Home / Technology / How Patrice Désilets survived the odyssey of making Ancestors

How Patrice Désilets survived the odyssey of making Ancestors

You may forgive Patrice Désilets for getting emotional last week during the Opening Night Live event at Gamescom 2019, when the trailer showed for his game, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey.

That’s because he’s been on his own personal odyssey to make the game for the past five years. Désilets was famous as the creative director of Assassin’s Creed, Assassin’s Creed II, and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.

But he left in 2010 in search of creative independence. He started a studio with THQ in 2011, but was adrift again when THQ went bankrupt. Ubisoft bought the remnants in an auction but could not come to terms with Désilets, who was terminated. In 2014, Désilets started his own studio, Panache Digital Games, and his team of 30 or so people worked on Ancestors — a game about surviving human evolution — in Montreal for five years.

And on August 27, Take-Two Interactive’s Private Division label will publish Ancestors on Microsoft Windows. It debuts on the the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in December. Désilets showed me the game at Gamescom in Cologne, Germany, and I interviewed him as he played the demo.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

GamesBeat: Can you give me some context and background around the game? Where did this come from?

Patrice Desilets: This is the first game from Panache Digital Games. We founded the company four years ago, something like that. We started out thinking about what kind of game we wanted to do, and we knew that for a third-person game, the most important thing you need to build is a character that can interact with a 3D world. It’s all about the character and how they behave.

People told me, “Pat, you’re the historical guy. You need to set your game in a historical period.” We thought about what we could do with that, and one night I had the flash, to set the game in a prehistoric time. That way we could focus entirely on the character and the environment, because that’s all you have to survive in that setting. We wouldn’t have to build an entire civilization with crowds of people and whatnot. I thought that would be easier to do.

And then, of course, I realized I was being naive. Building an organic world isn’t easier than building a civilized one. But it’s true that we could focus on the main character and what he does in the game world. Studying the subject matter around prehistoric times, instead of doing the cliched 10,000 B.C. period of time, we decided to go back to the very beginning of it all and do a game about coming down from the trees and walking on two legs for the first time. That was the idea.

After we did all the research and everything — I was going through the timeline of paleoanthropology, and it had gotten a bit boring. We took all our knowledge and put it into the game world. From there it’s up to the player.

GamesBeat: Does this indicate what branches are available?

Desilets: No, this is my clan. What you play isn’t just one character. It’s not about the hero’s journey. It’s about a lineage that needs to survive through time. Each dot is a different individual. Those are the elders. Those two orange ones are the babies. There are two other adults, as well as the one I’m controlling.

This here is my dopamine level. The eye here is my emotional state. This is my vitality system. Each time I take an action, it will eventually bring that down. It’s a survival game, so to get it back up you need to drink, eat, and sleep. You can see here that I have a clan member being attacked, so what I’ll do, I’ll find myself a little stick — there, I helped one of my clan members. He’s probably bleeding, and he might bleed to death if I don’t do something. See, the elder female is bleeding. I’ll switch to her and try to find something to stop the bleeding.

I can switch between different senses. Right now I’m focused on the sense of hearing. Now I’ll switch to the sense of smell. This here is something that I know can help with bleeding. That’s something you’ll need to discover as a player. Now I have it in my right hand. Your hands are your inventory. I’ll switch to my left and transform the object. Now I have something to stop the bleeding. You can see that eventually I’m okay.

Now it’s getting on to nighttime. I have to be careful. A lot of predators come out at night. I’ll try to find a place to stay for the night. This isn’t a demo, like I said. This is just my playing.

GamesBeat: If going into prehistory was the idea, how did you come from there to these ideas about evolution and improving yourself?

Desilets: I felt like character progression in a game and human evolution are the same. It’s just the amount of time that’s different. In most games you start as a character who can’t do much, and eventually at the end you’re a hero with everything. I can settle down here for the night. That’s my settlement.

GamesBeat: How long has it taken you to get to that point with the large clan?

Desilets: You start with eight clan members at the beginning of the game. All the dots that have started to appear here are things that I’ve done since the beginning of the game. The big dot here is the pool of neuron energy that I collect by doing stuff. Depending on the amount of children I have, I’ll build that faster. I’ll use a bit of neuron energy here, and that will unlock — aha, it will let me walk on two legs by myself.

Some of these neurons are ready to be activated. Others aren’t available yet. It tells you that this will eventually be available to you.

GamesBeat: Did you already have this much knowledge of evolution, or did you have to pick it up to make the game?

Desilets: No, we did some research. [laughs] I’d say the first two years were about learning, about the history of human evolution and the biology behind it. Then it was all about putting it in the game and then erasing it for you to discover. At first you’ll probably be thinking, “Where is everything? What is it?” But that’s the beauty of it.

The discovery in Ancestors is about how we evolve. I want the player to be in the shoes of the hominids who didn’t know any of this. Instead of going through the motions of getting a mission that says to evolve this, this, and that, it really depends on you. Each time you play a game, even though the skill tree is already designed, it’s a bit different depending on how you play.

GamesBeat: So you’re a complete failure in this game if you don’t evolve?

Desilets: Yes and no? You can just have fun with the basics. Whoa, I’m being attacked while I’m sleeping. I built a settlement in the middle of nowhere. I’m in the predators’ territory right now. That’s not good. But yes, at first we were building a more classic game about having missions and doing them in order. It would have maybe been a fun game, but at the same time, it’s a bit boring. What’s the point if we tell you what to do? These creatures didn’t know what to do.

I prefer to immerse you in the place of those characters, instead of just making another video game. You can get rid of the HUD and it all still works. The behavior of the character will tell you everything that you need to know.

GamesBeat: Is there a thread that connects this back to Assassin’s Creed?

Desilets: The historical aspect of it all, for sure, and the way in which almost everything you see, you can at least roughly interact with it.

GamesBeat: But there’s no Abstergo company here.

Desilets: [laughs] No, not this time around. But it’s funny. I’ve said this in other interviews. To enjoy the game, you have to go into your own memory, your own DNA. We have that in us. Biologically we’re built to survive. Eventually you go into different biomes. It’s not only in the jungle. Once you’re on the savanna, with your clan on two legs and carrying sticks, you can remember that. That’s a bit of a link to Assassin’s Creed. We have all that in our DNA. We understand how that works.

You have to use your instincts to make it through the game. If you use your gamer instincts, it’ll be tougher than if you think about your own human instincts. There, I have a clan member being attacked again. I have to take care of that, or they’ll die. Aha, there’s a crocodile attacking my buddy. Now he’ll go after me. There you go, infighting. Sometimes the animals will attack each other, and so they’ll leave you alone. At the same time we’ve discovered this giant warthog. That’ll be another evolution mission down the line.

GamesBeat: Are you pausing the game? Is this in real time?

Desilets: We pause a little bit for things like the infighting. There, I scared him, but I didn’t hurt him. I’ve found my buddy here. I think he’s being attacked by a snake, because I know there are snakes in this area. It’s snake territory.

The core mechanic is based on hold and release. You have to hold down and then release at the right moment. There’s a tension going on. It’s not just about tapping buttons. You could play it that way, but then it would be tougher.

GamesBeat: Where else does skill come into it?

Desilets: It’s all in the traversal. You have air control. Eventually you’ll be able to go where you want. It’s very Prince of Persia-like.

GamesBeat: If you mess up when you’re jumping, can you hurt yourself?

Desilets: Oh, yeah, big time. Now I’m calling all my friends. Let’s find another place to spend the night. The settlement I brought you to the first time wasn’t a very good one. You can lock on to a spot so you’ll always see it.

Going into the water can help you learn how to walk on two legs, but it consumes a lot of energy at first. You can see in the corner, I’m receiving neuron energy for doing this. I just ate some mushrooms. I’m not totally omnivorous yet, which is why the white effect there is going on.

I showed the game to one of my friends, a game designer, and he said, “At first, I thought there was nothing here. Then I realized that everything was in front of me.” All the ingredients to win the game are there.

GamesBeat: With four and a half years behind you, what else was challenging in that time?

Desilets: As you can see, it’s hard to render all of this at 60 frames per second on the PC. There was a big technological aspect, and as I said before, we only have 35 people. I’m used to a very big team, and that’s definitely not the case here. At the same time, I like working with not so big a team. It’s more like the Prince of Persia days, when there were only 40 of us.

GamesBeat: Were you able to work out the scope in a way that made it more manageable?

Desilets: Yes and no? It’s a pretty big game when it comes to scope, but it doesn’t have all the gadgets you see in a triple-A game. You won’t have the encyclopedia or the photo mode, things like that. But the rest is a pretty big adventure. It’s not a little game. The game map is big. There are a lot of hours to play.

Now I’m losing all my dopamine. That means I’m getting scared, and eventually I can fall into hysteria. Now I really need to focus to get out of this situation.

GamesBeat: Do you eventually want to build out an evolutionary tree and reach some higher form?

Desilets: You evolve through time. There are about 8 million years of evolution. Eventually you’ll change species. At the end you’ll be an australopithecus. Each species comes with its own special abilities. By the end you’ll walk on two legs. You’ll be less like an ape.

GamesBeat: You looked emotional last night when you saw this on the big screen.

Desilets: A little bit. There’s been this gap of 10 years. I’ve designed games, but you haven’t played them. There’s some emotion to coming back and having these discussions. This Tuesday we’ll have some players, and in December we’ll have the console versions. August 27, PC, Epic Games Store. We’ll be on Steam next year. I’m happy to be back, and I hope you’ll have fun with my evolution game.

Disclosure: The organizers of Devcom paid my way to Cologne. Our coverage remains objective.

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