t need much encouragement to engage in constant, guilt-free sex. Norns are polygamous and neither parent shoulders any parental duty once their eggs are laid.

The clever part of this process is that Norns are capable of rudimentary evolution. For example, one time a particularly nasty disease spread through my Norn population and, while there were no casualties, it was touch and go with a couple of Norns. A couple of the babies born shortly after this outbreak were born with the relevant antibodies needed to fight the infection. While the graphics engine doesn’t allow Norns to develop radically different features over time, this shows that biologically, Norns can and do evolve.

The complexities are there, but it is all hidden underneath a simple interface and a gloriously ambient aesthetic. The world is beautifully realised with many details that suggest a higher intelligence was at work previously. Sculptures and carvings litter underground caverns that are beyond the capabilities of any Norn. Vending machines and submarines exist around the world, but who built them? This mysterious atmosphere, coupled with the tonal music that occasionally bursts into life, lends the game a deserted world vibe and, while further games in the series will explain the history of the world, the first Creatures is wistfully lovely with this air of intrigue.

While Creatures spawned a number of sequels on the PC, and also a feature-light version on the PS1, the series eventually ran out of steam and, as Steve Grand left Creature Labs to pursue other projects (namely, a robotic monkey called Lucy), Creatures failed to innovate on its initial outstanding formula. While the potential scope of Creatures and its sequel was immense, the collapse of Creature Labs and the complexity of developing a similar game has, sadly, not been one that publishers have been willing to gamble on. Creatures’ ultimate legacy has put off potential new, true artificial life games from being developed as the industry believes they are unmarketable. As such, the game represents the most sophisticated artificial life simulator available to buy. Not bad for a game made 18 years ago.

Play It For: The finest example of artificial life ever created for home PCs.

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