I mostly wasn’t allowed pets when I was a kid. My sister and I wanted a puppy or cat, but our parents always said no. We thought this was our mother was allergic, but that turned out to simply be a front for the true reason she didn’t want an animal in the house — she knew she would end up being the one who took care of it. We had a few fish and, eventually, a rat, but I didn’t get my first cat until I was in my 20s. As a result, I was the perfect audience for the virtual pet craze of the late 90s. I got a Nano Kitty in 1997 and adored it, then later a Tamagotchi. But the virtual pet that most enamored me lived on my computer, in a program called Creatures.
Released in 1996, Creatures was an artificial life simulation. It was far more complex than the simple handheld virtual pets of the time (“Tamagotchi, Schmamagotchi!” a splash quote on the front of the box proclaims), offering players the chance to raise adorable little Mogwai-like monsters called Norns in the pre-rendered world of Albia. The player has little direct control over the world, instead raising and teaching the Norns to explore it for them. Through simple conditioning, Norns can learn to associate certain objects with certain words and manipulate their environments. Norns even have simulated DNA, and some traits can be passed down to their children. Editor software called the Life Kit even allows for genetic editing, a process that was completely beyond me as a child.
I was obsessed with Creatures long before I ever got to play it, thanks to a friend who had the game and told me all about it for months. She finally let me borrow the CD one day and I immediately installed it on my home computer when I got home from school. I named the first Norn I hatched “Leia” and set out to teach her about the world. However, Leia soon ran into trouble.
The world of Albia was a mysterious one, made all the more so by the fact that the player couldn’t independently explore it without the presence of a Norn. Poking around the ecosystem, I soon learned that Norns weren’t the only creatures inhabiting it — there were also Grendels, the Gremlins to the Norns’ Mogwais. Grendels can steal food and injure Norns, and also carry diseases to which Norns are susceptible. Leia caught one of these diseases, and Creatures informed me that she was going to die.
When Norns die in Creatures, they’re gone. I hadn’t experienced that kind of thing in a game before, and I certainly wasn’t about to. Instead of letting Leia die, I removed her file from the game, putting her into a kind of suspended animation. Maybe it’s a good thing I wasn’t allowed a pet back then after all.
Creatures spawned two sequels, home console ports, and some spin-offs for younger children. There was a title for the PlayStation 2, GameCube, and Xbox in the works, though it was cancelled when Creature Labs went out of business. Creatures Online, announced in 2011, would have been the first title in the series to feature 3D graphics, but was cancelled in 2015 when developer Fishing Cactus lost the licence.
As far as I can tell, the rights to the Creatures IP were owned for a time by a company called Gameware Development, which no longer seems to have much of a presence online. However, the old Creatures games were made available via Steam in 2021, where Creatures: The Albian Years (a compilation of Creatures 1-3) was updated as recently as October 2022. There’s still a small but dedicated community invested in these titles, and it’s not hard to see why — there just hasn’t been much like them before or since.