Stubborn Creatures

A Review of Creatures

by Edmond Meinfelder

This is a preview. I based my opinions from a beta copy of Creatures for the press. Games in beta have the code supporting all the game’s features, but due to bugs, all features may not work correctly (if at all). As the creators used advanced computer algorithms to create Creatures, I expected some problems. Rather than read a long report on bugs, you get an overview on the game and just how fun Creatures is (or is not).

Gaming is entering an awkward stage. Many of the defining classics -- Jumpman, Doom, Ultima, Zork, Wing Commander (the first) – fail to excite us as they once did. Disappointingly, the next generation of games offers merely “more of the same, but better.” Game producers fail to recognize the great games went “where no game has gone before” with innovation. I get excited when I hear about a new game of game able to challenge the way we perceive gaming. Creatures is such a game.

In Creatures, you receive 6 eggs. From each egg, a baby Norn is born. The Norns, looking like Ewoks from Star Wars (only much cuter), slowly mature, learn and even reproduce, passing their individual genetic makeup to successive generations. The point of Creatures is players must teach and guide their Norns through life.

Albia, a beautifully rendered 2-dimensional toroidal world, serves as an excellent home to your inquisitive and playful Norns. In Albia, Norns frolic on beaches, climb observatories, listen to and play music and even ride in submarines. The world is fairly large, but enticing your Norn to explore is a challenging task. I had a lot of trouble getting Norns to explore, myself.

I learned to fear Albian elevators. Everytime a Norn came across an elevator, more often than not, the elevator became a toy and the Norn would endlessly ride up and down the elevator. The only way I could break elevator addiction was by introducing another Norn. Janelle, a newborn, rode an elevator for two hours as I wrote this article. For Janelle, the elevator quickly became a means of transportation when another Norn was close.

Norns love company. Separating two Norns is neigh impossible. Frequently, I had to pick one Norn up, placing it elsewhere in Albia, just to interest another Norn in food. I saw 4 Norns, all of whom I taught to eat, starve, literally to death, in the garden playing with each other while surrounded by food. I expect Norn behaviors to have priorities with eating having a high value. If eating does have a higher priority for Norns, I never noticed.

Using both genetic algorithms and neural networks, Creatures uses artificial life, rather than artificial intelligence to create complex behaviors for the Norns. Artificial intelligence is very specific, given context. Medical diagnostic programs use artificial intelligence to produce diagnoses from patient’s symptoms. Artificial life, however, is very general. A researcher may use artificial life to simulate the behavior of a bug using basic needs, like food, rest and reproduction. The prioritized needs of the bug define the bug’s behavior.

Neural networks are a class of adaptive algorithms. Given a goal, like recognizing the meaning word, you can train the neural net to achieve the goal through contextual examples. The Norns in Creatures use neural nets to learn. Say, “ball” while your Norn is playing with a ball and the Norn eventually learns the word for ball.

Genetic algorithms are another class of adaptive algorithms. A set of genes describes the methods each Creature uses to learn and solve problems. Often, with genetic algorithms, the world applies a fitness test and only the “fit” live to spawn another generation. In Creatures, the most visible fitness test is starvation. I had many unfit Norns starve to death.

After hatching, baby Norns typically run outside to the garden where food is. However, the babies have not yet associated food as a means to curb hunger. The documentation for the press release is sketchy, but I expected two teaching strategies to work well. I expected a hungry Norn, after eating, to quickly associate the use of food as a means to control hunger. Also, with positive reinforcement – you can pat/tickle your Norn – I expected the Norn to want to eat. This did not always work. Unfortunately, neural networks do not always succeed as they use a probability-based model to generate the final association given the input. Feeding a hungry Norn may teach nothing at all. Patting a Norn after eating may not reinforce eating as a positive behavior.

The press release had no music, but the sound effects, though subtle, were excellent. Almost every interactive action possible in Albia has a sound effect associated. Additionally, some areas, like the beach, have ambient sound effects. Unfortunately, development was performed using the first incarnation of Direct Sound, where applications did not need to have focus (be selected by the user) to produce sounds. With Direct Sound 3, Creature’s tool kit windows removed focus from the main window, silencing the application.

Jeers to Microsoft for producing several non-upwardly compatible implementations of Direct X. Even worse, you can have only one version of the Direct X libraries on your system. Games relying on the 1st version of Direct X sometimes do not run with the 3rd and vice versa.

Rarely does a game like Creatures come along. Instead, we see endless numbers of Command & Conquer and Quake clones. Sadly, Creatures, despite innovation, is not a fun game. Getting the advanced behaviors of creatures was not possible for me, unless you call riding an elevator advanced. I tried. In the end, I decided I was trying so hard the “game” became work rather than entertainment. My Creatures will not learn, they are too stubborn.

Let us not write Creatures off entirely. Should the developers really push hard and re-do the learning, making the associations easier, I could get lost in this game. As Creatures stands now, however, it ranks with the dregs of Maxis’ bad Sim-style games. You feel like you are watching a fishbowl and, despite your efforts, you really are not having any effect at all.

Gamer's Zone Scorecard




Millennium Interactive Ltd.


Pentium PC, 2x CD ROM, Windows '95, Windows 16 bit compatible soundcard, Hi-color (16 bits) in 640x480 resolution, 8 megabytes of RAM, 30 megabytes of harddrive space, keyboard and mouse


Fun Factor 1
Graphics 5
Sound 4
Interface 3
Replayability 1

Overall Score:

Copyright © 1997 InfoMedia, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide.