Artificial life finds a way: the legacy of Creatures

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There was a time when virtual pets were all the rage, and of all virtual pets, Creatures were the most rewarding and the most demanding. The artificial life sim series was the foamy crest of a wave that started with the Commodore 64’s Little Computer People in 1985 and leveled out around Nintendogs 20 years later.

Creatures is rarely mentioned anymore, but it hasn’t been forgotten. A couple of months ago, the Creatures Community Spirit Festival (CCSF) brought together fans, many still working on mods, sprites, backgrounds and levels. We spoke to them and explored the new lives they’re creating, and the continuing legacy of this extraordinary game.

The CCSF is more necessary than you might think considering that the franchise built its appeal on fan mods and free DLC. The developers closed down their content servers years ago, and the fanbase experienced a diaspora. To this day there isn’t a truly comprehensive database of the art and code of a generation of fans, and unless someone finds them on an old hard drive, many are already lost forever.

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The 2017 incarnation of the festival was curated by graphic artist Doringo. It’s one of the few unifying spaces of a fandom that’s stuck in the pre-Facebook era. We’re talking blogs, forums, and at least one webring that survived longer than any Norn you care to mention. Norns, for those not in the know, are the titular creatures. They die. A lot.

“I was trying to revive the community and give it a nudge in the direction of its former glory,” Doringo summarized his goals for 2017. And in many ways he succeeded – fans brought in new toys and world maps, even more than seen in 2005, the CCSF’s first year. And in 2017, there weren’t any of the 2015 edition’s depressing poems.

Many of these mods are compatible with Docking Station, the online-focused game that Mindscape released as a kind of demo for Creatures 3, so with a few patches you can try out most of the mods in this article for free!

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Although there are complex creations on show, there are also jokes and playful ideas aplenty. The in-jokes of smaller crowds like this never become so saturated as to be annoying, such as a long-time gag of idolizing the Creatures series’ resident dumb jerk, the Grendel. This year a group of fans designed a stage in their honor. Pilla, a coder and artist we spoke to, collaborated with sprite artist Linda to make a cute plush Grendel doll. Pilla grew up with the franchise, and even when she was just watching her older brother play the games, she told us, “I always pretended to be a Grendel, never a Norn.”

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One of Pilla’s non-Grendel contributions to the CCSF was the Betaship, a new room for Docking Station players to screw around in, “unlicensed” – free for anyone else to edit or adapt. It was a favorite of Creatures luminary Amaikokonut, who maintains a very informative blog supplementing CCSF – and told us:

“It charms me because the room is functionally complete, but all the food/toys/other agents are represented by placeholder sprites that are just a solid color circle with the name of the type of object printed on them. It’s intended for others to build on and eventually replace those placeholders, but even the placeholders are charming in their own way and still very clean-looking. It’s inspiring to see what others can develop without letting their inability to sprite get in their way.”

Amaikokonut is modest about her own contributions, but her blogs for CCSF 2017 have investigated and found new quirks to the games’ coding, 16 years after the franchise was abandoned. Even with all this, she hesitates to call herself an expert.

She is the latest in a line of scientists dedicated to unraveling the game’s code, contributing to a Library of Babel’s worth of primers produced by a lineage of fan-modders who follow the game for a couple of years, run a few experiments, and vanish again into the Net, often leaving little more than broken links. The virtual pet boom provided a unique space for young gamers, particularly women, to learn coding and art in a setting that wasn’t an eternal shootybang war between men wearing different colors. Melissa McEwen discusses this aspect of the game Petz in an excellent essay you can read on Medium.

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But Petz and Creatures had a completely different scale of complexity – only Creatures confronts modders with the guilt of causing stillbirth. (I invite you to imagine an Ewok comforting his wife after a miscarriage.) Creatures 3 made it easy to exchange mods with your friends. Creating them was harder – the Norns had complicated body chemistries, even modeling sex hormones and oestrus. The second game famously shipped with the default Norn genome making them too stupid to eat. This inspired a lot of genuine study, and a series of alternate genomes compete with each other for popularity to this day.

Among the cutest CCSF entries this year are the Orchid Norns, designed by CeruleanSilver to derive some or all of their energy from heat and sunlight. This is all without changing the game’s engine: we’re talking about virtual DNA that procedurally generates a photosynthetic organ that the game wasn’t originally designed to recognize. After a few hours of playing with them, we inadvertently bred a race of immortal, asexual, photosynthetic idiots with freakishly small heads.

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The Orchid Norns drew from the Thistleferns, a project of a modder named Dragoler who did a lot of the early legwork in creating chloroplasts. Dragoler sees a lot of value in the game’s draconian complexity – “I’m one of the crowd who feels that releasing a watered down pet game would do the series an injustice. I place my faith in the community’s own efforts, after proving time and time again how capable they can be.”

Dragoler’s faith is well-founded – after all, the community that fixed Creatures 2. A long-awaited fourth game in the franchise was scheduled for 2011, but hasn’t been mentioned since 2014. The original creator Steve Grand Kickstarted a spiritual sequel, Grandroids, which was fully funded six years ago and still exists only in the form of a development diary that doubles as a cautionary tale of scope creep.

There was a time when every computer shop had bins full of Creatures. We’ve forgotten the genre, and critical retrospectives can struggle to cover them because many are more like toys than games. You can’t “win” at having a dog. You just… have a dog.

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Those who want to win at having a dog must take matters into their own hands. Many try “wolfling” runs, where Norns are generated and left to live or die on their own. TheDrunkenNorn, a let’s player, analyzes the different breeds and hacks that make a wolfling run easier, harder, or impossible on Creatures Caves, a surviving hub of activity. “The game is perpetually destined for complete obscurity,” he told us, “But it clings to life on the shoulders of a few people who really enjoy it.”

These threads are for the die-hards, but Pilla, the Grendel emulatrix from earlier, sees value in a diverse fanbase – “There are people interested in biology or genetics or behaviour, as well as artists and coders and people who just like to kick back, relax and play.” She credits that diversity for their resilience, as painful as it can be to watch people spread across the Web and fade away – “If one site fails and everyone’s on that one site, the whole community gets in trouble.” The CCSF provides a vital snapshot of a fandom that has found a way to cheat death.

30 Comments

  1. aterriblesomething says:

    this article is extremely my jam, thank you

  2. Captain Narol says:

    The Creatures series is a gem and one of my favorite games, the best Artificial Life simulation ever !

    Too bad the license got in wrong hands (the current owner is making mobile games) and has been left to rot for too many years, this game was in advance on its time and really one of a kind.

    • yhancik says:

      From what I’ve heard they totally underestimated the challenge they were undertaking with Creatures, both because the original code was incredibly complex, and because of their experience (or should I say, lack thereof). I’m not entirely sure how/why that precious licence got in their hands, considered that :/

      • Captain Narol says:

        All they released so far is a pathetic browser game called “Creatures Alchemist”, that is both buggy and boring.

        What’s worse, The previous owner of the license was about to release a promising “Creatures 4” when they bought it out and all the work on “Creatures 4” went directly to the dustbin…

  3. yhancik says:

    Oh, Creatures has been a very important game to me. I never really joined that fandom and mods community, but I was utterly fascinated by this thing that allowed me to interact with a-life.
    There are few things I can relate to Creatures and my fascination for it, except STALKER or Dwarf Fortress, and some generative digital art (which is something i ended up studying). Ian Cheng does some really cool stuff with artificial life: link to iancheng.com, as well as BoredomResearch in a direction maybe more Creatures-ish link to boredomresearch.net

  4. Massenstein says:

    I’m super happy to see this lovely game series and its related community get attention. :) Though I’ve never been super active member the creatures community has been a large part of my life practically all of my adulthood. It’s insanely amazing that it still thrives outside of facebooks and whatnots. There’s a community hosted wiki (link to creatures.wiki – might be difficult to find it in search results because it had to be moved away from wikia, who refused to remove the old content) and several active sites and people still creating new content and improving the original games.

  5. FordTruck says:

    THANK YOU FOR THIS – finally someone giving the creature series respect and FINALLY mentioning Grandroids. I love you guys for this, i was kind of triggered by the mewgenics article with people saying this hasn’t been done before but creature has gone beyond that. Unfortunately the publishers that own the series now is a huge mobile company who will probably destroy the games heart (big ben and fishing cactus were making creature online..but they scrap it)

  6. moriarty70 says:

    Not to toot my own horn, but for those unfamiliar with this game, I covered it back in June for my podcast Digital Roadmap. You can find the episode here: link to roadmappodcast.com

  7. Red_Fox says:

    I remember this game. I remember the sad sound pathetic sound they made when they died, or inadvertently killed themselves. I still remember how pissed off I could get when I’d get all attached to one or several, teach them things, breed them, all to have them walk off a ledge and drown themselves.

    Does anyone know how to get into studying the manipulation of the Norns genes and how their DNA works?

  8. Eikenberry says:

    this game was my jam when i was 13 or 14, back when it was brand new. I think I even had a website dedicated to it for a while.

    I wonder how hard it would be to get back into it. I miss that series terribly.

    • indigochill says:

      GOG has the games for cheap. The first one still runs fine. The second might have some weird visual issues (a big black box) on some systems, but there’s apparently a workaround for that. The third and Docking Station still run fine. As far as diving deeper into direct genetic manipulation, I haven’t tried it in ages so couldn’t comment.

  9. Red_Fox says:

    One of the devs for the creature games, the one it would seem responsible for the complex AI and DDNA is working on another game in unity called Gradroids. This is his site.

    link to stevegrand.wordpress.com

    link to cliqist.com

  10. lordcooper says:

    Grandroids is actually plodding along and there are alpha builds for download, but Steve has little interest in promoting the project at present and I can see how it could appear dead to a non-backer.

    Here’s an update on progress as of last month: link to pastebin.com

    • Cunuroi says:

      Is this available exclusively to kickstarter backers?

      • Massenstein says:

        Yeah, but I’ve been told you can still back it even though the kickstarter is officially over. Been planning to ask myself I can do that when I’m not struggling with money.

  11. indigochill says:

    Where does the top image come from? The hover text says creatures2, but I don’t recognize any of that from Creatures 2.

  12. BrandeX says:

    If they are all spread out and losing their mods, they need to start uploading their stuff to nexusmods and/or modddb so they are properly stored, indexed, and will be around for a while.

    • Gulbasaur says:

      So many mods and addons are lost because there’s a lot of respect for the wishes of original creators. The early works were pre-Nexus (and pre-Google) and sites often relied on webrings. This meant that there was a community of people who kind of knew each other but not much collaboration.

      If they were originally uploaded with a “do not upload anywhere else” disclaimer, this has generally been respected, which causes problems when links go dead and circa-2002 email addresses aren’t checked any more. There’s a good culture of “Who’s got a copy of X from Y?”, though. Uploading them all to Nexus would be great, but also involve contacting people who wrote code 20 years ago to ask for their permission to upload.

  13. Diziet Sma says:

    Thank you for this, I bought all the games when they came out and have repurchased a lot of them on GoG. I’ll be rebooting Creatures later today then!

  14. Shazbut says:

    Not to be confused with Creatures for the Amiga. A very different game where you had to rescue your friends from being tortured to death. Scarred me deeply as a child.

    • GameOverMan says:

      Which was a conversion of the original C64 game made by Apex Computer Productions, creators of the wonderful Mayhem in Monsterland.

  15. Moonracer says:

    I followed Grandroids for a while. It looked like a promising project. I’m glad it is still being worked on.

  16. Raiyne says:

    Lovely. This brings back memories of my befuddled 12 year old self repeatedly failing to ensure these rascal’s survival. I still have a boxed copy of Creatures Exodus on my shelf!

  17. Captain Narol says:

    I’m still desperately searching for a worthy successor to Creatures that pulls the same strings in my soul…

    The closest I’ve found so far are Tyto Ecology (great Life Simulation but it lacks the genetics aspects) and Niche (great genetics but no artificial life), does anyone have other suggestions that could fit the bill ?

  18. Nosebeggar says:

    Fun fact: The creatures 2 engine was so powerful at making norns learn stuff that the british airforce used it in combination with a flying simulator to train them to fly eurofighter jets (which they did very efficiently).
    For anyone interested in this, here is a link to this (it’s german):
    link to spiegel.de

    Creatures was pretty cool, I still have my original egg floppy disk for the first game lying around. It was also annoying as hell. Loved teaching them the wrong words for objects and watching them say stuff to their norn friends.

  19. Pilla says:

    Ha, love this article! The series isn’t dead yet, lately the community has been very active on the Discord channels too.

    The article links to the OHSS and Stillbirth articles on the Creatures Wikia, but they should link to the wiki instead, since the old wikia is barely being updated and the new wiki sees several updates weekly.

    (Also, my brother is younger, not older. Doesn’t matter much anyways, just… mentioning it. :P)
    Love the article. Very informative. :D

  20. C-Rex says:

    Great to see the Creatures series getting some recognition! I actually run a Creatures Discord server if anyone is interested in joining: link to discord.gg

  21. Deathloaf says:

    Wow, this game brings back some memories!

    Some of my first hacking was done hex editing on the first Creatures Egg Disk with Norton Utilities.. The idea of digital DNA was absolutely mind blowing at the time and still is now..

    Mixing Norn and Grendel genetics by altering your eggs was amazing in the fact that they actually hatched..

    Where have the other Artificial DNA games gone?