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Evolution is a series of small victories. So is Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey. Dumping you into a strange and unfeeling world, it forces you to explore, to experiment, to adapt, to survive by any means necessary. When day-to-day life is this hard-fought, even the small victories feel revelatory. First, learning how to snap off a dead tree branch. Then discovering you can move the tree branch from your right hand to your left. Stripping the smaller twigs off so you’re left with a smooth wooden rod. Finding a rock, and using it to sharpen the stick.
And finally, using that stick to kill the tiger that’s hounded you and your fellow apes for the last three million years.
Origin of species
Every time Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey resurfaced, I feel like people asked the same question: “What the hell is it?” And in retrospect that seems rather unfair, as it’s pretty much exactly what it appeared to be. The problem is it’s just so conceptually ambitious, you wouldn’t possibly believe the pitch.
The pitch being “It’s a loose simulation of human evolution,” one that stretches across millions of years and tens of thousands of generations. You start Ancestors as an ape, or rather a clan of apes, and slowly march through time on your way towards homo sapiens, learning about your environment, about potential predators (and prey), about which food and water sources are safe, about rudimentary tools.
And conveying your knowledge gains to subsequent generations, if you’re lucky. Making excursions with a child on your back earns “Neuronal Energy,” quite literally experience points, which you spend on improving your ape clan. Run around for a while and you may discover how to walk on two feet. Use your nose to search for food, and it will get more sensitive. Dodge enough predators, and your reaction times improve. Proceeding to the next generation allows you to lock in a certain number of these traits, “evolving” your apes so you start from a better baseline the next time around.
Then after a few generations you can take larger leaps forward in time. Completing certain actions—discovering landmarks, new tools, food sources, and so on—unlocks evolutionary “Feats,” which roll the clock forward thousands of years at a go. My first time, I’d banked enough feats to leap forward two million years at once, rejoining the distant offspring of my original clan, now a bit less ape-like and a bit more recognizably human.
I’ll admit: More than 20 hours in, I haven’t reached the end. I’m now about five-million years in the past, with no idea how far this timeline goes. Ancestors is a slow, methodical experience—or at least it has been for me. Everything takes time. Sharpening a stick is a 30-second process. You constantly need to forage for food and seek out water sources, and sleep on a semi-regular basis.
You will almost certainly mess up, as well. Ancestors doesn’t teach you much of anything, outside a few movement controls at the beginning. Half my clan died in the first hour, most from poorly aimed treetop jumps that resulted in crashing to the ground and snapping limbs. This (surprisingly) isn’t an instant death sentence, but…
Well, I’m loathe to spoil what happens and why, because therein lies the appeal of Ancestors. Evolution is a process of learning—a series of small victories as I said up top. And it turns out video games are a perfect medium for simulating this process in microcosm. The stakes are comparatively low-risk, but games are still about learning the rules of a given world, adapting to them, and eventually exploiting them.
Every item you discover in Ancestors opens up new possibilities, encourages further experimentation. What can you do with aloe? What effect will eating these mushrooms have, and can you change or mitigate those effects in some way? Are different types of rocks useful for different purposes?
At times the possibilities seem limitless. They’re not, of course. Aspects of Ancestors could be deeper, and I honestly hope Patrice Desilets and the rest of the team at Panache get the chance to keep building on what’s here. I’d love to revisit in six months to find a host of new items and interactions populating the world.
It’s such a fascinating sandbox though. Ancestors leads to these amazing a-ha moments, stories that sound so delightfully simple in the telling but feel dizzying and dramatic in the moment. It took me upwards of two hours to figure out how to properly open a coconut. When I did, the catharsis I felt was on par with completing a challenging boss fight—which sounds absolutely ridiculous I know, and yet.
I’ll be surprised if Ancestors has any sort of mass appeal, if we’re honest. Like the cult classic Far Cry 2, Ancestors is slow and janky, and also maddening in the not-so-rare moments when the experience breaks and you’re the one left paying the price. Clan members you’re not actively controlling are dumb as rocks, for instance, which has led to many a quick demise in situations that a player-controlled ape would’ve easily avoided. And that’s an element the designers chose to implement.
There are also myriad technical problems, contextual controls that don’t trigger reliably, and apes that get permanently stuck in waterfalls or clip through rocks and instantly die. Oh, and plenty of unskippable cutscenes as well, which is an odd and somewhat frustrating choice.
Ancestors takes patience, in more ways than one.
That said, I’ve found it so damn rewarding. Those first fraught steps into a dangerous world seem so distant now. I’ve built a rudimentary home, deep at the bottom of a gully where the tigers can’t get us. I’ve given names to the plants, learned which ones to eat and which to avoid. I’ve stood on top of cliffs and gazed out over an alien landscape and felt only curiosity, not fear. I have, in essence, evolved alongside my apes to understand Ancestors.
And I’m still curious how much is left. I feel like I’ve discovered most of the major systems and seen the vast majority of the world—but I’ve still only discovered 50% of the potential feats. How far does this experience go? Does it lead right up to the beginnings of homo sapiens, to early hallmarks of civilization like agriculture and pottery?
I don’t think so, but I also wouldn’t be surprised.
This industry and medium are notoriously risk-averse, especially nowadays in the era of ballooning budgets and longer development cycles. That Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey got greenlit, funded, and released is a minor miracle. Amazingly ambitious and incredibly niche, it is arthouse in the guise of mainstream mass-appeal.
I don’t know how it happened, but I wish it were more common. Ancestors isn’t the best game I’ve played in 2019, but it’s one of the few that feels new and novel and boundary-pushing—and thus deserving of the time I’ve sunk into it, and then some. Not every game needs to break the rules, but if video games are to evolve? You need games like Ancestors to show we’ve nowhere near run out of ideas still. It’s only complacency that makes it seem so, sometimes.