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.

As VR and its out-of-this-world experiences is to 2016, so to the 1990s were ridiculously overblown claims about toy-based artificial intelligence. We had Furbies chattering garbage at us from the windowsill, Tamagotchis starving to death inside schoolkids’ backpacks, Aibos tightening the thumbscrews on wealthy Japanese folks’ existential crises and we had Creatures games cluttering the dusty racks of supermarkets’ tiny games sections.

Creatures, in theory, was a game-cum-simulation about the life cycle of a made-up animal. Grow it from an egg, interact with it, reward or punish it, introduce it to others and it’ll grow its own mind and personality, individual and unpredictable. A ton of smart thinking went into it, and it’s without doubt to see this kind of behavioural science applied at a consumer level. Just the idea of it – as though our computers really were about to transport existence to somewhere new.

The reality of Creatures was that it was an irritating grind with a cumbersome interface which all too clearly revealed you were interacting with a program, not a lifeform. The illusion shattered quickly, and the work required to conjure it in the first place just wasn’t much fun.

One day, surely, we will have something like this that actually operates as more than a gimmick and is powered by technology and neural net science that goes far beyond what poor old Creatures could muster on a Pentium II. There’s an amazing phone app waiting to happen, although the reality is that most people want cutesy, safe Nintendogs, not a frightening pocket-size Westworld.


  1. chuckieegg says:

    Not just the AI, but the genetics too. I got into it on release. Over time, I noticed that some of my Creatures were not as quick to learn or as healthy as the others. Intrigued, I got them to breed. More deformed creatures were produced. The genetic code started to show that there was a mutant virus in it. Just an area of junk that didn’t do anything, and destroyed other useful information, like how to breath. I kept going to see how big I could grow it. Generations of barely viable Creatures were churned out of my Mengela simulator. Those that could walk were sent out into the wilderness where they failed to spot the lurking Grendel until the last moment, and couldn’t escape when they did. (Also, an unintended consequence of all this was that the Grendels also degenerated. They had no reason to hunt and chase anymore). Those that crawled were allowed to breed. Eventually the DNA became all junk, and eggs failed to hatch anymore.

    Fascinating stuff. Not at all creepy.

    • Menthalion says:

      You could export Norns to disk, removing them from your world so someone else could import it.

      Norn aged and died because their energy absorption from food decreased over time.

      There was a lively trade in ‘Highlander Strain’ Norn mutations which were effectively immortal due to their high energy efficiency, making them survive even with minimal absorption.

  2. Congo says:

    This game brings back memories. I loved this game when I was a kid, and I fought may way through the interface and cumbersome learning process, agonizingly working with my Norns to teach them basic commands. The world was magical. I loved this game, and always waited for a good sequel that never really came out. They released another one, and it was fun, but they had their problems. I always wished that they would come out with a real in depth new one… but I dont think that will ever happen.

  3. LexW1 says:

    Not so much just “played” as “been scarred for life by”. Particularly by Creatures 2. I genuinely get a bit scared-feeling thinking about that game (unlike, y’know, Dead Space or Resident Evil or whatever, which were plenty scary, but not in the same upsetting way).

  4. Poolback says:

    Creatures was one of our subject of study in my Artificial Intelligence course in university. The model is actually very complex. Their artifial brain could have their structure modified, adding new neural network zone dedicated to language if necessary for example. The food they were eating and the lack of nutriments in the body could parasite the messages from inside the neural network and result in some crazy behaviour. Extremely interesting stuff in there.

  5. TACD says:

    Creatures was the brainchild of Steve Grand, who’s been responsible for several other very cool projects including a robotic orang-utan that learned to distinguish between different objects. His projects and associated books are part of what got me interested in studying computational neuroscience :)

  6. sleepisthebrotherofdeath says:

    Creatures the C64 platform game with torture chambers that in retrospect was much simpler than I remember? yeah played loads of it.

    Creatures the PC game? Bought it, didn’t really get the point of it and binned it. Probably more my failing than the game’s failing.

  7. Rituro says:

    Ahhh yes, I remember this. Thought it looked neat and the magazine previews (remember when you had to BUY magazines to read about game coverage?! The horror) were glowing. Got it for my birthday and… well, I think I managed to get one creature to eat a carrot. Once.

    So much for that.

  8. Menthalion says:

    I remember teaching my Norn matriarch the word for food by typing it umpteen times. Of course I made a typo in try umpteen and one which she promptly picked up, blessing all following generations with a speech impediment.

  9. thekelvingreen says:

    I’ve played it but I’ve never forgiven it for pinching the title of the C64 game.

  10. Captain Narol says:

    I played Intensively Creatures 1, Creatures 2, Creatures 3 and it’s fabulous add-on Docking Station that allowed Norns to travel through the warp (meaning you could receive Norns from random other players and send some too)

    It’s truely the best breeding/genetics game I have ever seen, and still one of my favorite games ever.

    I’m desperately waiting for a true successor but it doesn’t seems anything like it is coming, sadly !

  11. Bert Radish says:

    I remember downloading the Santa Norn and ending up with a whole colony of creatures with the Santa trouser bottom half.

  12. Sin Vega says:

    Inevitably, I must link to a couple of the best things ever written about games (c/o Jenn Frank), because one links to the second and the second is about Creatures:

    link to unwinnable.com

    link to unwinnable.com

  13. JustAchaP says:

    The Last Guardian reminded me of this game.

  14. yhancik says:

    I have very vivid memories of spending a winter (’98 I think) playing the shit out of it. The world itself was indeed lovely. But above all, the gameplay, or precisely how it wasn’t really gameplay, was fascinating. Knowing that you were interacting with a complex system made Creatures a “game” about trying to figure out how it works, studying it like a (wannabe) scientist, and exploring its possibilities – instead of just finding a pre-written chain of actions that has to be repeated to “win”. I think it strongly influenced my expectations of what digital media (and games in particular) can do.

    Btw, remember that there was a plan recently to do a new Creature, but it didn’t work out link to blog.fishingcactus.com

    • Captain Narol says:

      Developement by Fishing Cactus got stopped because the license (owned by BigBen entertainment) got bought by the german company Spilgames, which has started working on a reboot of their own :

      link to gamesgames.com

      They didn’t communicate much about it so far, so my hopes that something worthwile come out of it are quite low at the present stade, that company being mostly focused on mobile games…