Cast Your Mind Back A Number of years and you may remember Bruce Forsyth singing, "Life... is the name of the game." Had he known just how prophetic his words would prove to be, he'd probably have dumped the quiz shows and carpet ads in favour of a career in soothsaying; sort of like Mystic Meg, only ganglier and with a more obvious wig. And a bloody big chin. Because thanks to Millennium Interactive, we really are in a position to have a crack at 'Life: the Computer Game'. Or Creatures, to give it its proper name. Now before we press on, you might want to sit down. Things are about to get a little bit scary.
Ahem. So, anyone for a quick round of Artificial Life? Eh? Fancy a bit of that, do you? How does a game featuring characters with their own fully-functioning DNA structure grab you? Yeah? A game where you raise, breed, teach and communicate with an entire race of digital beings? Ones that are capable of independent thought? Eh? Eh? Fancy some, eh? Caaarm on then! Caaaaaarm on!
Life should mean life
Whether or not Creatures proves to be one of the most entertaining pc games of 1996 has yet to be seen, but it's already one of the most fascinating. You may have seen it mentioned in the national press recently and - let's face it - you can't say that about many games. Its basic premise is simple enough: your 'task' (such as it is) is to raise some live creatures, allow them to breed, and then raise and breed the resultant generations in the same manner. Fairly original, I'm sure you'll agree. But the main twist with Creatures is that the 'creatures' within it are fully-working examples of'artificial life' (or 'CyberLife' as the designers insist on calling it). Intrigued? Sit back in that chair, make yourself comfortable and I'll explain a few slightly complicated things: concepts that you'll need to digest in order to fully appreciate just how danged clever this program is. Let's start by defining 'artificial life' a little more dearly. We've all got a good idea of what 'artificial intelligence' is, but in case you don't, it refers to those decision-making routines used by games such as Command & Conquer in order to ensure that your attacking forces take the longest, most dangerous route through the simplest of landscapes, and get annoyingly 'stuck' behind trees or hedgerows. Artificial life is something quite different. Rather than simulating a thinking brain, it simulates the physical life form attached to it. It creates a digital approximation of a biological system, and the instincts which drive it. The creatures, for instance, will experience hunger if they go without food, and if they don't find any, they will eventually die. Aside from rumbling stomachs, they can also experience tiredness, boredom, happiness, and -nalurellemenl - the sexual impulse. Got that? Good. On to 'neural nets', then.
Neural nets sound scary and complicated, but the core concept is fairly simple: it's basically a trial and error learning system. For example, when initially hatched, one of the wee beasties' primary instincts is to pick things up and put them in their mouths. Eventually, they'll try this out with something edible (such as a carrot), and discover that it stops them feeling hungry.
Were it not for the wonder of neural nets, they'd probably carry on trying to stuff any old thing down their gobs. As it is, they 'learn' to associate carrots with quelling hunger. This trial and error style of learning goes across the board - they learn to 'enjoy' all kinds of stimuli, from playing with balls to looking at fish swimming past. You can even teach them simple words and phrases, and then actually communicate with them. Spooky, eh?
The generation game
Just as in nature, each of the little Creatures critters has many of its physical and intellectual properties defined by its genetic code. Millennium call their version of this code 'digital dna'. It's a simplified rendition of a natural phenomenon, and is crucial to simulate the breeding process effectively. If, for instance, you take a greedy creature, and breed it with a talkative but stupid one, the resultant offspring's dna will be formed from a combination of its parents' codes - leaving you with a fat bastard who talks bollocks (Russell Grant, in other words). It's also possible to, say, breed two violent parents together, and end up with an incredibly violent child. Breed two more of these incredibly violent offspring, and you've got a gang of furry Jeffrey Dahmers.
And so on. Since each creature has a limited life span (around 40 hours), it's essential to get them to reproduce -and because the kids inherit some of their parents' characteristics, the game should develop and become more interesting the longer you play it.
There's loads and loads more 'braniac' stuff at work here, but I don't want to give you the wrong impression. Creatures is not a white lab-coat of a game. You don't need a degree to play it. No no no. Sensibly, it's all been designed with Joe Public in mind, which means a) lots of very cute graphics, and b) an easy to use interface. Your fluffy proteges inhabit a lovingly-drawn on-screen 'world' that's jam-packed with fun stuff for them to piddle about with (from footballs to cable cars), as well as an evil race of 'Grendels', whose sole purpose in life is to pass diseases on to your virtual chums and generally make life difficult.
Having seen Creatures in action, the eerily realistic behaviour of the little creatures left me with something approaching a sense of awe - and if you've ever installed something like PF Magic's Dogz or Catz and found yourself getting attached to your little desktop pet (even though you know it's stupid to do so), I think it's safe to say that you'll want to marry these little buggers.
Now I know that you may think I'm being foolhardy to say so at this stage, but if Creatures doesn't prove to be a runaway success with critics and public alike (in the same way that Sim City 2000 was, only bigger), then I'll eat my hat. No, make that two hats. And great big ten-gallon ones at that. Still sceptical? Just you wait and see.
Just like dogs that learn to ride skateboards, or cats that can operate particle accelerators, the little critters that run around in Creatures are equally capable of exhibiting unexpected character traits. Toby Simpson, the game's producer, gave me an unsettling example of this.
They're not programmed to do it (they're not programmed to 'do' anything, really), but while testing the game, they discovered that some of the creatures were 'making friends'. For instance, two of them stood around in the 'garden' area and played 'catch' with a football, for ages. How come? Well, when they examined things a little more closely, the team realised that each of the two creatures had decided that while they 'enjoyed' throwing the ball around, they didn't enjoy having to go and fetch it afterwards. They'd settled upon a game of catch, since it meant maximum 'ball-throwing' action, and minimum 'fetching' trudgery. They only had their own best interests at heart, in other words. Could this intrinsically selfish motivation be the basis for most human friendships? Probably. Think of all those albums and books you've lent out over the years and never got back. The bastards.