Monday, October 31, 2011

virtual life

I'm a real sucker for artificial life games, although it seems like no one makes them anymore. My favorite game of all time is Creatures 2. It had 3 species of creatures: the cute Norns, the industrious Ettins and the dangerous Grendels. Each individual creature has it's own digital DNA, with genes that control their biochemistry, organs, brains and appearance.

Creatures 2 Ettin, Grendel and Norn
Raising Norns was a challenge, they were very dumb and hard to keep alive. It wasn't uncommon for a Norn to die of starvation, surrounded by cheese blocks, and me telling it to "EAT FOOD", damnit. But all those hardships made it so much more rewarding. They lived in a world that had an interesting ecosystem: plants, insects and animals that lived their own life cycle, independent of what the player is doing, though you could also influence them. There was a splice machine, vulcano, oceans, deserts... I loved this game so much that I started working on my own Norn breed, which looked like red squirrels, although I never finished it.

my  own Norn breed

Now, it's about 10 years ago that the last creatures game was released. The docking station servers are down, downloadable content is no longer available, none of the games work properly on the newer operating systems anymore...the games are truly dead. And there haven't been any new games in the artificial life genre that I know of. It seems to be a niche that no one cares about, and no one wants to develop games for. It's such a wide, open field,  with a lot of possibilities...It's a shame. I wish that I was a programmer, so I could develop my own artificial life form.

Currently, a new Creatures game, Creatures 4, is being developed by the Belgian indie game studio Fishing Cactus. I've never heard of them, but I hope that they'll do a good job. The game should be released early 2012.
The graphics look very simplistic and colorful. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I just hope that it's not an indication that the rest of the game will be simple, childish and lax any complexity. The Norns look so different from all the previous games. They just aren't cute. Their eyes are too small, and they look like little trolls. On top of that, there won't be any Ettins and Grendels in this game. I just hope that they don't downgrade the importance of ecology, biochemistry and genetics, which were very present in the previous games. I'm a little concerned because only genetic feature that I've heard them talk about in their interviews is colour... Let's hope that they didn't dumb it down to just that.

After I found out about the new Creatures game, I started playing Creatures 3 again. Boy, what I've seen of Creatures 4 looks very bad compared to it predecessor. But there's another type of virtual life being developed that looks a lot more promising...Grandroids!

This is a new game/research project of Steve Grand, the person that was responsible for making the artificial life engine used in the Creatures series. It will have real virtual alien life forms that can live in a virtual world.

I'm not talking about a computer game designed to simulate lifelike behavior; I mean genuine artificial life. I mean virtual creatures constructed from complex networks of virtual brain cells and biochemical reactions and genes. They'll learn things for themselves and have their own thoughts. I don't program them to behave in a certain way - they make their own decisions. If they get sick it will be because something has disturbed the delicate balance of their biochemistry, and remedies must be discovered that can rebalance it. If they evolve new traits or suffer from unknown hereditary diseases it'll be because nature has taken its course, not because it's part of the plot. If you conclude that they're conscious, thinking, feeling beings then it won't be because I've somehow fooled you. I'm not here to fool you; I'm here to celebrate the beauty and complexity of life with you...I think I have the key to an artificial life form that can actually think. Norns could react but they couldn’t think – they couldn’t make plans, have hopes or intentions, dream dreams, learn physical skills, etc. Higher consciousness can’t exist without an imagination either. It remains to be seen how smart they actually prove to be but they’ll certainly be much more realistic than the norns in lots of ways and hopefully a lot more fun to look after.

Seriously, that stuff is so interesting. He's a computer scientist and life philosopher, and what he's basically doing is being a God, creating new life that lives in a virtual world... And by doing something like that, you can learn a great deal about what life is really about. It's a different approach than scientists use in the lab; instead of researching life that's already there, making life of your own. Both ways will teach you a great deal about life forms.

These games are a perfect mixture between fun and educational for me. They stimulate my mind in many ways.

If you want to read more about Grandroids: faqinterviewkickstarter

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