When the player makes the game: the Creatures series and the fans who breathe life into it

 

01
(‘Hatching egg’, promotional image via Creatures Caves)

Everywhere I look I see the names of those poor little deceased fur-balls — on hoardings, and T.V. programs, and books, and… OK, so it was a bit foolish to name one of my creatures after the boss of a well-known Seattle software company, but nevertheless, I think I’m being haunted! Can they do that? I thought that ghosts were the definitive form of virtual existence. Perhaps the ghosts of virtual life forms would be virtual, virtual life forms? Perhaps artificial life forms never really die.

– Steve Grand, Confessions of a cyber-god

Creatures is an ‘artificial life’ game series about raising fuzzy little animals called Norns and helping them survive the challenges of an unfriendly world. It can also be one about feeding them to machines that splice their genetics together, injecting them with toxins, and throwing them into piranha-infested waters if you wish. With an average lifespan (as of the third game) that ranges between species from approximately four hours to eight, you can take care of them as little or as much as you like. You can also breed them, and some of their traits will be passed down to their offspring. Creatures are prone to mutating between generations, which can lead to all sorts of interesting quirks later down the line. In spite of these games’ complexities and often bleak tendencies, at the time they still somehow managed to charm a large audience between adults and kids like myself (who might very well have been better off playing more child-friendly games instead).

02
A duo of Norns, much like the ones I first hatched. One was called Stella, the other… I forget. He didn’t make it.

My love for this series began early in my life, when I received a copy of 2002’s recompilation Creatures Gold for my birthday: being a kid, I was foolish enough to believe that this was a game just like any of the virtual pet games I had played before. My impression was that the first two Norns (a cute “Bengal” breed pair, much like the above picture) I hatched would do nothing but frolic happily, whilst I in turn did nothing but dote upon them. I watched them roam freely, fed them and played with them as I would any other virtual pet, and slowly taught them something of a vocabulary so they could even talk back to me. And then during a particularly unfriendly encounter with one of the game’s other species, the male was attacked and killed. Being that I was probably about 7, I cried and cried and cried. That’s the story of how I learnt about death.

Now, I promise that this story does gets more interesting, and I’m completely emotionally over this event now. Following the (in hindsight ridiculous but extremely serious to a seven-year-old) trauma that I endured, I naturally put the game away for a while and tried not to ask myself too many existential questions. And then I learnt of the add-ons that were available for the game, and slowly dipped my feet back in.

The most notable of these was a Genetics Kit program that allowed you to modify Creatures’ “genomes” (a blueprint of sorts, containing “genes” for how chemicals may be emitted in certain environments, responses to stimuli, even details as to how a Creature may pose and walk in the gameworld) to your liking, and export and hatch an egg containing a Creature with these custom engineered genetics. And if this sounded too hard, there were some very wordy tutorials out there that could walk you through the basics of virtual genetic engineering, step-by-step. There was even one tutorial titled ‘Half Life Gene: Making a Long Lived Norn’! It occurred to me rather quickly after this that if I could identify and understand the aspects of Norn biology that made them susceptible to, well, dying, I could then use engineering as a means to prevent it. And that’s the sequel to my previous story, the story of how I learnt to cheat death.

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The Creatures 3 Genetics Kit. This particular genome has over 800 different ‘gene’ entries catalogued within!

I spent many hours in the Creatures games engineering Norns with various genes edited or just plain omitted. After this, I would often just export them from the game once they grew into adulthood because I was too afraid to test their immortality, the very thing that I had worked so hard to achieve. I later realised that I could also just look out for ‘Highlander’ norns (a term used in the community to describe immortal Creatures) as they were called, and download those to play around with in my game. As time passed, my relationship with the concept of mortality and my own inevitable death became healthier, and I no longer needed to go to such extreme lengths in order to hide from it. I learned not to become so attached to the cute and cuddly Creatures that I would meet and shortly after bid farewell to. But the long-term effects of my virtual science experiments in the Creatures games were still positive for me. After dabbling in these aspects of the game, I developed an infatuation with real-world biology and artificial intelligence that occasionally comes back to haunt me even now. The games marked the beginnings of my enduring interest in peering into the guts of video games, and just seeing what makes them tick. I feel that if a game can do all of that to a seven-year-old who thinks science is dull and hard, then it must be something special. And it seems like even now, 17 years after the last title, a lot of people agree with me that Creatures is an incredibly special series of games.

In The Creatures Global Digital Ecosystem, written by Dave Cliff and Steve Grand (a programmer responsible for the first Creatures game’s artificial life engine), the ways in which the fandom first interacted with the games and began modifying them to meet their own curiosities are discussed. Players first began editing and dissecting the genetics of Norns by means of hex editors, even building websites such as the Norn Genome Project in order to begin documenting what each gene influenced: in response to this curiosity, an official “gene editor tool” (adapted from the one used by the game’s developers themselves during development) was released, the Genetics Kit that came to accompany each further installment of the series and allowed players even more exploration. Since the game’s developers were so encouraging of this type of experimentation as to even provide a detailed manual and official tutorials on how to do it, the incredible feat of making genetic engineering look accessible was achieved, and players truly began to play. Soon, it was incredibly easy to create a Norn who could breathe underwater, or a Norn who might vibrantly shift colours between childhood and adulthood, and so on…

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A Creatures 3 Norn whose colour has been genetically engineered, following the instructions of one such Genetics Kit tutorial. I named this one Cutie.

Whilst the Creatures series does show a great amount of ambitious features, some of these more unique aspects of the games were also fraught with development issues and strange bugs: the source of these problems were often the game’s default genomes. Even the first game was shipped with Norns that had a faulty “die of old age” gene (they would normally eventually succumb to various illnesses instead: even this error was later remedied through one user’s edited genomes). In Creatures 2, issues with the default genomes included a phenomenon known as One Hour Stupidity Syndrome amongst fans, where about an hour or so into a Norn’s lifespan they would begin to act aimlessly, forgetting how to eat and sleep altogether. Given that the most-agreed-upon “objective” for Creatures players is to raise Norns who survive into adulthood and create offspring (leading to endless generations of Norns with different biological quirks), it might be obvious that your Norns all suddenly turning into purposeless starving insomniacs is a bit counterproductive to them living and furthering the species.

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(‘Norn Learning a Difficult Idea’, promotional image via Creatures Caves)

Whilst this issue later received an official patch, it was also remedied by two fan projects (the Canny Norn breed and the standalone genome Nova Subterra, which has a particularly fascinating website explaining the development process) which tackled the problem in different ways. The creators of the Canny Norns put the problem down to an imbalance of brain chemicals (where Norns were receiving so much of reward chemicals that it rendered every further action of theirs meaningless), whilst the creator of Nova Subterra posited that the Norns’ brain lobes were too small, instead expanding outwards on the genome by adding four new brain lobes and two new chemicals that regulated their bodies.

Creatures 3 also had its own genome bug, where small errors had made it so that the three base Norn species were unable to use their full range of facial expressions: this would lead to them smiling placidly even during more awkward times (such as whilst being mauled to death). A later update was issued for the game (and included within later recompilations) which added “Expressive” versions of each breed to the game’s egg layer. A popular “fix” for the game’s breeds named Creatures Full of Edits (CFE) was also released by a fan, which (together with a tweak to the game’s breeding script) improves Norns’ memory, chances of survival, and generally makes them act in smarter ways. The CFE Norns were a well received contribution to the game, are still prominently referenced in the Creatures community today.

No matter the game, players of Creatures always expressed great interest in engineering their Norns to be the best of the best: this line of thinking even got to a point where breeding immortal Creatures (something my younger self probably would have loved to do) is discouraged, as this makes surviving into something very easy to accomplish and reduces the level of challenge present in the game. There’s even a “Creatures IQ test” of sorts that you can run on your Norns, just to ensure the critters roaming around in your world are capable of surviving unassisted.

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Tools in the games sometimes allow you to better understand the cause behind a Creature’s death. In this case, a Creature seems to have died of malnutrition (directly next to a food dispenser).

It’s worth noting just how many custom items (known as COBs or Agents depending on the game) and new environments (Metarooms) are available to add into your world as a Creatures player. As Creatures 3 (and the free add-on Creatures Docking Station) even included in-game areas that allowed players to select custom content to “inject” into the game, this serves as another example of how the Creatures series’ has embraced player input and custom content creation as a means to make gameplay even more fun. After all, in your world, anything goes: if you want to spoil your Creatures, you can fill it to the brim with fun new toys and food vendors. If you’re more interested in leaving them to fend for their own and seeing how far they get, there’s a style of play without player intervention called a Wolfling Run, and there are many Agents made to accommodate that too. There are teleports, gadgets to tell you what season it is (the Pyramid of Time), a “critical hit” script that changes the way Creatures fight, there’s even a fan-made genome variant that allows your Norns to be gay.

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Creature chatter. Charmingly, if one Norn expresses that they have a problem (in this case, “anjerika tired”), those around them will recommend a solution to it.

One of the more amusing must-haves that can be added into Creatures Docking Station would be the Holistic Learning Machine patch: there are machines present within the game that, if interacted with by your Norns, will help them learn a simple vocabulary. This enables Creatures to communicate their needs to you and others, sometimes leading to thought-provoking commentary such as “eat elevator” (or if you’re particularly unlucky, I’ve also heard “eat norn”). A source of pain and hilarity can be found in Creatures’ natural tendency towards repetition, and when my Creatures weren’t obsessively riding the same elevator up and down or going through the same door repeatedly, sometimes they’d get glued to the Holistic Learning Machine, endlessly beaming themselves up into the strange device that had already previously taught them everything they needed to know about verbal communication. Upon noting that this brain-expanding behaviour was a consistent source of irritation for players, one member of the community developed the above patch, which helps your Creatures think about something other than the endless pursuit of knowledge.

08
“Toxic” Norns can make themselves at home in the Garbage Dump metaroom. It’s filled with garbage.

Other Agents are available which provide similarly small (but very useful) tweaks to the game experience, such as this mod which improves the interface of the Creatures Docking Station egg layer where Norns are first spawned from. Another piece of custom content that I quite like to include in my games is the Garbage Dump Metaroom: whilst unofficial, those who worked on it modelled a world that seamlessly blends in with the game’s other landscapes. The room was designed to meet the needs of the Toxic Norn breed that can be found within Creatures 3, a breed which survives on the detritus and toxins that can be fatal to other breeds of Norns. Because of this quirk, raising them in proximity with breeds that seek out less unorthodox sources of energy (for example, food) can spell trouble. If you’re the type to take a shine to a specific breed (I’ve always been fond of the “Astro” Norns and their starry sprites, along with “Treehugger” Norns and their gentle temperaments), a specialised Metaroom that caters to them like this can open up even more possibilities for you. There are even ones designed for amphibious Creatures!

If you’re wondering just how there is so much custom content available for a relatively obscure game, whilst it goes without saying that its player base is pretty dedicated and comprises many folk of many different skill-sets, I would note that the process of developing Agents and Metarooms for the games is also pretty accessible in itself. Once again, as with the creators’ approach to concepts like gengineering, Creatures 3 and Docking Station was built in a way that facilitates the easy creation of custom content, with many official tutorials available on this subject too. The games utilise a scripting language named CAOS (Creatures Agent Object Script): players can not only enter short codes via command line which modify the world around them (ie. forcibly aging Creatures forwards, or hatching eggs), but they can also make and alter new Agents from within the game itself. The latter of these is an aspect of the game that I did not get too familiar with as a younger player, but I have distant memories of assembling an item that vended food at one point, and tweaking its physics as not to let it erratically bounce around the room. It could be a great introduction to the world of scripting for utter beginners, and this element of the game is still something I’d like to explore further in the future.

A dedicated archive of the Creatures series’ custom content is maintained over at Creatures Caves, a fan community that yields consistent activity even today. At the time of this writing, its downloads directory contains 102 pages of Agents, 9 pages of Metarooms, 30 pages of breeds and 107 pages of adoption listings for individual Creatures. Playing Creatures with all of its add-ons sparks the same feeling of joy in me as games like The Sims, where you could always squeeze a bit more excitement out of each session by testing out all the new cute clothes and silly mods you downloaded for it.

09
Fishing Cactus’ Creatures 4 would have radically altered the series’ core gameplay, but faint callbacks to the previous games’ art and environments are still present in images like these.

After the series’ three main games were released in the period between 1996 and 2001, the company Creature Labs shut down, and the games became property of Gameware Development instead in 2003. The website of Gameware Development later went down followed by their dissolvement in 2015, and the current extent of its parent company Gameware Europe’s involvement with the franchise is re-hosting the original website for the game. Although, given what kind of fanbase this game has, there’s also an informative unofficial website that explains to new players how they can download and play Creatures Docking Station. Since the collapse of Creature Labs and subsequent handing down of the license from company to company, there have been several attempts to revive the franchise. In 2011, games company Fishing Cactus acquired the license. With funding from publisher BigBen Interactive, they would begin working on Creatures 4 (title later changed to Creatures Online). The game would have downsized the “genetics” aspect of the games and more controversially incorporated a micro-transaction system, but fans remained hopeful. The team remained communicative with the Creatures fan community throughout the development process, with occasional demos and frequent detailed updates, but ultimately 2015 saw the end of this project.

After hopes were dashed for Creatures Online, mobile gaming company Spil Games bought the Creatures license and announced that they were developing the title Creatures Family in 2016. This announcement was eventually followed by the free-to-play Flash game Creatures Alchemist, supposedly a teaser for the upcoming Family game. In this short game, players would combine various elements (earth, fire, water) to create “genes”, which could be combined to unlock various Creature breeds. Whilst retaining classic jargon from the series, Creatures Alchemist once again marked a serious departure from the complex gameplay that had previously fascinated fans. Responses to both this and the supposed upcoming Creatures Family seemed faintly optimistic at best, and angry at worst. By the time 2018 rolled around, an update to the game had somehow made Creatures Alchemist completely unplayable past its tutorial. Spil Games remain unresponsive on bug fixes and the general future of Creatures Family (or rather, if they intend to do anything further with the Creatures IP at all).

10
(‘Norn Funeral’, promotional image via Creatures Caves)

Each attempt by new teams to revive this old franchise has so far met with eventual defeat. It would be wrong to breach this topic without also mentioning the tentatively-titled Project Loci, an unreleased Creatures game by the series’ original creators. Had it been finished, it would have brought the franchise onto sixth generation consoles (PS2, Xbox and GameCube). It was a re-envisioning of the Creatures series as a fully-fledged puzzle/adventure game, featuring less of the complex AI present in previous games and more focus on narrative. Players would travel across a spherical planet named Cruthiar with a troupe of Norns, trying to seize control of a vengeful and self-destructive AI before he blows the world apart. Unfortunately Creatures Labs was liquidated before this game ever saw the light of day, but writing on what the game would have been like is still available online. Whilst Loci would have also simplified some of the more unique aspects of the games such as the complex AI and genetics system, it remains worth a mention as it would have been the first Creatures game made in full 3D, as opposed to 1 & 2’s 2D and 3 & Docking Station’s 2.5D art style.

11
A few Treehugger Norns at play in the Terra metaroom.

Because the series is now existing without official support (classed as abandonware to some), many further difficulties have arisen for those who remain interested in playing the games. Extra official breeds were once available to Creatures 3 players via a site called the Creatures Mall, which ran until 2003 (briefly revived in 2004): naturally, this website’s products are no longer available. The breeds in Creatures games are particularly important to note as their accompanying genomes add further variation into player’s worlds: for instance, the “Magma” Norns thrive better in hot environments than most. Treehugger Norns have weaker immune systems and seek out less crowded environments with lots of flora and fauna, whilst “Hardman” Norns have resilient immune systems and are remarkably capable of holding their own in a fight. However, as implied above, a shocking eleven of the game’s additional Norn breeds are now inaccessible (at least, by legal means). These breeds were even bundled with special toys and machines, and comprehensive care guides describing how to keep those with more unusual genetics healthy and happy. This content retains even more value for the fact that many members of the community post downloads reliant on the prior installation of these breed packs, and so not having them may still limit your enjoyment as a player.

Even considering that the games’ official support has mostly been terminated, public redistribution of the Creatures 3 add-on breeds is still forbidden according to the last stated wishes of Gameware Development. Players who have them remain allowed to privately share these add-ons amongst friends.

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The pop-up that greets players upon opening Creatures Docking Station, asking them to connect to a defunct online server.

The game Creatures Docking Station relies primarily on an online mode of play, rendered unusable due to the long-term shutdown of the game’s official servers. For many years it was just the registration for Creatures’ online service that had shut down, but later on this entire aspect of the game became inaccessible to players. Creatures Docking Station is now technically unplayable in its original form, as a pop-up prevents players from accessing the game world until they have entered login details and connected to the server. So once again, a fan stepped in to write the DS Login Disabler tool, whilst others took to DIY-ing their own fixes for this issue (still present in the most recent GOG release of the game, Creatures Exodus). An even more ambitious resolution to this problem has also been considered, with one fan project seeking to create a new server, in order to bring back functional online play. Five years past the first whispers of this idea and as of a May 2018 blogpost, it seems that the Albian Warp project has entered its alpha testing phase. Though bugs mean that these long-lost online capabilities aren’t openly available to the general public yet, the creators seem welcoming towards any prospective playtesters wishing to give them a whirl. “I want this to be the time it happens. For real.” A developer writes on the project’s blog. Time will tell, but it’s still a breakthrough in the series’ somewhat unfair history, and one I certainly did not expect when I first began working on this post.

(EDIT: On the 24th September 2018, the team behind Albian Warp released its first public beta.)

Long-term issues like Creatures Docking Station’s missing breeds and online capabilities are some of the many factors that make the continued existence of the Creatures community so imperative. Whilst solo play is certainly a possibility, one could not even get into the game without troubleshooting the log-in screen, let alone reap maximum enjoyment out of it: Creatures is a series that was given an extended lifespan by its dedicated fans, but by these instances of life-giving it is also apparent as to just how much could be lost without them.

13
A Grendel that I murdered with an airlock once.

Earlier this year, after finding out the titles were available for download online, I began playing Creatures Docking Station again in a sudden fit of nostalgia. After spending about a day re-accumulating all of the fan-made content I had previously used whilst playing the game, I hatched a bunch of Norns out into the world and walked away from the screen for a bit. Like my science experiments of yore, I just wanted to answer one simple question: “What happens next?”. Now, there’s two other species of Creatures not yet mentioned in this article, Ettins and Grendels. Ettins are mellow kleptomaniacs who wander the world in search for gadgets, whilst Grendels are the same unfriendly scaly sorts who killed my Norns when I was a small child. In this particular run, it wasn’t long before a Grendel came across one of my Norns bumbling along in the wild and once again slapped them to death (that’s how violence works in this game, yes). Upon returning and discovering this, I sent him out into space via the airlock, where he quickly exploded into a pile of tiny bones. Once I was done being amused, I regretted my impulsiveness a little. The event made me contemplate the messed up ways in which we play God in our games. What happiness does it bring to respond to a death by upping the death count once more? In spite of now being an adult and less prone to mourning virtual deaths, I wondered why I still chose such a childish method of enacting justice: not enough to feel actually upset, but enough to refrain from doing so again. And isn’t that kind of a sweet spot of emotional attachment? I found out then that even now, Creatures is still good at making me feel, and examine what I do with the power I am given. I want to play with the best interests of these critters in mind, no matter how short their lives may be, and no matter what fraction of it they choose to spend pacing the room in circles.

A Creatures Community Spirit Festival is hosted every year, with 2018’s having just begun on the 17th: Artificial life finds a way: the legacy of Creatures, an article written earlier this year, reflects further on the Creatures community’s continued survival. As documented in the post, 2017’s CCSF continued to bring more new content to the series, by way of its fans and their ceaseless fascination with developing new genomes and items and environments in which Creatures can thrive. These fans seem to be thriving similarly.

The last full game in the Creatures series, Creatures 3 (later followed by Creatures Docking Station) comes with a tiny snippet of lore written across the packaging. The game itself is mostly free of explicit backstory and written exposition: still, the box art tells prospective players of the Norns who migrated from Albia, and the Shee who piloted the spaceship they were carried along in. The Shee ultimately abandoned the passengers of their flight, and the lone soul who’s left to help them is you. “The Norns are not alone, and with your help they can thrive.” is the apparent hook for the series: it feels ironic that this premise came to echo the fate of the series, a vessel left mostly unattended by its creators that instead came to be maintained and cherished by others. I don’t think you could ever find another game quite like Creatures. As historical artefacts like my embarrassing decade-old forum posts confirm, it’s a game that I can’t ever abandon entirely, no matter how many times I leave and come back to it again.

The homepage for 2018’s Creatures Community Spirit Festival can be found here. Creatures 1 & 2 are available for purchase at GOG as Creatures: The Albian Years. Creatures 3 and Creatures Docking Station are also available for purchase as Creatures Exodus, although PC and Linux users can download and play Creatures Docking Station for free here.

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