Monday, 27 July 2020

The Fascinating Afterlife of the Carnivores Videogames

In my very first game review I briefly alluded to the fact that videogames are rarely discussed in paleoart. This may be due to most prehistoric animals that are featured in games being barely worth mentioning, as they usually follow generic trends of the time. Another factor may be the question if games can even be considered a form of art, something I myself am unsure about (to best illustrate my thoughts: a chess-board and its pieces may be beautifully and masterfully crafted and carved like sculptures, but does that mean the experience of playing chess itself can be considered a piece of art?). Regardless, some of the most fascinating paleoartistic endeavours can be found in the most unusual of places. 
Fig. 1: The cover of the second Carnivores game. The actual raptors in the game look decidedly different.
Carnivores is a hunting simulator released in 1998 for Windows PCs. It was developed by Ukrainian developer Action Forms and published by the American studio WizardWorks. The plot of the game, if you can call it that, is that some shady space corporation akin to Weyland-Yutani has discovered an alien planet called FMM UV-32. Initial colonization attempts fail due to the planet’s extremely hostile wildlife, so the company decides to instead turn the entire planet into one giant hunting reservation where rich dentists and similar tourists can go on a trophy-hunting spree, presumably to compensate for something. The catch, however, is that the alien wildlife resembles extinct animals of Earth, mainly dinosaurs, and that some of your prey can actually hunt you back. This was a huge distinguishing factor that set this hunting simulator apart from other games of its genre at the time, in which you just shot helpless deer. 
Fig. 2: A comparison of models made by Saurian Target.
The fact that the dinosaurs you hunt in the game are actually aliens that somehow convergently evolved to look like outdated dinosaur-depictions is of course ludicrous. It does nonetheless provide a quick kneejerk justification for why the game’s models are not up to scientific standards (and is at least more creative than simply shouting “Frog-DNA!” over and over). As it turns out, this creative freedom in its story actually benefitted the game, as instead of using generic Greg Paul-style dinosaur models of the time, the developers modelled most of their dinosaurs after the art of none other than Zdeněk Burian! In the game you encounter a green and brown striped Brachiosaurus wading through the water and eating algae. Gargoyle-esque Dimorphodon and Pteranodon fly overhead. You can hunt tail-dragging, earthly-coloured Triceratops and Stegosaurus. Reptilian-looking Dimetrodon and Moschops serve as ambient animals and so on. All of these animals look like they were ripped straight out of Burian’s paintings, given 3D-models and properly animated. The attention to detail is truly amazing for the time’s technology. It is like Super Mario 64, but instead of jumping into Bob-Omb-Battlefield you entered one of the Czech artist’s paintings (and had a gun). The fact that these reconstructions were already quite outdated by the time the game came out only added to the feeling of being on an alien world with alien animals (which is ironic, as Burian’s art in his time was among the most naturalistic).
Fig. 3: In this mod by Poharex, Burian's fatass design of T. rex is brought into the game and given its own name Iniquutyrannus.
In the next year of 1999 the sequel, Carnivores 2, came out. It featured larger maps, more weapons and more dinosaurs. Unfortunately it also dumbed down the killing mechanics (in the first game the dinosaurs had specific weak spots, while in the sequel just a health-meter) and made the maps less interesting (in the previous game you could explore ruins of a lost alien civilization while in this one you just had abandoned settlements from the hunting corporation). In 2001 the third sequel followed, Carnivores: Ice Age, where you explored the northern parts of FMM-UV-32, where the aliens looked less like dinosaurs and more like Cenozoic mammals and birds. Unfortunately, the game was rushed, had even less interesting maps and only few of the animals featured were truly prehistoric or inspired by Burian’s art. The ultimate trophy was not even an actual animal, but a Yeti! The next game, Carnivores Cityscape, was not even a hunting simulator anymore, but a mediocre first-person-shooter in a dino-infested sci-fi city. WizardWorks had already closed down by that point and the intellectual rights to the franchise changed hands quickly. Somewhen in the 2000s a company named Tatem Games acquired the license and ported the second and third game to IOS and other platforms. The ports added new dinosaurs, but these often clashed in their design with the previous Burian-inspired models. In 2013 a reboot of the franchise, Carnivores: Dinosaur Hunter HD was developed, though it ran poorly and was not well received. After a still unfulfilled promise of porting the original game to Steam, Tatem Games has not done much with the franchise and it is generally considered abandonware now.
Fig. 4: This “Diracodon” from the Carnivores+ mod here is a direct 3D-restoration of A. Tobin’s original Stegosaurus from 1884.
Surprisingly however, this is where things really get interesting. Ever since the second game a fairly sized modding-community has built itself around the series, which is still around and more active today than ever thanks to frustration over Tatem Games’ inability to do anything good with the series. Various mods exist which add new weapons, maps, and creatures. Some are rather humorous or fantastical, adding modern animals, dragons or the infamous Spinofarus, some others re-texture the animals to resemble their Jurassic Park counterparts or other media. Some have even managed to recode the game so animals move in packs. Most interesting however are the mods which try to be proper expansions on the world and lore created in the original trilogy. The most notable of these were made by a modder named Poharex, with mods such as Carnivores Triassic and Mandibles. These are content- and quality-wise the equivalent of proper, official sequels and explore the areas of the alien planet whose fauna corresponds to the Triassic and Carboniferous respectively. The most fascinating things about these lore-complimenting mods is that they also try to replicate the design-philosophy of the original game, meaning they try to make the new animals they add look like outdated paleoart, especially that of Burian. Most outstanding in that regard have got to be Carnivores +, Carnivores 2+ and Far North, which faithfully recreate Burian’s Tylosaurus, Hyaenodon, Iguanodon, Rhamphorhynchus, Ichthyornis and Nothosaurus, among other animals which were not present in the original games. The most hilarious inclusion is however probably an ambient dinosaur which is directly based on A. Tobin’s 1884 bipedal reconstruction of Stegosaurus. Some other mods also add creatures which were not known during Burian’s time or were never depicted by him, such as Yutyrannus or Amargasaurus, but design them as if they had been. Taking all this together, this makes the Carnivores modding community probably one of the most unique experiments in making retro-style paleoart. What they are doing is perhaps one of the greatest homages to outdated paleoart, as it goes way beyond simply drawing something in an old style. Designing and texturing 3D-models, animating them, giving them AI and placing them in the proper environments is the act of making something feel as alive and plausible as possible (at least with the given technology), something the old art tried to convey but was restricted by the medium. This is further complimented by the fact that these are mods for a hunting simulator, a type of game where you do not fight generic enemies but interact with creatures as if they were living animals. Unfortunately, regardless of how dedicated and passionate the community is, due to how niche the games are barely anyone outside of retro-gaming circles talks about these interesting projects. What I wanted to do with this post is simply call attention to this to people who maybe are not that interested in videogames. Most of the information here I gathered from the YouTube channel Saurian Target. Even if you are not a fan of the Carnivores franchise, I highly recommend you to check out his channel. At least to me, there are few things as genuinely entertaining as people talking about something they are very passionate about, even if it is something I am not knowledgeable in. As a general introduction you should watch his reviews of the main games.
Fig. 5: The modder FluffyYutyrannus even brought Charles Knight’s original Tyrannosaurus into the game. Guess what this species of alien dinosaur is called. That’s right, Manospondylus.
As for the future of the Carnivores franchise? From the official side, some lore-friendly changes to the dinosaur-designs were recently made in the mobile ports. Nonetheless, it currently does not look like the promised Steam port will come out anytime soon and according to some sources only a single person at Tatem Games is overseeing the franchise. From the fan side, a fully fleshed out fan-game called Carnivores Corporation is currently being worked on by the graphic designer Pivotnaza. While he has not given the promise of ever finishing the game, progress seems to be doing fine, the game looks very promising and like a proper continuation of the old games, so I wish him success with the project.

Related Posts:
Literary Sources:
  • Burian, Zdeněk/Spinar, Zdeněk: Life Before Man, Prague 1972 (Revised Edition from 1995).
  • Volpe, Rosemary: The Age of Reptiles. The Art and Science of Rudolph Zallinger’s Great Dinosaur Mural at Yale, New Haven 2007.
Mod Pages:
Online Sources/Further Reading:
Image Sources:

Monday, 6 July 2020

The Alien Prehistoric World Trope: Part 6 - Just Plain Barlowe


For the previous part please go here.
Fig. 1: Paleoart-memes may even transcend interstellar space it seems.
Throughout most of this series I have talked about the Alien Prehistoric World trope in mostly negative terms. It is a trope not accurate to science and lends itself very well to monsterising extinct animals to the point where they do not seem like animals anymore. In this series’ penultimate post, however, we will look at an artist whose work is arguably this trope at its best. Wayne Barlowe was born in 1958 to natural artists Sy and Dorothea Barlowe, meaning he already grew up with great artistic skills and knowledge. His early career consisted of illustrating the covers of various sci-fi and horror novels, including Star Wars books, as well as commissions. In 1979 he published his first book Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials in which he drew and documented various alien species from the books he has read and illustrated, but in the same way an ornithologist or anthropologist would with their subjects. What he is perhaps most famous for today is his book Expedition from 1990 in which he pretends to be a wildlife artist illustrating the strange alien life of the fictional planet Darwin IV. Most people reading this blog are probably familiar with the Discovery Channel documentary Alien Planet which was based on Expedition. I certainly am, as I rewatched the DVD over and over again as a young child. Together with The Future is Wild it is what originally got me into speculative evolution and astrobiology (and to this day it is the only documentary I am aware of that features both Jack Horner, Stephen Hawking and George Lucas). Since Expedition Barlowe has been working on a lot of other books and art-pieces and has most prominently worked as a creature designer for various movies and even videogames, including Avatar and Pacific Rim.
Fig. 2: Most classic depictions of Oviraptor are actually based on its better known relative Citipati. Note that now that we know these dinosaurs to have had feathers, they would have just looked like sligthly unusual parrots.
What many people may perhaps not know is that Barlowe also produced a fair bit of paleoart back in the day. Beginning in 1993 he began producing art-pieces for museum exhibits and also worked together with famous ceratopsian-researcher Peter Dodson on two books: An Alphabet of Dinosaurs and The Horned Dinosaurs (the latter I have yet to add to my collection). On his own account, Barlowe was originally reluctant to produce paleoart, not because he did not like dinosaurs, but because he feared he would just copy his idol Zdeněk Burian in the process (Barlowe 1995, p. 40). When he started doing it however, he saw that their styles were quite different, giving him enough confidence to continue. To this day his dinosaurs have got to be some of the most unique ones in the genre. We already looked a bit at his rendition of Oviraptor all the way back in part 1, but it is worth to take a closer look. What immediately jumps to mind is the intense coloration of the piece. The sky has an otherworldly coloration similar to Fantasia and the way our moon in the background almost looks like another planet is reminiscent of Burian’s painting of Iguanodon (see part 4). The dinosaur itself is, in typical 90s fashion, reconstructed in a Gregory S. Paul-style with little soft-tissue, giving especially the head a very skeletal look. That the piece ends up looking like an extraterrestrial on its home-planet seems to have been very much intentioned by Barlowe as he writes:

When I brought my finish on this piece my editor loved it and exclaimed that it was as much an alien as it was a dinosaur. Considering my predilections, I found that comment enjoyable and appropriate. After all, dinosaurs, creatures from another world and time, are as strange and wonderful as any alien imaginable.” (Barlowe 1995a, p. 33)

And here we see a core-idea of not just Barlowe’s paleoart, but arguably his whole artistic endeavour: He is an illustrator and explorer of everything which is alien and extraterrestrial, be it literal or figurative. Prehistory for him is just another distant alien planet to explore. Some of his written thoughts reflect this further, such as when he imagines being in the Mesozoic that the intensity of the young sun must have been far stronger than today, as the world was still young (Barlowe 1995, p. 36). For the record: the actual opposite is the case, as the sun’s output has been growing in intensity ever since its creation (though on a billion-year times-scale so it would have been pretty much the same for us as it was during the Mesozoic). Thoughts like these about the prehistoric world seem to have been very much of the time, as we can find similar statements in works such as Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (see part 1).
Fig. 3. Barlowe’s use of lighting is certainly striking. We also meet our old friend background-volcano again.
Wayne Barlowe’s paleoart is not a departure of his sci-fi art, but an extension of it. It lives and breathes the APW-trope to its fullest. Throughout An Alphabet of Dinosaurs we see other familiar sub-tropes such as rampant volcanism, alien skies and violence. It is debatable however how much of that was due to Barlowe’s views of the dinosaurs’ world or due to this being a book aimed at children. Barlowe does note that he chose certain colour-gradients so that the images would not look too boring to a younger audience (Barlowe 1995a, p. 33). Regardless of the reasons, the art still presents a Mesozoic in which the verz lighting and atmosphere were different from today. While we are on the topic of alien prehistoric atmospheres, ever wondered where the idea came from that the air during dinosaur times was not only richer in oxygen but also thicker than today? In part 1 I alluded to the possibility that the former one is perhaps explained through people simply confusing the Carboniferous with the Mesozoic, but I was hard-pressed to explain where the latter came from. Where did people get the idea that the air was thicker in the Mesozoic? I could find no actual scientific study from the twentieth century that ever claimed this. While researching for this series however, I believe to have found the original perpetrator: Richard Owen himself, the man who gave the dinosaurs their name in 1842. Owen was a staunch critic of Darwin and what we would today call a creationist. His view of Earth’s history and the fossil record was that god created sets of animals suited to the Earth’s conditions and once those conditions changed, he retired them through extinction and replaced them with a new set. He thought that birds were an obvious replacement for pterosaurs, but because he was adamant that pterosaurs were cold-blooded reptiles incapable of powered flight he reasoned that they were created to suit an Earth whose atmosphere was a lot thicker than today, making it easier for them to float instead of flap (Desmond 1975, p. 17). Surprisingly similar claims have actually been made as recently as 2004 (Templin & Chatterjee 2004, p. 60), but as has been detailed a couple of times on this blog, such ideas are based on a complete misunderstanding of pterosaur biology and are seen as outdated today. What is curious about Owen’s view of the Mesozoic is that he thought its oxygen content was lower than today and that god put the dinosaurs in charge back then instead of the mammals because their lowly reptilian physiology would cope better under such conditions. This idea is nowadays having somewhat of a comeback (see part 1).
Fig. 4: In the Alien Planet documentary, the lifestyle of the Pronghead (left) is explicitly compared to that of pack-hunting dromaeosaurs such as Velociraptor (right). In the actual book it appears only briefly, but even here the similarities are fascinating to observe. On a different note, one has to wonder if the design of the quilled raptors in Jurassic Park III (2001) was inspired by Barlowe’s rendition of the animal (1993).
To get back from this side-track, Barlowe’s dinosaurs become more fascinating when we compare them with some of his genuine aliens. Even though Expedition was made before his paleoartistic ventures, one can see very dinosaurian elements in his design-philosophy for the inhabitants of Darwin IV. One of the most well-known creatures, the Arrowtongue, has obvious similarities to a large theropod dinosaur like Tyrannosaurus. It is a large biped with a long tail, large head and no arms. To quote Barlowe himself:

I really wanted this creature to be big and threatening, my version of what might have evolved along T-rex lines on another planet. The notion that what we were witnessing on Darwin IV was the evolutionary equivalent to the late Cretaceous era on our own planet was never far from my mind.” (Source)

Its smaller relative, the Rayback, has large dorsal spines growing out of its back, reminiscent of Spinosaurus. The sketch where it chases after a small flying alien has a notable similarity to an art-piece by Gregory S. Paul in which a Compsognathus chases an Archaeopteryx (See Fig.1). The motif itself has its origins in a Charles R. Knight painting of Ornitholestes. Further similarities are shared by the Pronghead overlooking its hunting-grounds and Barlowe’s Velociraptor doing the same. Giant aliens such as the Groveback and the Seastrider are drawn at similar angles to Barlowe’s later Ultrasauros to create an imposing feeling. Here another comment by him becomes enlightening:

Gigantism is a big feature in EXPEDITION and, come to think of it, in all of my imaginative artwork. Obvious scale differences are a fun way for the public to easily put themselves in a painting and I’m sure that it’s that very element that so many find appealing about dinosaurs.” (Source)

What unites all aliens on Darwin IV is that they lack fur or feathers and instead have a rough, naked, elephantine skin that looks like it is uncomfortable to touch. Sometimes details of their skeleton are visible through their skin, making them essentially shrink-wrapped. This is very similar to the skin and soft-tissue that dinosaurs were portrayed with up until the 90s, especially John Sibbick’s early paleoart comes to mind (though notably Barlowe later drew most dinosaurs accurately with scales instead of elephant-skin).
Fig. 5: Barlowe’s Sea-Strider and Ultrasauros. Note how small fliers are used to convey size. Ultrasauros is nowadays considered a dubious genus synonymous with Supersaurus, but it was nearly omnipresent in the 90s.
What we can gather from all of this is that Barlowe intentioned Darwin IV to be a literal alien prehistoric world and many of the creatures on it are essentially stand-ins of dinosaurs as imagined in the twentieth century. It is arguably what would happen if you asked an abstract artist like Pablo Picasso to draw a Cretaceous landscape. In this light many other aspects of the planet suddenly make more sense. Darwin IV is for example described as having a very dense atmosphere and high oxygen content and together with the low gravity this allows gigantic flying animals to exist, such as the Skewer. Again, we have heard remarkably similar things from early pterosaur-science. The landscape of Darwin IV is hot and arid, but also mountainous and geologically active, all things we have seen from earlier paleoart. Many of the aliens are also described as violent and somewhat dull. Been there, done that. If most of Darwin IV’s aliens are read as parallel-world-dinosaurs, then the Eosapiens, an alien explicitly described as similar to an early human in intelligence, becomes even more interesting. It means we have ersatz-dinosaurs living together with ersatz-cavemen. With that we even fulfil the Flintstones-trope of all prehistoric creatures living together at the same time in the same world. Finally, the planet is separate from us, just not in time but in space. Darwin IV crosses off nearly all sub-tropes of the Alien Prehistoric World Trope we discussed back in part 1, without actually being a piece of paleoart. However, it was very much inspired by the artist’s/author’s view of dinosaurs at the time. This fact shows how deranged the Alien Prehistoric World Trope had become by the late 80s/early 90s, as an artist was able to create a world that was so completely otherworldly and bizarre by just adjusting paleoart-conventions common at the time. In this sense Expedition is the absolute peak of the Alien Prehistoric World Trope, even if it does not feature any dinosaurs. It is the magnum opus to all our wrong ideas about what prehistory was like, but unlike any of the previously discussed works this is the one for which I have only praise, as it is the most beautiful and believable thing to come out of this entire ordeal.
Fig. 6: Jurassic Siesta. The coloration here is interesting, as it resembles the bioluminescent spots on the aliens of Darwin IV. Funnily enough, there was a recent paper by Darren Naish speculating that dinosaurs may have had forms of photoluminescence, similar to birds and reptiles today.
On a last note, despite of how much Barlowe has embodied the APW Trope, in his art we can also find seeds of the trend’s downfall. He was especially not keen on monsterising his dinosaurs and tried painting them in poses usual for traditional wildlife art. Have you wondered yourself why the Oviraptor from above is about to eat a crab? Well, as Barlowe tells, he did not agree with the then still current view that Oviraptor was an egg thief (the discovery that the original skeleton was just a mother sitting on her nest was not yet made), as the animal looked too lithe and agile for a diet just based around that. Looking at the skull he imagined what else it could have been suitable for and speculated that it equally could have eaten crustaceans and shellfish. In the process he subverted a quite common trope in paleoart through a very well-educated guess. To some readers this may ring a bell. More remarkable is his painting of two Ceratosaurus. Instead of showing them in mortal combat with their prey, they are already lying besides a slain sauropod carcass, quietly digesting in the mild afternoon sun. In light of what happened after the 90s, his commentary on the piece seems prophetic:

I am uncomfortable designing paintings around high action and I’ve noticed that this was rarely done in the last century. It’s this sensibility, this reserved quality, that I believe lends old animal paintings their grace and power. Lions, elk, tigers and the like are usually in situations of quiescence, drinking, reclining or stalking. No comic-book action or photographically frozen moments. At least not in those pieces I feel work the best. Dinosaurs beg to be shown in an exaggerated way, and it’s just that obviousness that I wanted to avoid.” (Barlowe 1995a, p. 32)

Given these rather modern views it is a bit unfortunate that Barlowe has not produced much paleoart past the 90s. Imagine what he would be able to do with all the modern discoveries, such as feathered dinosaurs. Or the creatures of the Burgess Shale…
Fig. 7: Wayne Barlowe’s projects currently focus on books depicting his visions of hell. However, if you look at the lower left, you can see the Cambrian ur-chordate Pikaia in this parade through the hell-city Dis. Prehistoric life still seems to be at large in Barlowe’s mind. Why is Pikaia in hell you ask? Well, for tax-fraud of course.

With this in mind, we finish this part and look forward to the next and final post in this series when things get fuzzy. Thanks a lot for reading and see you until then.

Related Posts: 
Literary Sources: 
  • Barlowe, Wayne: Expedition. Being an account in word and artwork of the 2358 A.D. voyage to Darwin IV, New York 1990.
  • Barlowe, Wayne: The Alien Life of Wayne Barlowe, Beverly Hills 1995a.
  • Barlowe, Wayne: Barlowe’s Inferno, Beverly Hills 1995b.
  • Chatterjee, Sankar/Templin, R.J.: Posture, Locomotion and Paleoecology of Pterosaurs, Boulder 2004.
  • Desmond, Adrian: The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs. A revolution in Paleontology, London 1975.
  • Dodson, Peter/Barlowe, Wayne: An Alphabet of Dinosaurs, New York 1995.
  • Paul, Gregory Scott: Predatory Dinosaurs of the World. A Complete Illustrated Guide, New York 1988.
Online Sources/Further Reading:
Image Sources:
  • Fig. 1, top: Barlowe 1990, p. 26-27.
  • Fig. 1, bottom: Paul 1988, p. 66.
  • Fig. 2: Dodson 1995, O.
  • Fig. 3: Dodson 1995, I.
  • Fig. 4, left: Barlowe 1990, p. 18.
  • Fig. 4, right: Barlowe 1995a, p. 40.
  • Fig. 5, left: Barlowe 1990, p. 96.
  • Fig. 5, right: Dodson 1995a, U.
  • Fig. 6: Barlowe 1995a, p. 32.
  • Fig. 7: Barlowe 1995b, p. 25.