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.