Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is the game I’ve always dreamed about. It has you controlling a lineage of apes and early humans as your evolution and culture advances. And it is just as obtuse as that description makes it sound like, and I am really enjoying it. Developer Panache Digital is releasing it tomorrow for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
I’ve always wanted narratives that step back from characters. Films and novels are great at telling tales about individuals. But I crave a story that follows a more vague concept or set of ideas over hundreds of years (or longer) instead. Of course, I understand that is not something that would work well in most linear forms of media. Sure, Cloud Atlas works as a book, but Hollywood still wants to build the movie around Tom Hanks in prosthetics.
But games have made this concept work before. I’m drawn to Civilization because it is about advancing the human race over millennia. And survival games like Rust touch on this with characters learning all of human knowledge over time. Ancestors combines the zoomed-out timeline of Civ with the hands-on knowledge gathering of a survival game to make something that feels new.
Ancestors has a unique progression structure
In Ancestors, you start as prehuman homonids that know almost nothing about the world around them. It’s your job to begin exploring your environment to learn what plants do what and how to defend against animals. If you do those things in front of a child ape, you will earn neuronal links that enable you to unlock parts of a skill tree.
The idea is that you are evolving your lineage over time, so if one of your apes dies, the next generation could do even better.
And apparently, this knowledge accumulates over time and can lead to you advancing to the new major evolutionary junction toward modern humans. I’m using “apparently” because even 10 hours into the game, I still feel like I’m just barely learning how to play.
I’m definitely making progress and moving along the skill tree. But I also only just learned how to stab a boar with a stick. I didn’t even kill it. The boar just ran off with two branches sticking out of it.
But even just the promise of turning these micro-advancements into huge macro evolutionary leaps is exciting. I have to see how this game changes. Honestly, I’m not sure it even makes sense.
The swinging in Ancestors is really good. It is skill-based and crucial to getting around safely, pic.twitter.com/v0eVspQ5ii
— Grubb (@JeffGrubb) August 26, 2019
One of the key early aspects of Ancestors is swinging in trees. Director Patrice Désilets founded Panache and created Ancestors. But he previously directed Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed II while at Ubisoft. And he brought his 3D-movement expertise to Ancestors. It feels great to swing from branch to branch while a hundred feet above the jungle floor.
But what is going to happen to the swinging when I evolve? Eventually, I should guide my lineage toward modern humans that do not have the strength to swing. Am I just going to leave that part of the game behind?
You can see why I’m not writing a review about Ancestors yet. Huge parts of it are still an enigma. But I can’t wait to see it for myself.
And even if Ancestors is always obtuse and bizarre, I don’t care. I am ready to give this game credit just for trying something so different and something I’ve always wanted to play.