Patrice Désilets is no stranger to pitching video games. During his illustrious career at Ubisoft he was a key creative force behind Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and multiple Assassin's Creed titles. Standing in front of a room of people and delivering his vision for a game is, you'd think, second nature at this point. And yet, in a small hotel in Paris, he's breathlessly rattling through his journey post-Ubisoft, displaying the kind of nervous energy more commonly seen with indie developers revealing their first ever game.
It makes sense, however, when he comes to a grinding halt and very deliberately says, "This is an indie game," pausing to let that sink in. His new game, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, has been shrouded in mystery since it was first revealed, and he's setting expectations. He may be the guy that helped make Assassin's Creed, but Ancestors is the start of a new journey. It's a game where the player begins as a simple ape that must forage and fight for survival; venture into the unknown in search of knowledge and experience; develop the skills necessary to place it and its tribe in a position of safety; and evolve so that it can stand shoulder to shoulder with the other species inhabiting the jungle. They say you should write what you know, and it's hard not to draw parallels to the very real challenges Désilets and his newly established studio are facing, overwrought though the comparison may be.
It becomes apparent why setting expectations is important to him the moment I get my hands on Ancestors. It's an ambitious idea that is incredibly interesting but is realized with mechanics that I found myself unexpectedly tangled up in. In that respect, it has a distinctly indie feel to it.
At its heart, Ancestors is a survival game, but one that ties almost everything you do to the development of your ape avatar. It wants to inspire curiosity and experimentation in a natural way, and to that end is devoid of any sort of quest system. The exception is the opening, where I was tasked with finding an adorable young ape that was stranded in the wild and bringing it back to my shrewdness (fun fact: A group of apes is called a shrewdness, as I learned while writing this). I did this by using my natural senses, hitting a button to focus my hearing and then honing in on soundwaves coming from a distant tree.
The act of traveling there is undoubtedly the most recognizable representation of Désilets' design history, with a kind of simple traversal system built around holding and releasing a button to grab onto trees, branches, and thickets. Momentum can be used to swing from position to position around the jungle environment, and while it's not quite as slick as something Altair or Ezio would pull off, there was a kinetic quality to the movement that felt satisfying. With the infant ape returned, I was then free to head back into the jungle and do as I please.
Although the game doesn't make a big deal of it, there's a line that it throws up during the intro that serves as the drive behind the gameplay. It challenges you to defy science and evolve faster than the rate history states apes transformed at. Doing this involves indulging that curiosity and exposing your ape to the unfamiliar as much as possible. This, in turn, leads to it learning and growing. Items and objects in the environment initially have a black fog around them, indicating they are unfamiliar and should be examined. I picked up tree branches to figure out what they are, explored surroundings to develop a familiarity with the world around me, and leapt around to advance motor skills.
In doing so, I was rewarded with Neuronal Energy. When resting at Sleep Spots I was able to access the ape's mind and build neural pathways that improved my capabilities and unlocked new ones. After picking up enough things, my ape realized it could hold things in two hands, and then switch between them. With ample use of my visual and aural instincts, which are represented in-game by a kind of special overlay that highlight points and objects of interest, the range at which I could see and hear things could be extended.
Seeking out the unknown, learning, and evolving as a species is the core of Ancestors' gameplay loop, but there are additional considerations. Perhaps the most important is growing in number. Out in the wild there are other apes that can be found and added to your shrewdness. With more apes, the opportunity to procreate arises, which is also a key part of advancing ape-kind. You can approach other apes and groom them to build a relationship, and once it's intimate enough, you're able to mate and have children--provided you grab a few comfy leaves and put together a makeshift bed to get it on in.
"Survive the elements, teach your family, and build a home," the game says. However, for the two hours I played, simply surviving was such a challenge that I was barely able to even think about teaching or building. Ancestors holds out on a lot of information, so I found myself frantically trying to figure things out before my ape died and I was given control of another one to, effectively, start over. At one point something in the jungle cut me, I'm not sure if it was a narrow miss with a bird of prey that got the jump on me as I was scoping out the jungle from atop a tree, or if it was the needles of a bush I was trying to investigate, but either way I could see blood leaking out of me. The clock was ticking and the game offered no indication of what to do to stop the bleeding beyond finding something with clotting properties. My first thought was to grab a leaf, use my new ability to run my hand along it and strip off the leaves, and then try to apply it to myself. However, after I did this, there was no indication that I had some new material I could use. Ancestors doesn't have an inventory system and my hands were empty, so I clearly had the wrong idea. Except, I had the right idea. The leaf residue was in my hand, but that just wasn’t made clear to me. Had I known that, I would have sought out a rock to break it down and apply the clotting material to my wound.
Ancestors holds out on a lot of information, so I found myself frantically trying to figure things out before my ape died and I was given control of another one to, effectively, start over
This is representative of the overall obtuse nature of Ancestors and, according to its developers, this is by design. Ancestors is a game about trial and error, experimenting to find out what works. After all, that's what the apes are doing, so why should it be any different for you? There are solutions to the questions you want to be answered, and once you come upon them the knowledge fundamentally changes how you perceive the world around you, the tools available to you, and your chances of surviving. If the developers were to lay out all the answers, there would be no challenge. And without the satisfaction of figuring out how to solve a problem, it'd become a hollow experience.
Their reasoning makes sense and, on occasion, it worked. At one point I consumed berries to stave off starvation and found myself poisoned. I looked around and, not seeing any obvious plant remedy, I decided to just see if drinking lots of water would help wash it out of my system. Lo and behold, the poison indicator drained quicker as I hydrated myself and I became poison-free. But for every situation where it clicks, there's one where just a little bit of guidance would have been helpful. Having made a spear by stripping branches, I used the action button and my ape stabbed into the ground. Naturally, I thought this would be perfect for fishing, so I walked into a nearby stream to try and gather some food but walked away empty handed. It wasn't until much later, when I found a fishing spot, that I realized that there are specific locations that yield fish.
Ancestor's biggest challenge, to me, is walking the line between creating that sense of trial and error that leads to finding solutions and developing a knowledge base that smooths out survival, and providing enough guidance so that players don't become frustrated and walk away before have that kind of meaningful experience. Although Désilets and his team are aware of this, he was very committed to sticking to his vision, saying the ambiguity is core to the experience.
"That line, and I had multiple discussions with the team and the other game designers, where it was like, 'What is too much and what is not enough?'" he said. "You're right, we're always on the line. I was asked before, 'Could you tell us what's the solution for bleeding?' If I tell you, it's over. It's not like there are 48 different solutions to bleeding. There's one or two, and if I tell you the one there's only one left.
"If you did it, then you know it's difficult, but as soon as you find a solution the game world will change. Because suddenly you see opportunities that you didn't see at first. We did a playtest in November, and there was a guy who came in, and he told me he had an epiphany while playing it. He said, 'At first I thought there was nothing, then I pick up something, I transformed it, and I went holy f**k, there's everything. Everything is already there, and it's neat.'
"Once you understand the rule set, and you know how to get rid of your bleeding, or your broken bones and whatnot, you'll start to go on the other side of the fence, of like okay, now I get it. Then from the second to second struggling, you'll go to the minute to minute, then hour to hour. Then it's a different fun."
As Désilets rightly pointed out, the strict time conditions we played under somewhat alter the experience of Ancestors. I had just two hours with the game and so, naturally, I was trying to get a feel for it at an accelerated pace, delving deep into the jungle as quickly as possible, attempting to battle snakes and escape alligators well before I was probably ready to. Having finished my playthrough, I came away slightly frustrated but also feeling like, under the right circumstances--namely that I had more time--I could take a more considered approach and have the experience Désilets and his team envisioned.
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"There's a part of me says, yes, you may feel frustrated because you feel like it won't let you play the game the way you may want it. I saw all of you just went in the jungle crazy running, and this is where a little bit I'm like, 'Okay, that's your choice, not mine. I didn't say to you go in the jungle and run. You went, and because there is you can have a lot of fun and pleasure not exploring that far.
"But also take your time, don't rush it. This is where I say [your character is] not like the other video game characters out there where it's all about you can do it, you're superior. No, you're that little prey at first. Take your time, slow down, stop. Then our job is to make sure you understand, well, this is the pace of this game.
“But you're totally right, though. It is a fine line, and sometimes we're not on the right side. It's about balancing at the end of the day. But it is a game about that, about you as a gamer, can you go through your own evolution of play? Maybe in a way that will let me survive."
Despite my minor frustrations with it, Ancestors has definitely piqued my interest. That loop of learning and evolving felt compelling, even among the frustration of not knowing what to do and repeatedly dying. It has sparked a curiosity in me, and I do have questions that I want to see answered. While the game's title indicates players will be able to evolve from simple ape to homo sapien, the game actually only goes for eight million years of human history, up to the Australopithecus stage of evolution. However, whether or not I make it that far will depend on the balancing, and Désilets admits that it's something that the team is working on in the lead up to release.