Creatures: Neural Networks in the Nineties
Games like Creatures don’t come along all that often.
In 1996, Steve Grand and Cyberlife released their virtual life simulation game Creatures. Rather than using a rules-based system to govern the behavior of the game’s titular creatures, Cyberlife made the unusual decision to take a bottom-up approach, simulating genetics, brain activity and biochemistry in a way that mirrored real life biological processes and that has defined all major games in the series since.
Creatures 2 arrived after much fanfare in 1998, promising smarter creatures, more complex biology and a fully-functioning ecosystem. The game immediately shipped 200,000 copies on release, and despite some pretty glaring bugs that were quickly patched out, retained a dedicated community of breeders, developers and virtual geneticists even after the release of Creatures 3 in November of 1999.
Although Creatures 3 had a larger, more sophisticated game world, more expressive Creatures and even, in its later life with Docking Station, integrated online features (a big deal at the time), it sold poorly when compared with its predecessors. This was largely due to a complete lack of promotion around its launch as the game itself is excellent, being in many respects a huge improvement over 2. The online elements in particular did an amazing job of pulling the community together around the games, allowing players to easily share their creations.
Albia as an Exercise in World-Building.
What stands out the most in the first few hours of Creatures titles is the game world. Water bubbles, birds chirp, machines whir and buzz as you scroll past them. The setting of the first two games is post-apocalyptic but still colorful and full of life. The original Creatures world was created by constructing an actual physical model and photographing it, giving the first game a charming, handmade feel. Creatures 2 was lovingly rendered in 3D modelling software and due to the artist’s stylistic approach, holds up well even today, while 3 runs with a more futuristic sci-fi style and moves away from a natural setting.
As the player (or rather the player’s creatures) progress further into the world, more of it becomes accessible. While there are now game modifications that now allow the player view to immediately move everywhere and do everything, on release players had to encourage their creatures to explore and interact with various implements scattered around the world to unlock some of the more complicated interfaces and look at the game’s workings in more detail. Creatures 3 forgoes this approach, giving the player unrestricted access to the whole game world from the start. While this might be less frustrating for a first-time player, it goes a long way towards making the playable area feel smaller and shallower.
The ecology and structure of the world is complex and extensive. Every area has dynamic values for light, nutrients (both organic and inorganic), radiation, temperature and even wind speed. Almost all of these values have an impact on the game ecology as well as the creatures themselves. Insects pollinate, critters eat fruit, fungi and occasionally each other, there’s weather and even seasons. All of this comes together to create a world that feels quite alive even when the titular creatures are not present. The second game does this particularly well, with its dynamic ecology and natural setting working together to create a world that feels truly alive.
The map is also littered with ruins and hidden labs that give the persistent feeling there’s something more going on just out of sight. Everything you encounter hints at what might have come before. Who built the labs? What was the original purpose of these machines? Why did they leave? Answers to all of these questions are hinted at but never truly answered, leaving the player with a sense of mystery and a reason to keep exploring the world.
Neural Networks in 1996
When the original game was released in 1996 the technology behind the creatures themselves was groundbreaking. Creature brains used a scaled down version of what would today be called a four-layer neural network, consisting of 952 neurons with around 5000 connections arranged into a series of ‘lobes’. There is an excellent video essay by Alan Zucconi on YouTube that goes into the specifics of how creature brains work and I thoroughly recommend giving it a watch.
The trouble with using the bottom-up approach to behavior that Cyberlife took is that it’s almost impossible to anticipate every emergent problem that might occur when something is rolled out en-masse. There were a number of egregious issues with the Creatures 2 genomes on launch, the most notable being ‘One Hour Stupidity Syndrome’ or ‘OHSS’ where creature brains would rapidly deteriorate after roughly an hour of play, leading to Norns that constantly walked into walls, forgot how to eat and eventually died.
While Cyberlife did release patches relatively quickly to fix some of the more glaring problems, the community rallied and a huge amount of time an effort was put into fixing the flawed creature genomes. Papers were written on fixes for OHSS and a number of engineered creature ‘breeds’ with new or novel brain layouts that solved the problem in various ways emerged as a result. It’s hard to think of anything else that has prompted an instance of ‘community neuroscience’ in quite this way.
Creatures Today: Digital Archaeology and Archiving
Although Creatures 3 remained supported for an exceptionally long time after release with online services, new genomes and objects on sale, unfortunately the publisher, Mindscape, dissolved in 2011, deactivating many of the online features and resources for the series as it shut down. While the community has endured, many resources, particularly genetics and object file downloads have been lost to time or exist purely on services like archive.org. Some of the greatest losses have been forum contents and guides containing knowledge of things like creature brain structure and biochemistry. Trying to find some patches and genomes today can be an exercise in digital archaeology, with information and downloads crammed into Geocities-style pages sporting block color backgrounds and blinking banners.
Getting the games to work on modern operating systems isn’t entirely straightforward either and unfortunately, despite a release on Good Old Games, Creatures 2 has the worst of this being almost entirely incompatible with Windows 10 out of the box. Despite excellent tools like dxwrapper, I only managed to get a couple of hours of stable play in before my world was irreparably corrupted and I was unable to launch the game at all.
However there is still a small and thriving community that continues to return to the series and develop for the games on a regular basis. The vast majority are centered around the Creature Caves forums and various Discord servers. There are ongoing efforts to reliably archive old resources for the series, develop new tools and programs to run the games on modern computers, as well as replace services previously provided by Mindscape that have since gone offline. There’s even a complete engine reimplementation being developed for all three games which should make them significantly more accessible for casual players once completed.
At the present time there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of hope for a new official game. The Creatures IP has been in limbo with a mobile developer for around 5 years now, and the demos for Creatures Online (a game planned by said developer) didn’t show much promise. After the commercial failure of Creatures 3 at launch and the collapse of Mindscape, there don’t seem to be any studios who are particularly keen to take on the challenge of complex artificial life games.
The best hope for the series as it exists now are fan projects. While many of the more ambitious ones appear to have stalled (at the time of writing the last public update from Steve Grand’s creatures-inspired game was in 2017), projects like openc2e and Albian Warp show real promise for keeping the series alive and playable on modern computers.
It’s a real shame that the gap in the market left by the Creatures series has remained unfilled. The games, when they were released, inspired a whole generation of interest in genetics, biology and programming. There’s a very good reason the community has persisted for 20 years since the release of the final game. For many people, creatures newsgroups were the first online community they were involved in or the first sizable creative outlet they had access to.
With luck, we’ll see something promising in the next few years. Artificial life games are slowly starting to come back into style, with titles such as Wobbledogs showing a lot of promise. However, until then it seems the Creatures community is left holding the torch to keep this remarkable genre alive.