Creatures
Sophisticated, yet boring
by Peter Smith
Mindscape
REVIEW: Creatures Life Kit #1

Shot One n the beginning, there was Life. John Conway's Life, to be exact, and it was good. Many a tree was ground into graph paper so that pre-computer gaming geeks could while away hours "playing" what we thought of then as an artificial life program. These days, it'd be categorized more accurately as a cellular automata system.

Then personal computers arrived, and Life was one of the earliest programs to get hacked together. It began a lineage that included Core Wars, C-Robots, Omega, Little Computer People... and then faded. Our collective interest was drawn away from "artificial life" for a few years, but now it's back with a vengeance. Tamagotchis, Petz, Fin-Fin, Galapagos and Creatures all claim to be some sort of artificial life. Some of these claims are more legit than others, and most pundits tag Creatures as one of the more valid claims.

Shot Two Creatures models the land of the Norns, saccharine-sweet little critters reminiscent of Gizmo from Gremlins. Norns live in a 2D world that looks like it should contain a platform game, but instead holds farms, seas, houses full of Norn toys... and the nefarious Grendels. These enemies of the Norn carry diseases that they pass on to Norns by slapping them. The world is a mixed bag of realism, but shies from any sort of overt grittiness. Norns mate by kissing, for instance. But then, seeing these cute little furballs mate in any other way would be as disturbing as watching Pooh and Piglet during an intimate moment. [We didn't know they were an item –ed.]

When you first start the program, you're given six eggs from which to hatch a Norn. Stick an egg in the incubator, and soon enough you'll be a proud Norn parent. Now comes the, ah, fun part. Baby Norns are fairly helpless. They have to be taught to eat, sleep, and talk. Happily, no diapers are in evidence. Gamers who're not parents may get a kick out of this, but those of you who've raised kids will probably have a real "Been there, done that, don't wanna do it again." attitude towards having to pay constant attention to an infant.

Shot Three Eventually (a few hours) they do grow up and start exploring their world. You interact with them via fetching and dropping objects, "talking" to them via typing in simple commands, and rewarding or punishing them (via a tickle on the head or a slap on the butt). By using these various input techniques, you can train your Norns to do well at a variety of Nornish things. Basically, you watch them and are amused. Or not.

And therein lies the key flaw with Creatures. There's nothing to do here. Yes, you have to care for them while they're young, but that isn't fun. Once they're old enough to be self-sufficient (though whether they ever really reach that point is disputable—Norns have been spotted suffering from acute hunger pains while walking around with a snack in their hands), there's less to do with them. Think of Creatures as a virtual fish tank, and you'll have the right idea. It's fairly mesmerizing once you have a breeding population (you can have up to eight Norns at any one time), but getting there is somewhat painful.

The interface doesn't help. You're limited to seeing areas that you've tagged as favorite places or that are currently inhabited by Norns. So, if no one is in the Garden, and you need some carrots for dinner, you're out of luck. If a Grendel wanders into off screen and you want to chase it away, again, you're out of luck. Also, it's a fine line between pain and pleasure, and too often you'll slap a Norn you want to reward, or vice versa. Or slap the wrong one, if two of them are hanging out together.

Shot Four What we end up with is a really neat technology driving an entirely medicore product. The interface hates people, the Norns can care less about you, and Grendels find you ineffective. What you'll feel is frustration. The one hope is the Internet. There're a bunch of Creatures sites on the net, and many of them have lots of Norns to download, plus utilities to help you interact with the environment. And some perverse individuals have even bred Grendel and Norns together. Download a handful of adult Norns to get a population growing, and you'll have a great cyber-fishtank. Buy Creatures if you're curious about a-life and the very cool technology behind the product, or as a great screensaver. Don't buy it as something with which you expect to have lots of interaction.

Requirements:

Windows
  • 60MHz Pentium or higher
  • 8MB of RAM
  • 2X CD-ROM
MacOS
  • System 7.5 or higher
  • PowerMacintosh
  • 16MB of RAM
  • 2X CD-ROM
Multiplayer: None
©1998 Strategy Plus, Inc.
Posted 01/26/1998

Creatures Life Kit 1 IBM CD ROM 01/98 $14.99
Creatures 2 IBM CD ROM 09/98 $14.95