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This is Twinsen from the planet Twinsun. In other news I've changed my name to Eurth.

I mentioned in a caption in the last article that David Gasman ruined some of my treasured childhood memories by voicing the lunatic Lucas Kane in Fahrenheit (Quantic Dream, 2005). The only reason that happened, though, was because he played a part in making them in the first place with his voice work for Twinsen in Little Big Adventure 2: Twinsen’s Odyssey (Adeline Software International, 1997). I was eleven when this game was released, I think I got a copy when I was 12 and it had been re-released by EA. At the time I was using a Pentium 166 MMX and the full motion video of this game, and the inviting 3D worlds blew my tiny little mind. What has made me so very fond of it, though, is its character. It’s a wonderful universe to get lost in, and I intend to in this blog post, in the hope you’ll dig it out, dust it down, and play it – or if you don’t have it, find it and take your first step into a wonderful new world. Also, and this is important, I’ve discovered the development of a fan-made Little Big Adventure Prequel!

Loading times were not that bad, but hardly helped by these two standing on the disc.


Relentless…

Twinsen’s career as a dress-wearing world saver began at the end of 1994 with Little Big Adventure (Adeline Software International). It was also released shortly after with the title Relentless: Twinsen’s Adventure. In his first outing Twinsen had to rescue his girlfriend Zoe from the clutches of the evil “FunFrock” –  a nasty wizard and dictator of Twinsun, and he must also save the goddess that lives in the planet’s core from said nasty wizard, as he wishes to kill her and steal all her power. The first game was completely in an isometric 3D perspective set entirely on the planet Twinsun. Alas the first game is rather hard to come by. It isn’t, repeat isn’t, classed as abandon-ware, but who exactly owns the rights to the franchise is somewhat tricky to decipher as Adeline Software International was officially dissolved in 2004.

Twinsen’s Odyssey…

My exposure to Little Big Adventure began with the sequel, and it supports the notion that in games – in contrast to movies and other media – sequels are often better than the originals. It also goes some way to furthering the idea that Ray Muzyka of Bioware spoke of only two days ago at GDC: “If you try to build a franchise around a single character, that can be a problem. If you build it around world, anything is possible.” Sure Twinsen is the star of these games, but the best thing about them is the wealth of characters you encounter. They were notable back in the 90s for being some of the only games in which every person you enoucntered had their own unique views, voice, and general character. Quite impressive compared to the mess that is the voice-work and NPC system of Oblivion, a game made 10 years later, that claims to be of incredible scope, where characters voices can change dramatically mid-conversation, and it can be difficult to tell people apart. When you add the fact that Little Big Adventure characters can often be walking sausages, and that they have more character and you won’t mistake them for any of the other sausages, it really stands as a testament to the brilliant design, and care that went into every detail.

LBA2: Who'd win in a fight? The cast of LBA2 or the cast of Grim Fandango? Both had cast "photos" like this.

Before I go on, I should mention this game’s great innovation: The behaviour system. By deciding what “mood” Twinsen is in, it affects what actions he is capable of, how he moves, and how he throws his magic ball/uses his weapon. This can have an affect on gameplay (the AI is also quite intelligent, LBA was one of the first games where guards would run to seek re-enforcements or sound the alarm instead of just attacking or chasing Twinsen) in terms of stealthy movements or solving puzzles. It’s main success is that it simplifies controls, which otherwise would have been convoluted.

The general tone of the LBA universe is quite light, but rich with variety, wonder, and an innocence that I think is the main reason I keep returning to it. To best set the scene you should watch the opening cinematic and beginning of LBA2 (from a “Let’s Play…”) below:

The game plays like a child’s daydream of adulthood, of adventure, and of wonder. With the mix of the fantastical and the familiar it recalls the bizarre things you would day dream innocently as a child. The mysteries of the universe are alluded to but not explicitly explained, and the most mundane things are just as mundane there. The game opens with your friend, a talking, flying, dinosaur crashing into your back garden. So you go to the pharmacy – a somewhat mysterious place for any kid, but in a boring sort of way. When you get there you find a woman (who is little ball with legs, incidentally) who can help you as she works for a wizard. When you get to her house, she’s doing the hoovering. There is a grounding in the things you observe in the world around you as a child running throughout the game. There’s a wonderful cinematic in a ferry where Twinsen gets imbroiled in the “I’ve made eye contact with another passenger – do they think I’m looking at them?” moment. It’s only short, but in this bizarre universe there are still moments like these for the character that children and adults can relate to. Innocence seems to be the by-word for LBA. There is combat, but it never feels malicious. Most of the laughs come from funny voices, or slapstick humour. And your willingness to experiment is rewarded – not by slapping you with a morality system, but by kindly forgetting your actions most of the time.

It could be argued that I’m taking it too far. Perhaps I am, but this is a game that is aimed at children, but I don’t feel is speaking down to them. It is, however, and I think quite intelligently, playing to their imaginations. As an early example of a game where free-roaming in a 3D environment was done well (the French have a way with breaking ground in 3D things if Isabelle was anything to go by) it found a way to reward a lot of the things your childhood mind could throw at it. Yeah, you could hump a cow. They knew you’d do that. If you went into the school and for some reason hit a child their big brother would meet you at the gates and box your head in, only fair. And if what game would provide you with a car for getting around, and not throw in a racing track? Not LBA2.

Not long ago I wrote an article in which I discuss GTA IV, and how in that game you’re being pulled in two directions – emergent (or dick-around) gameplay vs a linear mission structure. The beautiful thing about LBA2’s tone is that – due to the fact that the story is sufficiently lighter in its presentation (at one point all of the children from your home planet are stolen, but this is done quite elegantly, showing an empty school bereft of activity. An empty field where once lessons were taught -the actual kidnap being over in moments) you never really feel hurried. It is only later in the game where a cutscene of a moon that is hurtling toward Twinsun is shown (at random intervals) that you feel encouraged to get on with things. This isn’t enforced in the design, thankfully, as by this point you are on the planet Zeelich, and they’ve given you a casino to muck about in, complete with a Wheel of Fortune game hosted by a talking, monocled, crocodile. If that doesn’t scream “Mess around with me!” I don’t know what does.

I’ve always been interested in the idea that if you’re going to make a game you should know what sensations you want to encourage before you get started. Adeline, it seems, knew that they wanted to make an Adventure game here that was fun. Not just entertaining, or engaging, but specifically fun. That seems like a redundant thing to say, but I don’t think that fun is a prerequisite of game design – I said in the previous article that I enjoyed the opening of Fahrenheit, but I didn’t think hiding a dead body was fun. Stressful and exhilirating maybe but not giggly fun. It brings forth to mind the idea that games can have the same draw as a Fisherprice activity centre and that sometimes you can have fun without a forced narrative at all. That often doesn’t last when its done alone (Amanita Design’s The Pantry is more-or-less just that: A pantry where you can click on things on screen and see unexpected (though scripted) interactions take place. A fun distraction/experiment but you will tire of it after 5 minutes), but the LBA series takes that idea and runs with it in the context of a linear narrative adventure game. If there were no little distractions, easter eggs, secrets or whatever you call them,  then – partially due to the graphical limitations of the time – Twinsun might feel a bit lifeless. As it stands, and especially with LBA2, you get the feeling that every corner of every area has had something interesting put in it so you’re never just darting through thoughtlessly. In a genre that is known primarily for being one where the story is the main focus, the LBA series manages to spread its charm, wit, and personality, equally and thickly over every element of the game. From character design, voice-acting, animations, world design, and certainly not least its sound design.

The music of LBA is another big draw for me. I personally love it, and it fits perfectly with the tone of the game. Take the main theme of LBA2 (embedded below). Being of better sound quality than that of the first game, it captures the excitment, joy, and wonder of the adventure without sounding gamey. It’s not overly dramatic, fast, or grand sounding. Compare it with the music of Zelda, and you begin to understand that the music also supports the idea that the game is encouraging a feeling of innocence while playing. There is dramatic music when the situation calls for it, but the main theme is the aural stamp of the game. The mission statement as it were, and LBA’s mission is innocence, wonder, and fun.

It would disservice to not mention that LBA2 is supported in text and voices in several languages, with the ability to set the speech and text to different languages. I, myself, and I know of several others who have used this to supplement their learning of another language, and the game has a certain noteriety for it. I used it for my German exams at school in 2002 even.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the article there is a fan-made prequel in the works, and potentially a game set between the events of LBA1 and 2. These, I feel, deserve their own article that I’m preparing.

Mike Dunbar

P.S. Does anyone know where I can get the item-recieved inventory sound effect for my phone?

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I know I said that this wasn’t just a retro game blog, but that doesn’t mean I can’t talk about retro games…

Besides, this isn’t so much a game as it was (as Wikipedia has helpfully phrased it) an “Artifical Life Program”. I’m talking about this:

Creatures: Released November 1996 for PC by Creature Labs

This is one of the first games I played on a PC (at least a one in my house). I’m not going to argue about what classifies a “game” here, I’ll save that for another time. One of the main reasons why I’m hesitant to dismiss it for what it looks like (it looks like neopets or something, which is selling it short) is because it was designed by a most interesting man. His name is Stephen Grand OBE. And the following is the abstract to a paper he penned with Dave Cliff published in 1998 entitled Creatures: Entertainment Software Agents with Artifical Life:

We present a technical description of Creatures, a commercial home-entertainment software package. Creatures provides a simulated environment in which exist a number of synthetic agents that a user can interact with in real-time. The agents (known as ’’creatures‘‘) are intended as sophisticated ’’virtual pets‘‘. The internal architecture of the creatures is strongly inspired by animal biology. Each creature has a neural network responsible for sensory-motor coordination and behavior selection, and an ’’artificial biochemistry‘‘ that models a simple energy metabolism along with a ’’hormonal‘‘ system that interacts with the neural network to model diffuse modulation of neuronal activity and staged ontogenetic development. A biologically inspired learning mechanism allows the neural network to adapt during the lifetime of a creature. Learning includes the ability to acquire a simple verb–object language.

Additionally, both the network architecture and details of the biochemistry for a creature are specified by a variable-length ’’genetic‘‘ encoding, allowing for evolutionary adaptation through sexual reproduction. Creatures, available on Windows95 platforms since late 1996, offers users an opportunity to engage with Artificial Life technologies. In addition to describing technical details, this paper concludes with a discussion of the scientific implications of the system.

CITATION HERE

That’s long form for “This isn’t a Tamagochi”. Notice how he refers to it as Artifical Life, not intelligence. It sounds like something Peter Molyneux would say about the dog in Fable 2, but with this I think the meaning is much deeper. Stephen Grand OBE (I’m always going to put the letters on, it’s amazing) is a Computer Scientist from Cambridge. After he finished Creatures (and its sequels) he moved, I believe, to Louisiana to set up a company renting low cost ANDROIDS for marketing (Grandroids it’s called, and I urge you to look HERE)!! His pride and joy, however, is the mechanical ORANGUTAN, Lucy. That’s an oranguatan with the simulated mind of a BABY. And it looks terrifying.  I’ll step back a bit, and summarise the core mechanics of Creatures.

The game is set on a disc shaped planet called Albia. That has been abandoned by an intelligent race that lived there. They seem to have left behind a lot of stuff, including a lab with some computers in, and an incubator containing 6 eggs. The game is presented in a 2D painterly style, and quite remarkably, the design for the one (scrolling) environment was drawn directly from a huge real life model that Stephen Grand OBE made!

It was drawn up by Mark Rafter and created by Complete Fabrications, a team of local model-makers who were used to making models for museums. It cost around £15,000 to make.

It was drawn up by Mark Rafter and created by Complete Fabrications, a team of local model-makers who were used to making models for museums. It cost around £15,000 to make.

The player chose an egg and hatched it in the incubator, controlling the game with a point and click/drag interface. Once it hatched you had this:

Big Eyed Thing

That one reminds me of Dakota Fanning. Anyway,  this thing came out as a baby crawling on all fours. And that was it. Nothing telling you what you had to do (it ran in a window on Windows 95, so you could go to help and read topics there, and there was an optional tutorial video which explained the interface), and no set “goal” as such. The implication is to not let this chap die. Directly above the birthing area there is a computer. As you can freely scroll around and click on what you want you can glean by the combination of sound, and the display that it is a computer for teaching the “norns” (that’s what they’re called) verbs. It has “go” and “use” and all that on there. You can type in commands yourself, and your hand of god will say it. Whether or not it is always understood or listened to is another matter. So once you managed to tease it to the lift that takes it to the computer (like real babies picking up a ball or something shiny and waving it in their face tends to do the trick) and you’ve sat it down long enough to learn some basic commands (with a combination of as much carrot or stick treatment as you like) you can try exploring.

Picture in picture incubator cam! Ten years before Springwatch.

He's on a BBC Computer I think...

This was just one of many multi-tabbed windows in which you could monitor your norn. The complexity behind this world was astonishing.

The one thing your norn (and eventually norns) had to worry about (besides disease – which you could medicate, food – which you could provide, alcoholism – which… well you could try telling them off) was this:

This friendly Chap

As you can see by his smiling face he wasn’t much harm… or was he. He’s the grendel. His major sin in life is that he’s different to the norns biologically. If they hang around him too much they may catch diseases. His temprament is also questionable, and he’s been known to attack the odd norn. What a sod. But I always overlooked this. I kept them seperate, but this game never teaches you to be malevolent toward this happy go lucky scamp, and I applaud it for that. I ended up taking him to the computer one day and teaching him English. I also taught him a few swear words because I thought it was “in character”. I looked up the name of their language on the Creatures Wiki – it’s called “Bibble”.

Scattered around you small (but also open world, I should say) environment were many herbs, foods, and so on, and they all had an effect on your norn when they (inevitably) ate some for a laugh (it’s like being a real parent I imagine, the dread you feel when you hear the swallow sound effect and wonder what they’ve ingested now). And the numerous line graphs and charts you could look up to monitor your norn’s vitals made it a very complex game to play indeed. Then they’d breed. And that was amazing, because they’d look different, they’d be combinations of the different kinds. As a kid it astounded me.

Colin Farrel and Drew Barrymore

As a life simulator I’ve not seen anything remotely as complex as this as either part of a game, or the basis of one itself (The Sims may be well and good, but norns learned, and developed behavioural patterns over the course of their lives – as opposed to a Sim wandering around switching every electrical appliance on, and then wetting itself). The world was small, but immensely charming, and beatifully drawn (based off that beautiful – if a bit extravagant model). And to its credit the game provided some emotional experiences, especially should you see a norn turn to face you with a sad look on its face because of something you had done or said; or when you notice them reach old age and eventually die. No other life sim has ever made me consider life and death so poignantly, and it was because it was done so elegantly and without drama. For a Computer Scientist who referred to his creations as “Synthetic agents” he was suprisngly good at pulling the old heart strings and thinking about it last night this game got so much right, and was ahead of the curve on so many levels I feel a bit ashamed of my countrymen for this not being one the best remembered British games of the 1990s.

Mike Dunbar

Creatures went on to spawn two sequels, and have a healthy online existence due to a large modding community. It’s review scores at time of release were very high, earning 94% from PC Zone, 80% from PC Gamer. However, the Playstation version which was released some years later recieved generally unfavourable reviews, presumably as it lacked the windows interface which make the PC version so accessible. Luckily, Good Old Games are selling Creatures: The Albian Years (a compilation of the first two games and all their expansion packs) for a tenner, and it runs on XP. You’ve no reason not to get it.

http://www.gog.com/en/gamecard/creatures_the_albian_years