Creatures, The Computer Game - Review

Creatures, The Computer Game - Review
Copyright (C) by Erik Möller

Version 1.2, Jan 3 1997

Summary: Review of the computer game "Creatures" by Millenium Interactive which tries to simulate artificial lifeforms.

Keywords: Creatures, Norn, ALife, AI

Creatures is a game recently released that tries to simulate artificial lifeforms in a rather limited environment. The game runs under Windows 95 which can be considered as a clear disadvantage: it slows the game speed significantly.

The lifeforms are called Norns, they are graphically represented by small, furry animals. In the beginning, the player selects some of the included "eggs" -- the sex of the Norn is already shown -- and places them in the landscape or in the "breeding device".

The difference is that the breeding device accelerates the breeding process. After some time, the player can watch his first Norn being "born" from the egg. The player is notified and can give his Norn a name. It runs around in the two-dimensional landscape which is full of tools to try and buttons to press, elevators and vehicles.

The player can influence the Norn's actions: He can clap the Norn on its back (punishment) or gently scratch its head (reward). He can also move or use the pre-defined objects in the landscape or add new food or chemicals. Last but not least, the player can "speak" to the Norn by typing in small sentences which will then appear in a speaking bubble.

The rest of the story is quickly told: the Norns learn, they speak, eat and sleep, they grow older, they get sex-partners, create offspring and die, possibly of an illness. But behind all this there is a lot of complexity.

Learning, Language and Aging

Let's start with learning. As told above, the player can punish or reward the Norn for its actions. If it is punished, it will "think" twice before repeating the action it was punished for. If it is rewarded, it is likely that it will repeat the action. This way, a lot of associations are created in the Norn's brain. With a "Norn-view" the player can "look through the Norn's eyes" and directly create such associations.

When using this view it becomes really obvious that the environment is too limited: it is two-dimensional and associations can only be created with usable objects or other Norns, the good-looking background is useless, but it makes the environment look more complex than it is.

From the beginning on, the Norn talks in a "baby language" (like "goo goo"). The player can type in names when the Norn interacts with certain objects and the Norn will use these names. There is also a learning machine where the Norn learns to react to simple commands (like "Come Leila" -- when the Norn's name is Leila, it will come to the mouse cursor).

The learning capabilities are directly linked to the Norn's age. The aging process naturally runs much faster than in reality, a Norn's life lasts about 12 to 15 hours. In the baby age, they should be taught their language. After about 6 hours, they have reached their "puberty" and become able to reproduce.

One interesting concept is that Norns try to transport their knowledge to their offspring. This way, the player does not have to teach the new-born Norns everything.

The Norn's "brain" consists of about 1000 interacting neurons, hardly enough for anything intelligent. But this number shall be increasable during the digital evolution.

Unfortunately, this evolution is quite slow, as the game is nearly unplayable with many Norns, even on a fast computer. The breeding device is limited to 6 Norns and more than 8 are not recommended.

Food and Sleep

Norns have some kind of digestion, and if they do not get anything to eat, they get hungry, which has various effects on their behaviour and health similar to those it has on normal humans. There is some food in the landscape they can eat (cheese, fruits), but it is pre-defined. The player can also add new food to the landscape.

The Norns will also have to sleep sometimes, which is not possible if there is too much noise around them, so the player has to leave them alone for a while.

A Norn's Sex-Life

The Norns can be male or female, and a male Norn will try to reproduce with a female. This can be successful but it does not have to be, Norns can also be infertile. An unsuccessful reproduction attempt leads to sadness of the mother...

The DNA-strings of the parents are combined to the new DNA of the child. Mutations are possible and obviously necessary for evolution.

Reproduction itself is not explicitly illustrated. The new-borns appear as eggs in the landscape.

Enemies, Illnesses and Death

Norns have enemies which can be as intelligent as them: Grendels. These are green animals wandering around in the landscape. They can infect the Norns with illnesses.

In this case, the player will have to create healing substances and feed them to the Norn.

The Grendels also experience some kind of evolution. Some players even observed that the Grendels were more intelligent than their Norns... Other skilled players have managed to cross-breed Norns with Grendels.

A Norn can die of its illness, but it can also die of the natural aging process. The player is notified again and the Norn is added to the digital cemetery. The player can even type some final words for the tombstone.

Cults of Exportation

Norns can be traded, there is a function for exporting existing Norns or importing new ones. The exported Norns will disappear from the landscape. There is already a lot of Norn-trading in the internet (see below). The Norns are usually considered as real lifeforms by the players and kept like pets.

This appeal might be the most interesting part of Creatures: The player learns about the principles of evolution and the value of life. If he/she does not take care of the Norns, they die. This way "Creatures" could improve simpler toys like dolls or plastic ponies which are mainly used by girls (the causes for this should not be explained here).

Additionally, the commercial success of Creatures might directly influence the time and money spent in other ALife-projects and increase the public interest in them. Take 'Tierra' as an example, a program much more complex than Creatures with more promising possibilities -- but much too complicated or uncomfortable for the majority and obviously not interesting enough for the media (yet).

The big question if the Creatures are alive remains and only depends on your definition. I see no reason why they shouldn't be.

Unfortunately, there is one major problem with Creatures: the environment. As mentioned above, it only consists of the Norns and the pre-defined objects (although some new ones are added regularly). This makes Creatures a predictable game: even an intelligent Norn with all abilities will not be able to do more than using each of these simple objects "perfectly". The piano produces pre-defined melodies.

There is a number of maximum combinations, and this number is not high enough. Creatures is a good game for those who doubt the principles of evolution or who do not know them. It can also teach moral values to children. In this way, it is edutainment. But those who are familiar with evolution and artificial life should not buy it: for them, it would be a -- admittedly funny and cute -- waste of time.