I play Ark: Survival Evolved [official site] mostly to look at its dinosaurs. I mean, who wouldn’t? But since the very first video that came out about the game, I’ve wondered how close to modern paleontological thinking they are.
I’m interested in all this stuff because for the past few years I’ve been reading a wonderfully When the Internet Was Great-style blog called Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs, which documents representations of dinosaurs, mostly from old picture books, many of which I pored over when I was little, and critiques them according to current scientific thinking. So I asked one of its writers, Marc Vincent, about how games and popular culture depict dinosaurs, and to look at a few of Ark’s. Guess what? Ark’s dinosaurs aren’t very dinosaury.
It’s important to note that Ark’s dinos aren’t meant to be scientifically correct. Its island is also home to ape men and giant snakes. Creative director Jesse Rapczak told Gamasutra that he and his team didn’t go out to attempt accuracy, instead designing creatures that look and behave how players expect. And maybe sometimes don’t, like Doedicurus, which rolls around Ark like Sonic the Hedgehog. Studio Wildcard explains them with some mysteriously undisclosed “in-world context for why these species may have evolved slightly from their historical counterparts,” but it’s also a bit of a get-out. Rapczak later told MCV: “We’ve noticed that a lot of people are quick to point out: ‘Hey, dinosaurs have feathers now. The big lizard thing is not scientifically accurate any more’. It’s actually kind of stressful because people are really passionate about dinosaurs.” He also said that “it’s really hard to do good feathers in a game.”
That’s completely understandable in the context of making a fun game, especially one where you can ride your captured dino and put glasses on it. Marc Vincent understands that, too, but the way they’re presented in the game frustrates him. “As a dinosaur geek, one can't help but be a little disappointed that the developers have opted to tack dinosaurs' names onto what are, essentially, fantasy creatures,” he told me. “If you're going to name your creature after a dinosaur – and the majority of the species in this game are placed in existing dinosaur genera – then you should probably be prepared to make it resemble the animal in question.”
When I was a kid, I probably wouldn’t have minded about all this much. Anything depicting a dinosaur was incredible. But back then, I didn’t realise that the pictures of dinos that I looked at so much weren’t made by palaeontologists but illustrators who were influenced at least as much by other illustrators as science. Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs is brilliant because it shows how there were fashions in the way old faves were represented. You see vast and lumpen old monsters of the 1970s, which was how dinosaurs looked when I first started getting obsessed with them, and then you see how they’ve changed into the lithe and active creatures of today.
Vincent sees Ark’s dinosaurs as being part of a tradition that started with Jurassic Park, which was a big event for dinosaur representation. “For all their inaccuracies, and for all that the filmmakers made use of artistic license, Jurassic Park's dinosaurs were nevertheless pretty well up-to-date for 1993,” Vincent says. Instead of basing its designs on old dino art, Spielberg’s team consulted scientists and referred to the work of the most well-informed palaeoartists of the 1980s, like Gregory Paul, Mark Hallett and Doug Henderson. That’s why the T. rex in Jurassic Park is an active hunter, able to run with its tail stretched out behind it, acting as a counter-balance. “If Jurassic Park had taken the route that so many are taking now, the film would have featured swamp-dwelling, lard arse brontosaurs and tail-dragging, tripodal, Harryhausen-esque tyrannosaurs.”
Spielberg was a bit too successful, though. “Unfortunately, Jurassic Park's dinosaurs were so memorable that they quickly became inescapable in the popular media,” Vincent laments. The film set expectations for dinosaurs from which science has since moved on, while popular culture has not.
In that context, Ark’s a bit of a missed opportunity. It had a chance, like Jurassic Park did, to make a new and distinct vision of dinosaurs that might go on to inspire a new generation. But Jurassic Park knew it could start a revolution because it was a big Hollywood movie, while Ark seems to think it’s ‘just a game’. I think it could have thought big, because despite being still in Early Access, it’s been played by 1.6 million people. That’s a lot of people to whom Ark could have seeded a fresh vision of what dinosaurs looked like. On the other hand, hey, the gates are wide open for another game to do it. (EDIT: Like Saurian, which Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs has covered!)
But how do Ark’s dinosaurs diverge from modern thinking? I asked Vincent to look closely at a few of them, and he replied, “I don't want to nitpick specific creature designs too much.” To be clear, he’s not some pedant who is intolerant to the need to make a fun and technically practical game. “They've at least managed a far better Stegosaurus than the one in Jurassic World. I do wish them every success. Even if their pterosaurs are horrible.” But I talked him into it, and he wrote some critiques which I've included in full below. Over to Vincent.
As you're probably aware, a fairly recent scientific paper reinstated Brontosaurus as a valid genus, but it still very much resembled its close relative, Apatosaurus. (Where you draw the line between one genus and another is essentially arbitrary anyway, but the paper made a good case for it.) The Ark brontosaur is obviously intended to homage 'retro' representations of the animal in palaeoart from the 1960s and earlier – think Rudolph Zallinger and Charles Knight. These were often highly erroneous, giving the animal a rounded, tubular neck and a very different head to the one it had in reality (the latter for various historical reasons). The real Brontosaurus was very different and, in fact, a lot weirder. Its neck bones were hugely wide and triangular in shape, such that it would have had an enormously stocky-looking neck that resembled a Toblerone. Its tail would also have been longer than shown in Ark, and ended with a 'whiplash' tip similar to Apatosaurus and Diplodocus. The head of the Ark animal is also incorrect – it should be longer, lower, with a wide muzzle and teeth only in the front. If you want a pretty much up-to-date impression of what this animal looked like in 3D, check out Sideshow's Apatosaurus maquette, which has been praised by the guys at SV-POW (and they know their vertebrae).
The Tyrannosaurus in the game appears to take a great deal of inspiration from '80s and '90s palaeoart in its style. The head has a very 'shrink wrapped' sunken appearance, which was popular back in the day but has fallen out of favour for being an unrealistic representation of what the soft tissues were probably like. The spiky horns over the eyes remind me very much of Mark Hallett's depictions of Tyrannosaurus from the '80s, which in turn influenced Jurassic Park. Most telling is the way in which the animal holds its arms. They are curled up with the hands facing backwards, similar to Jurassic Park. No tyrannosaur – in fact, no theropod – could actually achieve this, since the radius locks into a groove in the ulna, so they couldn't twist their forearms like we can. Instead, the palms of the hands were locked facing each other, and you will see this in all well-researched illustrations made in the last 5-10 years. Judging by the in-game shots that I've seen, the creature also appears to have a great number of very thin, bladelike teeth. T. rex had some fairly slender teeth up front, but those further back were huge and thick, shaped more like chunky spikes than blades; they would have been good for crunching through thick flesh and bone. Of course, we could put this down to the in-game creature being a fictitious species.
OK, I know this is just a game, and a work of fiction, and these are imaginary species, etc. etc., but these things are still really fucking ugly. These are quite transparently Jurassic Park 'raptors' with scanty feathers haphazardly applied to a few body parts. This sort of thing was acceptable when Jurassic Park came out, but ceased to be so in about 1996. These no longer resemble what scientists thought these animals looked like in any way. They are straight-up fantasy creatures, and they shouldn't have bothered with the feathers. Either do the feathers right – head-to-toe, like a bird – or just do what they did in Jurassic World, i.e. shrug your shoulders and give us a ludicrous fantasy beastie. Given how much more awesome even an attempt at a more realistic 'raptor' would have looked than these quite lazily designed things, I can't help but a be a bit disappointed.
This is one of the better ones. A common mistake is to give this animal very narrow hips, like a theropod – in reality, its hips were rather wide (the better to accommodate its huge herbivorous gut). It's a bit hard to tell, but judging from the fact that people are able to sit on and ride these creatures, it looks like they've been given nice wide hips. It's also not too big, which would have been a danger if the developers relied on '80s and '90s dinosaur books – actually, it might be a little small. The head basically follows the real skull, with a bit of artistic license applied (fictional species and all that).
What the hell is happening with this one, I'm not sure. Whereas the developers of Ark have exhibited a noted 1990s-style feather phobia when it comes to theropod dinosaurs, Dimorphodon – a pterosaur – appears to be covered in them! Pterosaurs weren't dinosaurs, and didn't have feathers. Instead, they had a hairlike covering of what have been termed 'pycnofibres'. The creature's anatomy also deviates from real pterosaurs in other ways, including completely lacking the characteristic pteroid wrist bone that helped support the wing, and also in the shape of the wing membranes. In fact, the membranes seem to have been replaced by feathers! As far as I'm aware, no-one has proposed feathered pterosaurs in the past, so the developers are just making shit up here.
This one is avowedly a fantasy creature. Cross-breeding a Triceratops and a Styracosaurus ... well, even if you did have them in the same place at the same time, this couldn't happen. They were simply too distantly related. However, the creature in Ark does basically resemble Triceratops with some funky extra horns on its frill, so we can talk a bit about how it deviates from the science. It's actually not bad at all, with a nice erect posture and the right sort of body plan and head shape. The tail is a bit long, but that'll be those Styracosaurus genes, I guess. What I particularly like (apart from that awesome colour scheme in the concept art) is that there are large, rectangular, croc-like scales on the underside of the animal, which correspond with (sadly yet unpublished) examples of real Triceratops skin. If the designers did want to be a bit more accurate, they could change the hands a little. Ceratopsians walked with slightly bowed front legs, and had 'hands' with five digits, only three of which touched the ground; they other two were basically vestigial and lacked claws.
Ark: Survival Evolved is out now.