CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 17 . . . . April 28, 2006
The artificial life forms known as Norns may have initially made their debut in the mid-1990s, as Wikipedia states, but the recent collaboration between Kutoka and Gameware Development (UK) is responsible for the present population explosion of the incredibly life-like and likeable little rascals. Creatures: Village is an elaborately constructed video game that allows players to raise and guide these Norns within a sensory-rich, multi-faceted virtual world -- today's version of yesteryear's ant farms and sea monkeys. With over 30 activities and an infinite number of Norn eggs to be hatched, this game offers plenty of play value for a very reasonable price.
With its hybrid CD-ROM, Creatures: Village is easy to install on either Mac or Windows platforms: directions are printed on the inside of the CD case. Although one could launch directly into play, it is advisable to consult the electronic "Creation manuel" [sic], and perhaps print it out for quick reference. In fact, these 28 pages contain many helpful tips and clues to channel play in order to make the game as rewarding as possible for players. Children who haven't yet learned to read on their own will benefit from adult supervision.
As a species, Norns are a conundrum, a cross midway between Gremlins and teddy bears in appearance and midway between animal and human in behavior. Unlike humans, they are oviparous, that is, they hatch from incubated eggs. Some Norns appear furry or fuzzy while others appear to possess amphibian skin. They make a pleasant addition to any household because they do not shed, do not contract hairballs, and they arrive completely housebroken. Yet, while the accompanying documentation refers to Norns as "pets," these creatures also exhibit decidedly human inclinations. For instance, they crawl on all fours before they walk on two legs, they dress up as Elvis, they garden, and they frequent amusement parks. They also use language if their unintelligible utterances are any indication. Even the names automatically generated for Norns are human names, although players do have the option of renaming them.
In keeping with many popular animated characters, Norns have large eyes that connote innocence and compel players to nurture them. Given that these virtual pets survive for only four or five hours on average, they need all the nurture they can get. Yet, despite their short life expectancy, Norns lead remarkably full lives: they age, they mate and reproduce, and they experience variety in seasons, food, and fun. Still, it takes time to learn each Norn's idiosyncrasies, and a player will finally master a particular Norn's expressions and behavioral patterns only to have it pass away shortly thereafter.
Creatures Digital DNAT ensures that each Norn is unique. Like real-life pets, these virtual ones vary widely in temperament. This reviewer played with 10 Norns in two worlds. The first world gave rise to Ruthine, Adam, Sophie, Maggie, and Tom, while the second contained Helen, Shelby, Frank, Tini, and Barthe. Right from the outset, Ruthine was highly susceptible to cold and sickness. In contrast, Frank, although hale and hearty, wore an angry frown for the better part of his virtual life; a good scare via the roller coaster or haunted house was the only way to evoke anything akin to delight in his expression. Adam was compliant whereas Maggie was obstinate. Such diversity, because it subverts predictability, enhances players' experience of the game.
In a sharp departure from a central quest motif around which most video games are organized, the goal of Creatures: Village is not to acquire something or someone. There is no firm objective other than that players must care for their Norns. Since one can play with up to four Norns concurrently, this task is far more complicated than it first seems as it involves feeding these creatures, clothing them, teaching them, escorting them to the doctor when they become ill, and tending to their overall well-being wherever they choose to roam -- and roam they will! In addition to the dress-up room, toy room, and kitchen inside the house, Norns have another whole realm of possibilities to explore outdoors, including a fairground, a spaceship, and a dungeon, to name just three. Despite, or perhaps because of, the large number of activities available in Creatures: Village, this program does not circumscribe play. That is, since there is no fixed course, children can lead their Norns to and from place to place, retracing steps as often as they wish. In this respect, Creatures: Village is more conducive to intuitive play than any previous Kutoka offerings.
Players will find it easy to lose themselves in the land of Norns for at least three reasons. First, it takes intense concentration and practice to coordinate the fine motor movements necessary to click on objects at precisely the right times. Second, Creatures: Village is not a static world but a dynamic one in which seasons, weather, and game pieces (i.e., Norns) change. It, therefore, demands that players attend closely to the action as it unfolds. Third, these activities hold mass appeal: dragons, caves, pirate ships, mad scientists, hot dogs, cotton candy, and dressing up (the knightly suit of armor is adorable) have always been favorites, not only of children but also of adults nostalgic for childhood. Consequently, because players will find the game so compelling, the time they spend on it is sure to add up quickly.
Furthermore, the educational content should not be underestimated, even if it is less explicit here than in other Kutoka masterpieces. Actually, Creatures: Village deals with the weighty subjects of nurture and nature, genetics, biology, environment, and ecosystems -- all at a rudimentary level, of course. Interspersed throughout the instructions manual are special notes to concerned parents that identify opportunities for them to discuss reproduction birth, life, and death with their children in a forthright yet diplomatic manner. Essentially, children who play Creatures: Village will gain knowledge equivalent to that of their rural counterparts who see that their farm cat's kittens bear a close resemblance to the neighbor's tom.
Much to my chagrin, my Norns never did reproduce, although kissing sounds indicated they did mate. This, however, was not the only disappointment I encountered for I never did locate all of the cave Norn's bones. Moreover, I found that putting warm clothes on my Norns didn't always prevent them from catching chills and having to undergo first aid treatment. To top it all, Sophie (whose brightness was promising and of whom I was especially fond) inexplicably disappeared between two consecutive sessions. Still, one could argue that the game simulated real life remarkably well since the latter also takes turns that do not always conform to one's expectations.
Creatures: Village, then, is a lot like The Sims, a "digital dollhouse," but is designed for a younger crowd. Actual play-testers included four children ages 7, 8, 10, and 13; however, children of all ages will derive pleasure from this fantastic, imaginative world, and its fascinating inhabitants. Here players have the chance to acquire and develop the type of observational and empathic skills that will serve them in future studies, whether they prefer hard or social sciences. There's no telling how many zoologists and anthropologists will get their start in Creatures: Village!
Julie Chychota works as an office assistant and computerized note-taker at the University of Manitoba.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.