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The fact that the dinosaurs you hunt in the game are actually aliens that somehow convergently evolved to look like outdated dinosaur-depictions is of course ludicrous.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:

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