It all started 20 years ago today. Creatures 1 celebrates its 20th anniversary today, and it’s a real cause for celebration! The real work began long before we all started playing, though. I have the honor of presenting the following essay written by Steve Grand, the creator and mastermind behind Creatures. I truly appreciate his time in putting this together amidst his very busy life, but this isn’t something for me. It’s a piece written for this community that enjoys and loves Creatures so dearly. Read on, and celebrate this anniversary with a toast to the wonderful Steve Grand!
20 Years of Creatures, Written by Steve Grand
Twenty years! Oh my! Twenty years!
Goodness! What does one say to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of something that wasn’t even expected to last for twenty weeks? ‘Thank you’, I suppose!
So, how have you all been, this past couple of decades? Good?
Excellent! I’m delighted to hear it.
Yeah, not bad, thanks. A bit up and down, you know? But the ups were pretty up, now that I can look back on them from the safety of my armchair.
Let’s see now, what happened? Well, I was lucky enough to meet and even become friends with some of my intellectual heroes, which was the most fantastic thing. I also dressed up like a penguin and met the Queen, who gave me a medal.
I stepped on famous toes, spilled wine down famous rock stars, chatted to astronauts, had TV cameras follow me around for a year, was made a doctor without having to do ANY of the work, found that very smart people were willing to listen to my crazy ideas, and gave dozens of talks all over the world.
I’ve had research fellowships in cognitive science, psychology, biomimetics and creative technologies. I’ve written two books, climbed trees for journalists, almost had a heart attack from nerves when I nearly won a literary prize… and all this was just in the first five years or so!
After that it went a bit downhill, to be honest. Creature Labs fell apart, as you know, plus I was rather too shy and introverted to be able to deal with all that relentless media attention, so everything got quite dark and crazy for a while and I made a lot of dumb mistakes, but then when I came out the other side I discovered I was now living alone on a pine-scented mountain, thousands of miles from home, in sunny Arizona. I’m still not entirely sure how I got here but the weather’s nice. Also, it did give me some time to think and a stunning landscape in which to think it. I haven’t been idle.
Back at the beginning of the dark period I built a scruffy little robot, called Lucy. She’s in the permanent collection of the British Science Museum now, much to the delight of the nine year-old boy inside my head. But long before she left home, Lucy gave me some new ideas; some tantalizing clues. Unfortunately, at the time I could only glimpse them out of the corner of my eye and didn’t fully understand them. I almost didn’t bother trying. They’re complicated.
In fact, if it wasn’t for you lot (or maybe your parents – it’s been a long time!), I probably would have got a proper job and an actual income by now, and tried to pretend I was a normal person. But you made me completely blow it, because you cared so much about my Norns. You did. It’s all your fault! I’d been experimenting with artificial life and AI for nearly twenty years before Creatures turned out to be a success, and nobody had even batted an eyelid.
No-one was really interested, so it was just something I dabbled with in my spare time and used in a few games. Even while I was writing Creatures I was told to bury all that boring science stuff as deep as I could, because nobody was going to care about that. But you DID care about it! You decoded the genome, carried out wolfling runs, messed around with the biochemistry, wrote articles about the brain, thought about the meaning of life… You proved them wrong, bless you all!
So, thanks to you, artificial life became my life’s work, and when little Lucy gave me some new ideas about how our own brains might work, I felt I had to follow them up. As a result, I have some brand new creatures in my computer now! The current ones are called Gloops and they’re not terribly bright, it has to be said, but I’m kind of fond of them anyway and will probably keep a few around, even after they’re replaced by something else. Anyway, for the past five years, I’ve been working hard on a new ‘game’, thanks to the unbelievably generous support and encouragement of friends, both old and new. I was SO hoping it would be finished in time for this anniversary – I do like to do things in nice, round, twenty-year intervals if I can – but sadly I’m not there yet. Some things just can’t be hurried. Even so, it’s definitely getting closer and so this seems like a pretty relevant time to mention it!
Now, if Norns and Grendels are specifically your thing; if it’s the particular look-and-feel of Albia that floats your paddleboat, then you’ll have to wait for Creatures 4 or whatever the latest attempt to profit from reworking my now twenty-year-old code is called.
That I can’t help you with.
But if what captured your imagination originally was the idea of artificial life, the reality of it, and being a part of the whole experiment, then do stay tuned. You (or your kids!) might like what I’m doing.
So, what’s new, now that we’re two decades further down the road? Well, computers are a thousand times faster, for a start! 3D and physics engines and all that good stuff. But all the computer power in the world is no help unless you know how to build a mind, and despite all the ridiculous hype surrounding AI at the moment, most people really don’t. Nor do I, fully, but I do now have a working prototype!
Actually, I hate to break it to you after all these years, but Norns don’t have minds. They do learn, they have occasionally been known to react intelligently, they even have emotions, sort of, but they don’t think. They don’t have hopes or worries or dreams, they can’t imagine things that aren’t happening now or become embarrassed about what they just did. They’re simply present in the here and now. They don’t even know that they exist.
This serious omission has been bugging me. A lot. For decades. The nature of consciousness is kind of a big question! But Lucy the Robot taught me something about how to tackle it. I probably need a couple more decades yet before we’re talking about anything approaching the mind of a cat or dog, but when I look at my silly little Gloops now, I’m just about beginning to feel that someone is looking back at me, wondering what the heck is going on.
Anyway, this is not a sales pitch – I just wanted you all to know that I’m still here, still working on this stuff and have kept the faith.
It won’t be long before I’ll be looking for some good homes to send my creatures to. People to care for them and study them. There will be a lot to study, I think, because most of the time I haven’t a clue what’s going on inside them myself! It’s going to be a somewhat more demanding hobby than Norn-keeping, probably, but I hope it’s going to be fun on several levels, from figuring out how best to look after them, to studying them in detail using the assorted scientific instruments available in your very own research lab. It’s literally going to be an ongoing collective experiment.
We’ll see how it turns out, and what people can dream up to do with it. I was completely taken aback by that before, and hopefully I will be again, nearly a generation later. The thing is, if it weren’t for some level of Creatures community still being here after all this time, I wouldn’t be so motivated to do this. It’s only because I believe that somebody somewhere will probably care, that I know it’s worth all the hard work.
So, one more time, thank you, and happy 20th anniversary! – Steve Grand
Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section! I hope that this will serve as a place to share the community’s appreciation of Creatures 1 and, more importantly, Steve Grand. The fact that we’re celebrating a game after 20 years says a lot, and it means even more to see how it still inspires and motivates different sorts of gamers. I have my own thanks to share separately, so I’ll hush up and ensure that this post is fully dedicated to Steve Grand and all he has done for artificial life! All of that technical math and science stuff beneath the surface was supposed to be boring, yet we found it. Games come and go each year, and only a few manage to stick with a person for life. Creatures 1, and the Creatures series in general, is something that does so much more than idly sit by and be a game. We all continue to learn from it, and find that there are even more layers than we originally thought. I’m sure I’ll be here 20 years from now with many others, still thanking Steve Grand for this wonderful (and rather unintentional) gift!
Images Credited to Steve Grand