The bubbly splashing of water heralds the start of a new world. Creatures 2 opens on the incubator room, golden-hued and filled with three-second audio loops I still hear in my sleep. A soft electrical hum, a low croak from a frog, the squeaky-toy chirp of a doozer, a gentle heartbeat. The world is a cross-section of rich soil already growing ripening tomatoes and a cluster of mushrooms, sunbeams from skylights, and the incubator. A bee flies into the undercroft, a dim passageway below filled with firelight sconces and glossy winged statues.
This world is already alive and I haven’t even started.
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A World To Eggsplore
I have to open the hatchery and select eggs to bring into this world, as an abandoned mechanical arm hovers over a translucent bowl. The eggs are unique and promising. One is blue-speckled, another has black smudges, one is mottled like lava, and the one I always preferred looks like clouds and moss. They shiver, expectant, eager to be chosen, when you mouse over them.
When I select the mossy print egg and drop it in the incubator it grows rapidly. The jubilant trill notes of the dynamic soundtrack begin to play. Half the eggshell remains left behind in the incubator basin when it opens and deposits its hatchling. She’s an emerald green norn — a big-eyed, adorable creature with genes, drives and brain chemistry — who will need help and nurturing to survive. She has curls of fluff around her ears, and I name her Sarah.
In this two-decade-old game there are no pop-up goals, no currency or achievements. There are no save states: every action is permanent. If I choose to withhold interacting with the world it will continue to cycle on without me — a gameplay choice that was popular with some of the fanbase. It’s strikingly odd for a game to not prompt or tease its features as its lets me discover at my own pace.
To the east there is a deep sea extending far below the underground nursery. Above that is a desert with growing and dying cacti; to the west there are rope bridges over a waterfall. There’s an island past the sea with a shaft that leads to a volcano, and beneath that lies a clutch of gnarled, calcified eggs that will shortly birth the game’s sole antagonistic life-form.
At the turn of the millennium video games were hitting their stride in how AI could make virtual creatures seem alive. Valve’s Half Life had aliens with authentic group survival behaviours. Lionhead’s Black & White placed a learning AI within a strategy simulation. Cyberlife’s Creatures installments focused their attention on a faux-living species with the capacity for growth and mutation. (I can attest to the mutations, having once spawned a norn whose faulty genetics omitted one lung.) But soon after, the topic of AI in games became consumed by the issue of whether the enemies you’re shooting at would try to prevent their inevitable deaths long enough for them to be satisfying. Artificial life games were a dead end.
In those days, the intelligence of a simulated brain was limited by its hardware. The future of AI, in my young eyes, would react to improved processing power by making interactions ever more lifelike, until virtual pets with indistinguishably human-like responses existed in virtual reality. To my child mind the ultimate purpose of AI was more games like this: ever more complex learning systems for human hands to nurture. And despite my enduring familiarity with this game after 20 years, I’ve never come close to understanding the mechanics of a creature’s genome. A norn’s brain has around 900 neurons and makes decisions on the basis of their needs, depending on their aptitude and your treatment of them.
Now, in 2019, I’m half an hour in and I’ve hatched three norns — Sarah, a dusty brown one named Chloe, and the youngest with a mop of white hair, Anabel. Sarah has proved energetic and flighty. Chloe has trouble settling down to sleep because she’s so easily distracted, and Anabel is an excellent eater who never has to be prompted when she’s hungry. Sarah has aged up to childhood so I’m escorting her to the cellar to use the adverb teaching machine. I’ve hit a comfortable cadence with my playstyle, just the same way as when I first played the game 20 years ago — tab through each norn in turn, glance at their chart of needs, and throw food under their noses or verbally urge them to go to sleep.
Sarah ventures up in an elevator to a ledge in the open air, beside a waterfall. Up here she can activate the Science Kit. It’s a tool that lets me see norn biochemistry in greater detail, monitor the health of individual organs, and even inject them with concoctions of my choice. I cannot activate the advanced kits or pick up norns — only praise and scold them, talk to them, and move items. The syringe is a last resort. You must explore the world as your norns do, through them, forcing the player to mostly observe and sometimes assist. It’s in stark contrast to popular modern games that bombard you with particle effects and require deep concentration or twitch reflexes.
The fanbase for the Creatures series was at times interchangeable with its source material. Developers from Creature Labs had fan sites, wrote fanfiction, and posted doctored genomes for download. The original launch of Creatures 2 contained bugged genes that resulted in norns forgetting their survival skills and going rogue after an hour of play; the community created various fixes to address the problem before it was officially patched.
Norns were designed to be exported to a file and shared. The map itself can be altered through an in-game injection tool. Community sites stockpiled user-made bug fixes, objects to ease the task of creature rearing, and fanmade norn breeds with gameplay themes and new egg designs, such as mernorns. The last time I checked those sites, I was using dial-up. Here I am again, looking up what tweaks and fixes are on offer after a two decade break.
Half the fansites still exist. Posed sprites banners on solid color backgrounds. Embedded tables with mod submissions added by hand. Dead links to webrings. All of them had long, overly descriptive names, like “Professor K’s Fuzzy Fabulous Norn Hut” written in blingee over a navigation bar. Understandably many have died a natural death, but it’s astounding how many have continued hosting, updating their downloads list with pickups from the sites that fell by the wayside. These enduring relics are a time capsule from the innocent 1990s internet, before anything online as we know it today.
I pick up a community scripting patch and the bridges that cover the open oceans, for easier exploration and avoiding off-screen drowning.
Now that Sarah and Chloe are adolescents I’m moving them to the surface level, ready to have run of the world. Given the space to walk across sand dunes peppered with cacti, or across the vine-tangled rope bridge to the left, they’re immediately distracted by each other and go nowhere.
A soft, mournful piano loop plays, alerting me that one of my norns is unconscious.
A Necessary Part Of Life
Anabel is curled up on the basement floor with a string of cartoon stars weaving around her head. Now that I have the Science Kit I can investigate the problem — the life bars on all her organs are dropping to zero. She has no antigens in her body, indicative of disease. That’s all the diagnosis I know how to do. I can use the syringe to kickstart her with energy and wake her up, and her eyes blink open again, allowing me to attempt to focus on her needs and avert the crisis.
The kit still shows me her organs are in failure. I can’t really know why. Anabel falls unconscious again and her body reading blacks out, meaning complete shutdown. Instead of waiting for her to die, I export her. Instantly, she’s gone.
Sarah and Chloe continue following each other around on the upper levels, unaware of the loss, although they would be incapable of reacting had they witnessed it.
Moments like this make me realize I could not experience this kind of quiet setback if this were a game made in 2019. The traits of simulation mobile apps are the constant interactive goals and aggressive marketing, which I can picture overlaid on the screen: get a daily unlock for having a creature eat 20 times. Earn gems for exploring to a certain part of the map. Instead of food growing in the world it could become resource management, allowing you to drop in some cheese once every two minutes, or instantly for a small payment. If your norn dies, buy a special power up to bring them back and try again.
Learning to Live
Were an artificial life game to be made now, it would push microtransactions and goal-oriented pressure and daily login prizes. Artificial life alone would not be enough. But Creatures 2 isn’t just relaxed and ambient — the explicit goal is to breed norns increasingly able to take care of themselves, so that playing the game well results in progressively less interaction. To sit and observe life, death, waterfalls, and cacti.
Creatures 2 didn’t just emulate life as digital biology, it emulated life’s self-discovered goals and irrevocable failings. If I didn’t retain the knowledge of how to play and where to go, I would have struggled to raise three norns and had to teach myself their syntax to even be able to communicate. Without being guided and prompted, there’s no middleman teaching you to be a caregiver. Just you and your creatures as you bond and figure out how to survive.
It’s refreshingly simple. I can follow a norn around the world on a sightseeing tour. I can hatch more eggs and see what direction the second generation will eventually take me, where my norns will explore to on their own, and try not to intervene unless I have to. Who knows? The world and its creatures may even flourish without me.