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Creatures - the Computer Game Series

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Creatures is an innovative computer game from CyberLife Technologies. 'Innovative?' you say, 'I've heard of Creatures - you think that's innovative? All you do is raise ugly or cute (depending on your addiction level) little animals to adulthood so they can mate and produce more little animals and you don't even see them at it! What's so innovative about that?'

The Game and its Users

The original Creatures was released in the UK in 1996 for both Macintosh and IBM-compatible platforms. Soon after, it migrated to the United States and then to other European countries. It and its descendant Creatures 2 sold more than a million copies by January 2000.

Creatures attracts many types of people. According to a survey run on the Official Creature Labs website prior to the release of Creatures 2 in 1998, the genders are split down the middle, with 52% of the 800 respondents male, and 48% female. 'In gaming, this is a quite a phenomenon and we're pleased to have created such a popular and gender-neutral game,' said CyberLife on their results page. Most Creatures users are in their teens, although all age groups responded, and a combined total of 81% live in the US, UK, and Canada, with the rest spread throughout Europe, New Zealand, and Australia.

Unfortunately Creatures is not a multi-player game. However, many people can all take care of a single world together, which is one of the nice things about the game.

The Norns in Creatures can serve as family pets, with the entire family caring for the small animals (This a good way to teach your children how to share or how to argue more effectively!) Creatures on the computer have an advantage over dogs, cats, and even the goldfish of real life as pets because Norns do not need to be walked or cleaned up after: they have a world to meander through, and their world is an ecosystem that takes care of itself.

C1 - the Beginning

The History of the Shee and Norns (As contained in the Book of Bibble)

In the beginning there was the Hand, and the Hand was with god, and the Hand was god.
- Book of Bibble 1:11

A long time ago, the Shee2 created a new race of beings as pets. The Shee were tall, slender and basically humanoid in appearance, and widely known as magicians (because of their advanced sciences, secrets known only to the Shee themselves). Their oral tradition was amazing and their storytelling abilities could not be equalled.

The Shee were geneticists as well, and created many new species. One of these was warm-hearted, and the Shee called them Norns. The Norns knew very little and could understand very little compared to the Shee, but they had the capacity for language. They learned well and soon were living out their lives in contentedness.

Then the Shee left their new creations and went away from them in spaceships, for a new 3D world. The Shee have not come back, and it is doubted that they ever will.

But before the Shee left, they put six unhatched Norn eggs into the Hatchery, as they knew the Norns could not survive long on their own. And the Shee went, and the Norns did die, but those still in their eggs remained silently, awaiting the day when they would be hatched.

However, this was not all the Shee left behind them; they also left the Grendels. Grendels were a genetic experiment by the Shee that went horribly wrong. No one knows what the Shee were aiming for with this experiment, but the Grendels that resulted are a shade of green found only in poisonous animals and are frightfully strong - they can seriously injure Norns or even Shee with their blows, and they strike often.

The Player, the Norns, and Albia

The player's job in Creatures is to keep Albia (the disk-shaped world of Creatures) running effectively. The player also has to take care of the Norns by making sure the Norns eat (as they sometimes forget if there is something more interesting to look at or do) and are healthy, which requires you keep them safe from Grendels.

The player’s representation in the world is a hand, which the Norns look to as a parent. There is more on how the hand does its job later.

Language in Albia

There are 33 concept words in the original Albian vocabulary. Most nouns name more than one thing - that is, they apply to a category ('food' instead of 'cheese', 'carrot', or 'lemon', for example). Verbs also apply to categories, but their categories aren't as obvious and do not necessarily mean the same thing in Albia as they would on Earth. For instance, the word 'push' can be used in many ways; its basic meaning is 'use'. A few examples of this verb at work:

  • 'Push food' - 'Eat the carrot!'
  • 'Push button' - 'Call the lift!'
  • 'Push lift' - 'Tell the lift to bring you downstairs!'

Before being taught the language of the Hand, Norns speak Bibble (basically gibberish). If they are not brought away from their friends and family to learn the Hand's language, they will pick it up from the educated Norns around them with enough repetition. Learning this way can cause problems, however; the young Norns may misunderstand a word and will end up not learning the correct term.

The words are not pre-programmed, and therefore the Hand can decide which language he would like to use for communication with his pets. If he teaches Hebrew to his Norns, then the Norns will speak in Hebrew among themselves and with the Hand.

Norn/Hand/Environment Interactions

The Norns live in a world where everything has been provided for them. There is a garden full of growing food, with a learning machine for teaching language, and even hootch.

Like many real life creatures, the Norns interact with the world around them by eating parts of it. Now this is important, as anything that a Norn eats or uses will 'inject' chemicals into the creature and alters its biochemistry. For instance, carrots are a main food staple. When a Norn eats a carrot, the dormant chemicals in the carrot are transferred to the Norn - in this case, -100 Hunger, -70 Need For Pleasure, +100 Starch. Now these 'chemicals', refer to values of psychological drive levels as well as the traditional meaning of the word. This is so the psychological effect of eating a carrot can also be recreated in the creature's mind.

Toys are not food, but playing with toys also change biochemistry levels: a Norn's boredom and his need for pleasure are decreased when he plays with his toys.

The Hand is like the god of the Creatures’ world. The Hand can tell everyone what to do, and expects to be obeyed. When the Hand isn't obeyed after a few repetitions, it might become angry and might punish the disobedient with a smack on the rump or a sharp 'no', both of which produce the same effect: an increase in the punishment toxin. Norns decide whether to listen or not, and actually learn from being punished and rewarded - for instance, if a Norn is smacked whenever he eats, he will eventually stop eating (and thus die). This also works with less obvious punishments, such as playing with a certain toy. Learning is helpful to the Hand as well, because through it the Hand can teach her Norns not to do harmful things, such as eating the weeds which can kill them.

And the Point Is?

The point of Creatures is raise your Norns for generations and to hopefully get some interesting genetic mutations in the process. That's it. There is no winning or losing.

Many people set goals for themselves, such as raising always-fertile Norns. Some people try to breed uniquely coloured Norns, or Norns that live a long time, or Norns that are fertile for a longer percentage of their lifespan. By recording the names of early bloomers and then breeding them together, some people have achieved surprising reductions--this is not an unrealistic goal.

C2, C3, and CV - Continuation of a Legacy

When Creatures was released in 1996, it met with an amazing response. So, of course CyberLife Technologies and then Creature Labs continued in this genre, releasing Creatures 2 in 1998. Creatures 2 had more environmental features than C1, and a new species was also introduced: the Ettins.

Ettins are white creatures with coloured eyes, that aren't very intelligent, and not very vicious, but they steal things to keep in little collections which can be very aggravating.

A side development of the creatures series was Creatures Villages, a set of games involving the well-loved Norns that was intended for children. The first part of this offshoot series was Creatures Adventures, released in 1999. The Creatures Villages series involves no typing, and the understanding level necessary to get the most enjoyment from the game is lower (most children don't care about genetics or breeding.)

Now with the development of the Internet, Creature Labs has begun a new concept: a global interconnection of Norn-owners. By registering on their website and downloading the new world, the Norns you raise can travel around our world through spaceships in the Docking Station3. Creatures 3 is an extension to this spaceship that allows more space for your Norns, but it can also be run on its own.

The Fans' Developments - C1

Creatures was designed with the fans in mind, so there is a lot a player can do to customise his or her game. This is why Creature Labs allowed the fans access to the programming language used in the creatures series (CAOS), so the fans could develop the game themselves. This act spawned the Creatures Developers Network which was set up to teach people CAOS and provide a place for developers to communicate.

One of the things you can do to customise your game is to inject objects into it. To help with this Creatures Labs offers free downloads on their website of an Object Injector Kit and many Creatures Objects (COBs) to inject into your game (use the 'download' link in the frame at the left). When the public got its hands on CAOS many fans began writing their own COBs and posting them for download on the web, alongside copies of their favourite Norns. These COBs aren't really necessary for the game but they are nice things to have.

With the genome-editing kits available from CyberLife, people began to create their own unique Norn species, such as Lis Morris, who created the Hippy Norns for C1. Hippy Norns process tickling as the life-necessary chemicals glucose and glycogen (these chemicals are normally produced from the digestion of food). Norns can learn to tickle each other as well, so the burden on the Hand could very well be lessened. Other people have created Norns with an extra gene that stops them from dying of old age (this can be problematic, however, because the younger Norns will keep breeding and the world has a biological limit for the number of creatures it can support as the garden can only produce so much food, and epidemics of sickness occur more often in larger populations.)

Some people even create new worlds. Terra Nornia (for C1) has locking doors and seasons, as well as different foods and toys. It also uses more of the original empty vocabulary slots, so the range of Norn expression and understanding is greater.

How the Artificial Life in C1 was Created

Everyone has heard of artificial intelligence. Creatures is not that. Creatures is artificial life. Artificial intelligence can be represented by a chess-playing computer. A life is much more than that, it has biology, genetics, and evolution, as well as 'smartness'.

When the concept of artificial life first poked itself into the heads of the people responsible for the Creatures series, the programmers had no idea how to approach making life from nothing. But they finally decided just to use what nature had given them: unique genetics that control the making of chemicals and chemical reactions, as well as heredity (they called their new genetic material 'd-DNA'4). There is very little that cannot be done through time and evolution as a result of this innovative idea.

The best way to show how this works is to compare how genetics work in humans and Norns.

Heredity and Genetics in Humans

'Heredity' basically means inheritance - what a parent passes on to their child. The process of inheritance works a bit like this: the parents pass on a set of DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid to their child. The DNA codes that are contained in these strands of DNA (there are over three billion codes contained in total!) are the design plans for the child, and this plan is then brought to the reality of the child's body through protein synthesis. In protein synthesis, DNA is translated into amino acids, which join together to become proteins. Proteins create the form of an organism and are required to sustain life.

Bits of DNA form genes, which are the codes for certain parts (eg hair or eye colour) or aspects (eg insulin production) of the organism. When more cells are produced, these genes combine into long chains called chromosomes. (Chromosomes and their genes can be likened to a bead necklace, with the entire necklace as the chromosome and the individual beads as the genes.)

Each chromosome in a human cell (excluding the X and Y chromosomes, which determine sex), has a corresponding homologous chromosome from the other parent. These homologues code for the same gene idea, but their actual expression is a bit different. (For example, the gene for brown eyes and the gene for blue eyes are both represented by the gene for eye colour, but they are different instances of that gene. The other genes on homologous chromosomes are likewise different, but similar.)

In the production of sex cells, these homologous chromosomes bind tightly together and crossing-over can occur. Crossing-over results in a piece of one homologous chromosome breaking away from itself and attaching to its homologue. (A chromosome with a sequence ABCDE and its homologue with a sequence RSTUV after crossing-over can become ARSTE and UVBCD, for example.) The chromosomes (now with new combinations of genetic information) separate and move into the resulting sex cells. These sex cells have different genetics than their parents, and this is how our race can change over time and evolve.

Heredity and Genetics in Norns

Norns (and the other creatures in Creatures) are completely modelled on life. This means that the concepts that go into our life also go into theirs, albeit on a more simplified level (the power of computers cannot yet match the power of biology!). They have their own DNA, which codes for their organs and helps with basic life processes, as it does in humans.

In Creatures, DNA is broken up into mega-genes5 such as chemical receptors, attitude, and pigmentation. In first-generation Norns, 104 genes make up attitude. Most early-generation Norns have about 265 genes, but there is no telling how many might result in future generations!

Crossing-over and reproduction in Norns has the same effect as in humans (genetic diversity), but it can be explained a bit differently, as Norns only have one chromosome, and it is not physical.

When Norns breed, a copy is made starting at one end of a parent's chromosome. At random points along the way of making that copy, it pauses, makes note of where it is, and then switches to the other (homologous) chromosome. It continues copying from that marker on the second homologue, switching back and forth randomly until it reaches the end of one of the chromosomes.

When the marker on one chromosome has moved, the deletion or duplication of certain genes can occur. For example, let's say that copying on the father's homologue stops at 3-8. Now copying will transfer to the mother's chromosome, and begin at 3-8. If position 3-8 has been moved further down the chromosome, it is possible that some genes will not be copied at all. If position 3-8 has been moved further up the chromosome, it is possible that some genes will be copied twice. Both are mutations that the offspring will inherit.

Mutations are what make evolution possible. With genetically different offspring, there is a chance of natural selection. Creatures that breed often and quickly will produce more offspring and therefore their breeding genes are more likely to be perpetuated into the next generation. Creatures who have genetic disorders that cause them to die early, be extra-susceptible to disease, or make them infertile will not breed as much, and thus do not impart their genes to future generations. These changes in the gene pool leads to evolution, with the best-fit organisms surviving and passing on their traits: this is what Norn-breeders live for6.

Further Reading

Creation: Life and How to Make It, Steve Grand

1'Bibble' is the Creatures' original language, and as far as they are concerned, the Hand is god. At least, those of us Hands would like to think so...2This name comes from the word 'Siõe', or 'Sidhe', who were the fairy people of pre-Celtic Ireland. (It is pronounced 'Shee', with a faint 'th' sound at the end.) The name was chosen for its history, but with the arrival of Creatures, a whole new history was founded.3There are ports scattered throughout a Docking Station that connect it to other Docking Stations across the world: the Creatures can travel through them wherever they want to go, and when they want a change, they can leave again.4'Depending on how you define life, it can be argued they do have a life of their own. "They are at the mercy of their genes," says Ashton [a producer at Creatures Labs]. Their code dictates the structures inside them, just as DNA code defines carbon-based creatures such as humans. It is passed on, mutated and adapted as and when they reproduce. "Most definitions of life involve metabolism, respiration, reproduction and mobility - AL is doing all of that, but in a digital form," Ashton explains. "They have a homogenous neural network brain which is responsible for actions and decision-making processes. This is fed into by sensors, perceiving the environment around it."' - (quotation from an article on are not shown each individual gene in the science kit that comes with C1, all we know is how many genes there are in each group. Creatures Labs does sell genetics kits that allow the tweaking of genes and artificial breeding, as well as showing us each individual gene and where it is located in on the chromosome. There are also third party kits that do basically the same things (although not necessarily all in the same kit), but they are not supported by Creatures Labs and may take a while to find online.6Brian Hershey has done many Norn breeding/evolution experiments in Creatures 2, and now in Creatures 3 (his website is on C3). He explains his experiments in in the Science category of the Official Creatures Labs Website and his results have been interesting. After over 100 generations, some of his Norn reach adulthood within seconds of birth; at the beginning, these Norns were very weak, but after artificial selection of Norns with high health levels, he has a very unique and hardy genetic pool. Some of his Norns can be downloaded at his website, along with breeding tools for this kind of experiment.

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