The creepy world of Creatures

Creatures, if you’re unfamiliar, is an artificial life-raising game (not unlike Wobbledogs, heehee, you guys remember THAT one?) where you raise little – well, creatures – known as Norns. They eat, they drink, they talk, and they have a surprisingly comprehensive biological simulation running inside them.

There’s three games in the series, give-or-take a few games people choose to not acknowledge, and whether or not you consider Docking Station to be its own game or merely a free hanger-on to the much more robust Creatures 3. Whatever. Three games! But today I am focusing on the first one.

This game occupied an interesting niche in my life, not like any other game I can think of. I liked pet games, sure; Petz was my favorite computer game, second to none. But something about Creatures was so… meaty. There was so much to do in it, so much to poke around in and chew on.

But it was also unrelentingly terrifying. What was up with that?

The Creatures game world.

I couldn’t tell you where or when on Earth I got the first game in the series. The first time I can remember interacting with it was me saying “wait, I didn’t know I had this game” – for many years, I thought Docking Station was the first and only Creatures game I ‘owned’. The CD just seemed to manifest one day, with my mother – as with most things in my life – treating it as if it had been there forever. Over the years, I would resolve this temporal error with a couple of explanations: it actually belonged to my cousins; it was just a trial or demo CD; or, of course, the most plausible ‘I simply forgot’.

But installing the game and actually playing it brought back a tidal wave of memories confirming that I had indeed grown up with the game. The most prominent and lasting being: holy fuck, this game was creepy.

At least to me. I’m willing to acknowledge I have a track record of being scared of things that are not scary.

A point of comparison: Docking Station, as the only free-to-play game in the series, recognized that it had a responsibility to be even somewhat decipherable to the average 6-year-old; as such, it implemented a bevy of accessibility features, such as the ‘HoverDoc’ (for tracking a creature’s health at a glance) and the ‘Holistic Learning Machine’ (an alternative to the obtusely manual vocabulary-teaching machines).

Creatures 1 had no such pretenses of friendliness, dropping you straight into a strange and disconnected world with little-to-no guidance. The few tips are distributed separately from the game window, through the classic ‘Tip of the Day’ dialog. Even the act of picking your first eggs requires going into a separate menu – one that the game highlights, but nevertheless immediately shatters the immersion of a video game. This is a computer program, and it will continue to remind you of such at every turn.

The Owner's Kit, with forms for filling out the player's name and address and phone number.

I haven’t played many other games that so wholeheartedly incorporated the native Windows GUI. Once you’ve hatched your first creatures, you have access to a bevy of ‘kits’, such as the Science Kit and Health Kit; all of these are pop-up windows containing drop-downs lists, type-in forms, and clickable buttons. As a child, I associated interfaces like this with adult work, such as spreadsheets or driver installation. Creatures 1, in this light, felt uniquely adult; it did not bother to repackage itself with gooey squishy buttons.

The contents of the kit themselves feel every bit as much like looking at the poison in the cabinet under the sink; the most intimidating of the lot being the Science Kit, which has a whole tab for injections. Yeesh! Admittedly, I had a debilitating needle phobia as a kid, but there’s still something pretty ghoulish about being able to inject your digital pets with straight adrenaline.

The garden area of the Creatures game world.

Something else I learned quite fast about Creatures 1 was that you are not free to go wherever you want, unlike Docking Station. Your camera is locked to a small radius around your critter, who you cannot just lead around in this game, and you can only proceed to new areas by hoping that its AI will decide to get curious about what’s to the right of it. All of this adds up to an experience surprisingly devoid of a sense of autonomy or control, for a children’s game (if you choose to view it as such) – you are not a ‘player’ in this environment, merely a spectator, a guardian angel trying desperately to keep your child from eating poison.

Speaking of, the further right that you go, not only does the world get darker and less home-like, but the danger amplifies. While the starting area features amenities such as a ‘learning computer’, preserved food (honey and cheese), toys and even farmland, proceeding deeper into the world takes you through strange and hostile environments – the plants even get more poisonous! This culminates in the Deathcap Mushroom, which gives your Norn a direct dose of hunger, fever, pain, and glucose-depleting toxin.

Yeah – isn’t it odd that a game like this has such a robust selection of ways for your critter to die horribly? Brings to mind, again, what the target audience is; though as I’ve read more about it over the years, I’ve begun to conclude that Creatures was one of those rare instances of a work of media that wasn’t really trying to sell itself to anyone in particular. A true passion project by Steve Grand. One that just happened to scare the pants off of me as a kid.

I haven’t even gotten into ‘the Grendel’ yet.

A Norn meeting a Grendel.

Every world comes with one Grendel, a little green monster that lives and breathes solely to beat the shit out of your Norns. I honestly don’t know if this is one of those baseless video game urban legends, but the leading theory I’d always heard was that Grendels are more-or-less identical to Norns, except with a line of code that changes their default interaction to ‘hit’ – meaning, their only way of interacting with the world is violence.

It makes me feel terrible for them, but there’s basically nothing you can do to interact with them in the vanilla game. They’re difficult to avoid, and they will kill your Norns given enough time unmonitored. And if you find a way to destroy them… a new egg spawns in the world. There is always one male infertile Grendel in the world at any given time, and you just have to work around it and try to ignore its existence. Not unlike the immortal snail scenario.

Even the culture surrounding this game was unsettling to me. It spawned the concept of the ‘wolfling run’, a playthrough of the game where you do not interact with the Norns whatsoever; you merely hatch the eggs (the only thing that cannot happen without your interference), then leave them to their own devices. In this way, the game becomes more like a screensaver, and you have to learn to tolerate your creatures wandering into hazards and dying. I tried this method a few times, but simply couldn’t get myself to turn a blind eye to their mishaps, and would end up intervening. I’ve grown to appreciate it more as an adult (who had to eventually make an effort to stop anthropomorphizing game code for my own mental health), but it really was rough for sensitive kids.

Creepiness aside, Creatures is still a wonderful game to this day. It’d be a nice thing to just put on in the background while I do something else – if it weren’t for that I can’t stand the noises the Norns make as much as I used to – but other than that, it’s a ton of fun, it still runs well on Windows 10, and the environment is seriously gorgeous. Did you know the world is made out of photos of a physical model? Yeah, we don’t really get practical effects in video games anymore, and it’s a damn shame.

But a lot of the mystique is gone now. Partially because I don’t believe video games are literally alive anymore, obviously… but the most jarring discovery I made was that the game world feels completely different in scope for one reason I would never have thought of – window size. As a kid playing this on an 800×600 monitor, the explorable world felt minuscule, the possibilities of the next area endless and unimaginable. As an adult with two cartoonishly large flatscreens, I can see a whole quarter of the world at a time. And what do I even do with that information?

The visible world on a 800x600 monitor is quite small compared to modern screens.

Would I recommend it to a new or returning player? Yeah, probably, if you’re good at multitasking. I played it again as an adult to write this article, mostly watching my Norns stumble blindly across the landscape; maybe it would have been more fun if I had any set goals, but the things you can accomplish in Creatures 1 are a lot more limited than Creatures 3. That’s a me problem, maybe you’ll have more luck.

Just watch out for ‘the Grendel’.

The Grendel staring at the screen.

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