Have You Played… Creatures?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

I played Creatures for hours and hours, fully believing that the artificial life that drove its inhabitants would lead to some kind of revelation. Looking back, I think I was supposed to be solving rudimentary puzzles to move the irritatingly cutesy Norns from one screen to the next.

Creatures spawned several games but I only played the first. I remember hatching eggs and poking Norns with the pointer, waiting for them to display signs of life. Artificial life.

That was the game’s big selling point, that the Norns were more than the kind of virtual pets that I’d encountered in the Dogz and Catz series. Do games like that exist anymore? Toys, really, that drop a fake animal on the screen and allow you to interact with it, grooming, feeding and stroking? Nintendogs is the most famous example but PF Magic made loads of software along those lines in the mid-nineties, including Oddballz, which featured weird alien pets that exploded if you petted them too much.

Creatures was like a Petz game with a PhD. Created by Steve Grand, a computer scientist and (later) roboticist, it was a window into a world inhabited by creatures who required a guiding hand to teach them. If I remember rightly, they had to be taught to eat nutritional food instead of chewing rocks. I could be wrong. They definitely had to be taught to push buttons and pull levers so that they could move around the cluttered environment.

I wanted to love Creatures, just as I wanted to love Black and White and its poo-slinging cow, but looking back there wasn’t very much to love. Grand went on to make a robotic orang-utan which will now live in my nightmares.

The skin was a huge mistake.

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26 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    gritz says:

    I think Creatures could make hundreds of millions of dollars in the mobile market today.

    But at the time, it was hard to convince myself to watch those little idiots stare stupidly at inanimate objects while I could have been playing something like TIE Fighter or Duke Nukem.

  2. Kefren says:

    Staring Eyes.

  3. Jay Load says:

    I wondered what had happened to Rossignol.

  4. Stugle says:

    Yes, you had to teach them everything: how to eat, how to move around. I believe you had to encourage them to get together to create future generations of Norns, too – the disk only came with 3 or 6 eggs, if memory serves.

    Charlie Brooker (I think) previewed/reviewed it and had the wonderful experience of two Norns learning to toss a ball between them, rather than each throwing their own ball and having to retrieve it.

    I always hoped for similar moments, but in the end I was frustrated by my inability to understand the game’s language: was I supposed to tell my Norn Louie to ‘Eat tomato’ to eat the tomato, or were all edible items simply coded as ‘food’? In other words, was I supposed to teach them ‘Eat Tomato/bread/banana/whatever’ or simply ‘Eat food’? I never figured it out and I never felt like I could actually shape their behavior.

    • LionsPhil says:

      I think you also had to teach them to stay away from plague-carrying baddies, or something. From what I remember it was ultimately a frustrating exercise in opaque feedback.

      • Stugle says:

        Yes! The Grendels, or something like it. My Norns seemed to have a particular affection for them, even as they were beaten up/enplagued by them.

        And thank you for reminding me of the word ‘feedback’, which is far more succinct than my ramblings.

  5. soopytwist says:

    “Creatures” always conjures up an entirely different game in my mind. Namely Clyde Radcliffe Exterminates All The Unfriendly Repulsive Earth-ridden Slime, on the Commodore 64.

  6. Tinus says:

    No mention of Grandroids? Steve’s been working on a proper, modern creatures game for years now. It’s still early days, but its some of the deepest most worthwhile work anyone’s been doing in the fields of games and artificial life.

  7. J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    Is that a picture of the people getting their panties in a twist over John’s recent WIT?

  8. Sin Vega says:

    I never played this, but I have a friend who did, and remember that whole era of AI/creature petting/training experiments. Seems like they mostly vanished, at least within video games. Maybe robotics is where the good AI stuff happens now.

    Creatures was also the subject of this brilliant piece of writing by Jenn Frank. Well worth a read even if you never played it.

  9. GallonOfAlan says:

    Yes, on the C64.

  10. Menthalion says:

    I will always remember teaching what would become the Matriarch of my creature dynasty how to speak, typing the same words over and over again until she got it. Of course the first typo I made would also be the time she picked it up, condemning generations of Norn to a speech impediment by teaching them as well.

    Also, since Creatures had a kind of DNA that actually could mutate, a strain of immortal Norn, the “Highlander strain”, developed. Norn would die of old age by getting less and less energy from the food they ate, but these had such an efficient metabolism that that never happened.
    Eggs could be put on floppies but then would vanish from the game. Highlander eggs were in high demand.

  11. AceJohnny says:

    just as I wanted to love Black and White and its poo-slinging cow

    Oh hey, funny story about that. The guy who worked on the creature’s AI was a young greek prodigy, who had previously worked with Molyneux on Syndicate and Theme Park. He left Lionhead after B&W to create a few other games, including Evil Genius, but then changed fields altogether, to work in cognitive neuroscience. You may have heard about him since then: Demis Hassabis co-founded DeepMind, which was acquired by Google, which earlier this year was all over the headlines with their GrandMaster-level Go-playing AI: link to googleresearch.blogspot.com

  12. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    I remember that vaguely. I think I was fascinated by it, but gave up after a while, because I was unable to teach my Norns basic survival. If I remember correctly, I couldn’t get them to eat food regularly.

  13. Premium User Badge

    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    I remember playing a demo of it, or maybe it was one of those games you could get in cereal boxes. At any rate I never could get info it.

    Also, if you could make it through that entire Robotang video then you should have no problem playing SOMA. Nothing in the game is as frightening as that thing.

  14. Premium User Badge

    yhancik says:

    Oh I have played so much of Creatures. I’m not sure you’re being really fair to it, though, it *was* more than solving puzzles :p

    A Creatures 4 was in the work (as a F2P, what else), but it’s been “on hold” link to blog.fishingcactus.com

    • Weird Sun Twitter says:

      A new game, Creatures Family, just popped up on the wiki. Apparently the brand recently got sold again?

      • Premium User Badge

        Captain Narol says:

        Wow, thanks for the info !

        I digged, there is a statement about it there :

        link to spilgames.com

        With notably those 2 sentences :

        “The first full-blown free2play mobile “Creatures Family” game will be ready in 2017 targeting players 20yrs old and above. In the meantime, Spil Games will keep fans happy with a series of multi-platform teaser games starting this summer.
        These are designed to delight the existing Creatures fan base, while igniting enthusiasm with a fresh new audience in anticipation for the 2017 release.”

        The bad news being that “Creatures Family” seems to be planed mobile-only…

        • Weird Sun Twitter says:

          Yeah. :/ With few prospects for community contributions in Creatures Family, I’m much more excited about Grandroids. Which unlike Creatures 4/Online/Family has had actual releases.

  15. Premium User Badge

    Captain Narol says:

    Indeed, there was more to it than solving puzzles, that was a really innovative experiment (not really a game) and I wish there was more stuff of this kind now !

    Creatures in C2 and C3 were a lot more autonomous than in C1 and you didn’t had to teach them, and C3 came with Docking Station, an add-on allowing your norns to travel over the web and exchange them with other users. It was an evolutive lifeform with a DNA and a complex behavior, fascinating to study.

    You could breed them over many generations, watching them live and evolve, kinda a sort of animal version of the Sims but with a lot more genetic possibilities…

    I hope C4 will finally get out, the reasons why it is currently on hold seem quite unclear.

  16. Moogie says:

    A terribly unfair review, IMO. How about some videos or screenshots of the actual game in question, rather than something deliberately chosen to put people off?

    Creatures was a fascinating series that introduced many young people (myself included) to the world of AI and autonomous agents. Many of us still play the games to this day, and the modding community is one of the oldest and strongest in videogame history. People have created hundreds of different creature ‘breeds’, including custom complex genetics systems, and thousands of scripted objects that interact with the world. Hell, people have even created entirely new worlds for it.

    C1 norns were primitive, yes, but could still be taught fairly easily. C2 and C3 expanded on the ideas of the first and made them more intelligent and expressive. C3 even had an expansion at one point called Docking Station, which was one of the first ‘online’ games I’d ever played, allowing norns from different computers to enter a teleporter and visit other players’ worlds– bringing their weird and exotic genetics (or diseases) with them.

    It’s a shame you bounced off it, thinking it was some kind of goal-based game. It wasn’t. It’s a virtual pet cage, a simulation of little lifeforms. I’m sad that there’s really been nothing else like it since (Grandroids notwithstanding).

    • Premium User Badge

      Captain Narol says:

      Btw, does anyone has any infos about the state of the “Grandoids” project of Steve Grand (the creator of Creatures) ?

      His last post on his blog about it was in March 2011, his kickstarter seems to have failed so overall it doesn’t smell good…

      • Weird Sun Twitter says:

        He released source code to backers a few years ago, so for example philosiraptor on YouTube posted some videos of experiments with it. And Steve’s programming diary has entries as recent as last week. It’s linked from the wiki page.

        • Premium User Badge

          Captain Narol says:

          Thanks, that’s great news !

          After checking I found out that I was wrong, his KS reached twice his goal.

          With “Grandoids” and “Species” on their way, maybe the creatures genre will finally be revived one day…