Life sucks. And then you die from a broken ‘Digestive Function’

For several years, my favorite computer game series was one which allowed you to force little aliens to have sex with one another.

I’m talking about the Creatures games, a series of three “A-Life” simulations which saddled you with a mob of half-sentient, disobedient monsters and dared you to breed them into a powerful superrace of babbling critters. Or something. It was hard enough getting the damn things to eat. It was much harder to get them to breed, because that meant keeping two alive at the same time.

Each Creatures game placed you as the godly caretaker of a race of small things known as ‘norns.’ The norns are diminutive, large-eared, monkey-squirrel-humanoid beasts. They can learn a limited English vocabulary, express fears and desires, communicate with one another, learn rather complex tasks, develop personalities and relationships, and generally shock players with their emergent brilliance. They can also die in a million horrible ways.

Each individual norn is comprised of a series of discrete ‘organs,’ each of which reacts to elements in the game world in a variety of different ways, many fatal. If a creature spends too long underwater, its ‘lungs’ organ will die. Then it will die. I’ve watched creatures fall and destroy their ‘bones’ organ, gobble up poison mushrooms to the detriment of their ‘digestive function,’ and even, due to an odd birth defect, pop out of the egg with two brains, both of which were already dead.

In C1, norns lived on the outer edge of Albia, their disc-shaped, sidescrolling home planet. They shared it on bad terms the grendels, a breed of stupider, stronger baddies. In C2, they were joined by the neutral Ettins, magpie-style wanderers who lived in the desert zone and stole mechanical objects from everywhere else. Originally protected by the intelligent Shee, a fourth race of aliens, all these little beasts were abandoned to your care until Creatures 3. C3 made you the Lone Shee, who flies a giant generation ship full of norns, grendels, and ettins through the infinite vastnesses of space for no particular reason whatsoever. Though the nomenclature is weirdly referential to Celtic mythology, the games’ art style had no relation. The norns were Disneylike buffoons, but the grendels were soulless lizard brutes and the ettins looked oddly like a race of dried, bleached zombie dolls.

All the weirdness aside, Creatures 1 and 2 were grueling sims, and for me, they were a sort of trial-by-fire introduction to biology and genetics. I received Creatures 2 for Christmas when I was nine or ten and, by the time I was done with it, I’d taught myself punnet squares, acquired a basic vocabulary in biology, learned about mods, bought my very first game guide, and accidentally irradiated ten or twelve innocent little artificial intelligences in the firey bowels of the game’s sole volcano until they mutated and bore stillborn young. That said, I never actually managed to raise a successful third generation of creatures in Creatures 2. I don’t know whether this was typical or not, but I do know that some players were far more adept at the game than I was. And a lot more obsessed.

Each version of the game had the same arc: you began with a single norn, to whom you taught English, often with great frustration. You then led it to explore the entire world map, collecting power-ups along the way. They granted you special new abilities in the gameworld. One allowed you to control and breed grendels and ettins. Others opened new parts of the game’s interface, allowing you a better look at each creature’s biochemistry or physical state. Unfortunately, to activate the power-ups, your creatures had to ‘push’ them—and, in C2, teaching them the meaning of the word was pretty difficult.

“PUSH,” you’d command, unsure what noun class the power-up fit into. “PUSH! PUSH!”  The parser was very rigorous. Unfortunately, the ‘push’ verb, when performed by one norn on another, resulted in norn babies. I triggered several accidental pregnancies by ordering a crowd of norns surrounding a power-up to PUSH! at random.

Eventually you uncovered the game’s crowning secret: a genetic splicing machine. It allowed you to combine norns, grendels, and ettins into mutant horrors. I only ever uncovered the splicer in three of my tens of C2 game-worlds. My father once played and, inexplicably, uncovered the splicer in a fraction of the amount of time it normally took me or my sister.

It must have been because we were stupid kids, I suppose—but C2 was hard. As a disembodied hand, the player could interact arbitrarily with only some of the objects in the game world. Some buttons could be pressed; some foods or other objects could be picked up and moved around. You could slap or tickle the norns, grendels, and ettins, which was how you taught them to do various things in the gameworld, but you couldn’t actually move them or force them to do anything. If your norn really wanted to leap off of the highest level of the bamboo village in the jungle biome, there was nothing you could do to stop him mashing his bones organ into a fine paste and dying, with whines and gasps, in the unforgiving Albian dust. Some of the most powerful moments in my entire gaming memory involved watching norns die, incredibly slowly , in the furthest parts of C2’s labyrinthine world. One little guy ate a cyanide mushroom. Though I found him the antidote, he was already too far gone to respond to my frantic typing. “EAT PLANT,” I commanded, over and over, dropping the healing flower in front of him. “EAT PLANT!”

“Bob hurt,” he responded, and, kneeling down, rested his head on the floor. “Bob feel very sick.”

I think I actually shed a tear over Bob. “You’re an idiot,” I typed. The parser didn’t understand it, and, with a quiet murmur, he died.

Most people who have played Creatures games played Creatures 3. It fixed everything that was wrong with the previous two games, and I consider it a tour-de-force, even though it clearly didn’t sell enough to keep the development studio afloat. For instance, it allowed you to grab creatures by the hand and drag them about. You could now protect them from danger by building machines that locked doors. Creatures learned English more quickly, were more resilient, and were easier to control in groups. The designers even started supplying better DLC—you could pay five bucks for a new breed of developer-polished norns. Later, the free Docking Bay add-on let you trade norns with randos over the internet. I once downloaded a female norn, oddly named ‘Oma,’ who was trapped in an eternal pregnancy. Her sprite was, anyway. She was a generation 1148 beast (my best was only 15 consecutive C3 generations) who had been bred for ultra-short gestation periods. Her babies popped out in seconds—but all were afflicted with the dreaded Fast Growth gene, a hated mutation in the C3 community. Fast Growth norns were usually colored in the ugliest possible way, susceptible to disease, and likely to be born crippled, with severe mental deficiencies or ultra-short lifespans. It took me months of experimentation to weed the Fast Growth gene out of Oma’s kids.

The C3 community was actually pretty active. There were an awful lot of mods: inexcusably ugly custom norn breeds, new rooms for the generation ship, new toys, machines, and tools. There was also a certain kind of iron-man game mode that these hardcore C3 fans liked to do—‘feral’ norn runs. They’d hatch six or eight babies out and leave them sitting in the game overnight, then check to see what had happened by morning. Because a standard C3 norn reaches sexual maturity in around forty minutes, many generations can pass in a day. Some people even kept feral runs going for weeks.

I only ever did one feral run. I left it going for about nine hours. By the time I returned, there was only one norn left. As a generation 9 or 10 norn, the logs indicated that he’d been born in a hallway, so he’d never come into contact with the Teaching Machine, and spoke no recognizable language. He could barely feed himself. He appeared to be ill, but I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him, not even with the massive medical scanner in the bow control room. He had no name. I checked the logs, which provided me with photographs of each other norns at their moments of death, but I couldn’t figure out what had destroyed them. Possibly a deadly virus? Possibly inbreeding? There wasn’t much to go on. I put him out of his misery in the most creative way possible—injecting him at random with some of the unnamed chemicals in the medical scanner. I had a actual pen-and-paper journal where I’d ben taking notes, trying to identify some of these mystery drugs.  I didn’t deduce any new chemical functions from his death,though. I probably should have injected him with only one, not ten at once.

These days, life simulators are more popular than ever before—but The Sims has little in common with the back-breaking, soul-crushing, biology-wielding craziness that characterized the Creatures games. For one, you can’t do a feral run in The Sims 3. I recently obtained a copy of Sims 3 on discount and tried to do a feral run, because that’s what I’d wrongfully assumed had been going on in parts of Alice and Kev. I soon realized that The Sims 3 requires constant player input– it would just run until somebody had a phone call or an Opportunity, then pause itself. It’s full of modeled systems, but they’re not designed to run on their own. It’s just a game.

The Creatures games were certainly games—gamier than the Maxis Toys. But they were also fully modeled ecosystems. They ran on their own, and part of their cruelty stemmed from the fact that, like earth’s real, wild nature, Albia simply didn’t care about you. You didn’t even need to be there. Norns would die as horribly in your hands as on a feral run.

That, I think, is what sold me on the Creatures games. They were games about life that were, in the end, as harsh as life itself. Is the lack of harshness what bothers some people about the Sims games? I don’t know. The Sims games don’t bother me at all, but I’ve met people who find them saccharine and awful. I won’t deny it—I’d love The Sims better if I could do a feral run, wake up in the morning to find my starter guy dying fat and lonely while his grandkids fail school and piss themselves.

But that might be because I loved Creatures so much. Bob sticks with me.

Leave a comment

23 Comments

  1. This game sounds amazing! I don’t know how I’ve never heard of it before.

    I’ve always loved ecology simulators, ever since I first saw a program running Convey’s Game of Life and figured out the significance of what it was showing. When I was a kid, we had this Windows 3.1 screen saver that showed a bunch of fish and sharks going by the screen, and their population would change over time. When they came on the screen, they would swim from left to right and chase each other. If the fish got away, next time they came back around to the left side of the screen there would be more fish. If the sharks didn’t eat, eventually they would go belly up and die. Generally the populations stayed stable but every once in a while it would go out of whack and you would see mass extinction events as the sharks overhunted the fish population and then died of starvation. My sister and I used to watch this when we were supposed to be doing homework, giving names to fish or sharks that we liked and rooting for them. When Spore came out I found myself wishing it was more like that screensaver and less like a game.

    I was actually working on making a really simple sim game about rabbits and plants in a garden using Flixel, but I eventually gave up because I couldn’t figure out how to give the player any meaningful interaction or goal in the system I had set up.

    Reply
    • lauramichet

       /  August 10, 2010

      man, that screensaver sounds awesome. When I was a kid I adored self-perpetuating systems like that– I would spend outs playing Odell Down Under, just watching the other fish live thier lives, trying to have as small an impact as possible. The thing about artificial life games is that we KNOW that the life they model is nothing like real-world life, but they’re almost more interesting and more powerful because of this. It lets us see, and understand, the way those systems work. That kind of understanding requires a phd in the real world, so when you can have that feeling as a kid from just watching a bunch of sprites dance around on a computer screen, it’s marvelous.

      Reply
      • I suppose it says something about me that I always went for the Great White and consumed without mercy.

      • Yeah, I was getting serious Odell Down Under vibes from the description of that screensaver as well. I was personally a big fan of that self-playing, 3d maze from Windows 98.

        Totally agree that exploring and mastering systems in life sims (and all games, really) is all kinds of magical. Games are the only medium I know of which allow us to identify and internalize the rules of an entire universe, an experience I can never tire of.

  2. I’ve always wondered how this system would work in a game of a larger scale after I heard of GSC’s experiments with the A-Life NPC AI engine. Apparently, one of the game builds allowed for so much scope that an NPC could literally complete the main quest by themself, meaning that they could technically converse with other NPCs, add quest related tasks and explore on their own – trouble is, it was likely that the NPC would die pretty early on into their adventure. Now if GSC carried on with this A-Life engine operating the way it is, with a large number of logical refinements, then they would have created some really fascinating social game environments.

    Reply
    • lauramichet

       /  August 10, 2010

      what GSC is this? I’d love to hear more about this project.

      Reply
      • That would be the makers of Stalker. That game definitely does have an interesting living world to look at, with the factions attacking and defending each other and the animals running in packs out on the plains. They scaled it way back from some of the dynamic systems they were talking about, though.

    • Granted, there are more than a few mods that amp up the A-Life system to a noticeable degree.

      Reply
  3. Fishy

     /  August 11, 2010

    I remember there were time-speed mods for this, to help with the feral runs.

    You could leave it running for an hour or two and a hundred generations would pass. All sorts of monstrosites could evolve, though you’d also need to mod them with quite a lot of in-built resistances, to avoid extinction.

    It was amazing.

    Reply
    • lauramichet

       /  August 11, 2010

      I’ve been poking around– apparently at least the exodus edition has a built-in speed-upper. I totally could have used that back in the day

      Reply
    • I have taken notice that in cermaas, specialized detectors help to maintain focus automatically. The actual sensors involving some camcorders change in in the area of contrast, while others work with a beam involving infra-red (IR) light, specially in low lumination. Higher specification cermaas from time to time use a mix of both programs and could have Face Priority AF where the dslr camera can See’ your face and concentrate only on that. Thank you for sharing your ideas on this website.

      Reply
  4. We actually had Creatures. GF at the time didn’t like games, but found Creatures appealing. I think she played a few times, but it wasn’t a keeper.

    This is the sum total of my knowledge of the game.

    Surely there must be more games like Creatures out there by now? The Sims aside.

    Reply
    • lauramichet

       /  August 13, 2010

      If there are, I’m unfamiliar with them. A-Life games have fallen by the wayside in general, which is disappointing, but not exactly surprising. I don’t consider Spore an attempt, because it isn’t even trying, really.

      As to why they stopped where they did: doing Creatures in full 3D would probably have been incredibly difficult and expensive at the time, if they wanted to keep the kind of representational honesty that sidescrolling and sprites afforded them. The whole charm of the game was that it was developed by a small, small studio of incredibly bright people who had a lot of technical knowledge in A-Life specifically– I have no idea to what extent they had skills in 3D game design, etc. A full 3D system might have been beyond that team’s abilities. Coming out with just another sidescrolling, spritebased Creatures game would have been unimpressive unless they’d figured out how to make it dramatically more realistic in other ways. I think this is why the franchise took a nosedive into Creatures Village: it was hard for the games to actually get any more complex, so they went for kid appeal.

      Reply
      • It’s a shame that most specialist programmers don’t try to make more games using their talents. Of course, seeing how it turned out for the Creatures team is disheartening for hopefuls as it is.

        That would be what roguelike development is for, right?

  5. Peter Redcoat

     /  August 13, 2010

    This post was brilliant and insightful. Laura Michet is a goddess among lesser mortals.

    I really enjoy these nostalgia-based articles with gritty overtones. Write about the insoluble moral conflicts in Amazon Trail II!

    Reply
    • lauramichet

       /  August 13, 2010

      Erin?

      I could write about that time you got your face paralyzed by jungle poisons and couldn’t finish the game, if that’s what you mean.

      Reply
  6. Armyofnone

     /  August 14, 2010

    Started reading SecondPersonShooter recently, and I’m absolutely loving it. I know its just a random internet guy’s praise, but I really am enjoying the articles here, this one in particular. A-Life is fascinating stuff. I put many hours into SimAnt as a kid just because I was able to see an ant colony up close whenever I wanted. Keep up the awesome work! :)

    Reply
  7. Kapuran

     /  August 31, 2010

    I played Creatures 2 when I was younger, for… a long time. I accomplished a fair bit in the game, but I was young and pretty stupid and didn’t uncover a lot of what was possible.

    However, I played it enough to encounter norn-related heartbreak.

    I had one norn, who was by far my favorite. She was adorable. I didn’t even let the guy norms near her. But she was… too curious for her own good.

    She walked into the sea, and drowned, while I was away from my computer for a moment. I only just had time to notice before she ran out of air and died.

    What was worse was that as her soul started up towards the sky as they did, it got caught in one of those stupid amoebas… and got stuck good. Her little stupid norn soul didn’t go to norn heaven; it was stuck, under the sea, forever.

    I shed a tear, for sure. I also had to scratch the save data because I couldn’t look at her poor little non-existent soul stuck in her watery grave.

    I tried picking up Creatures 2 again years later, as an adult, but couldn’t get back into it… the experience could never be the same after getting so attached to a specific non-existent entity (not unlike your Pokemon/Pocket Pikachu article, except that I still play Pokemon religiously).

    I’ve never played Creatures 3… but if it fixed a whack of the bugs from 2, perhaps I’ll give it a shot, if I can find a copy.

    Reply
  8. Len

     /  September 7, 2010

    ! I was going to say that you should totally check out Dwarf Fortress, as the feel I get from it is very similar to the feel you’re describing here. Well. Maybe it’s just the part where the being you indifferently control seems determined to off itself by doing something stupid while you frantically yell at the screen and try without effect to get them to help themselves. But I saw that you have written about it already and I am going to go read all that instead.

    Reply
  9. RachB

     /  April 1, 2011

    >These days, life simulators are more popular than ever before—but The Sims has little in common with the back-breaking, soul-crushing, biology-wielding craziness that characterized the Creatures games. For one, you can’t do a feral run in The Sims 3. I recently obtained a copy of Sims 3 on discount and tried to do a feral run, because that’s what I’d wrongfully assumed had been going on in parts of Alice and Kev. I soon realized that The Sims 3 requires constant player input– it would just run until somebody had a phone call or an Opportunity, then pause itself. It’s full of modeled systems, but they’re not designed to run on their own. It’s just a game.

    Yes yes. Same with Spore — it LOOKS like Creatures but it actually isn’t that much like it.

    You may be happy to know that Steve Grand is working on a new ‘real’ artificial life game: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1508284443/grandroids-real-artificial-life-on-your-pc

    Reply
  10. Bouncemething

     /  February 7, 2014

    Oh gosh… I played creatures for years from one through to docking station and even adventures (which, while the minigames were fun, was really too cutesy…) Creatures 2 is by far my favorite since you can get very deeply into the genomes and chemical processes going on inside your norn. If creatures 3 also had such specific analytical tools (the medical bay was alright, but nowhere near as awesome as the science kit and neurology kit in c2) I would have loved the game more, even though it still charms me significantly. The horror, the frustration and eventual detachment from these creatures if amazing, eventually you become a bit of a mad scientist, experiemnting on them, cloning them or splicing them (a horrible process where both creatures being spiced are killed to create some new abomination, which quite often died). The community was also quite impressive, the vast amounts of knowledge and creativity in it… It’s a pity the development died and they;re trying to bring out some easy “pay for content/progress” webbased game of it now more like an app… Also the creatures seem to have more appearance based mutations than real chemical or other processes or genetic changes. I always tried to breed certain tempraments or high intelligence. I wish someone would build a new game with gameplay like this, but more modern additions and techniques.

    Reply
  11. Vincent

     /  August 13, 2014

    Oma means “Mother” in korean btw. Which makes it an eminently suitable name for that norn.

    And uh, blame rps for a post 4 years after this was published.

    Reply

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