About an hour into playing Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, I set the controller down, stared at the screen, and screamed “What the fuck do you want me to do?” There was no response, and nothing changed. An ape stared at the sky, patiently awaiting my command. There was no objective marker to follow, no mission to complete. If I walked away from the controller, the ape would eventually die, and the game would immediately shift control to another nearby ape. Life would go on, whatever I chose.
Ancestors, the first game from designer Patrice Désilets since the revelatory Assassin’s Creed II in 2009, is frustratingly indifferent, much like the arc of evolution it's attempting to capture. It possesses a mood and an ethos that, depending on the player, is equally likely to delight and infuriate. I experienced so few moments of the former and so many more of the latter. I’ve played and written about thousands of games during my 20-plus years as a journalist, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so interested to see the wider reaction to a piece of work; it will be impossible to play Ancestors and not come away with an opinion on what it’s trying.
The setup, is easy enough to grasp. What would it be like to experience our journey from ape to human minute by minute, day by day, year by year? If you could guide a species down one evolutionary track or another, what would you prioritize? Ancestors opens with nature at its most brutal, as a young ape watches its parent get suddenly and brutally killed by a huge bird, and is immediately forced to reckon with a world where they’re alone—and very vulnerable. You can guide the child towards a hiding place and wait for another member of your group to find you, or try to brave the dark and make it back to camp. Either way, only minutes and some very short tutorials later, the game steps away and lets you decide what happens.
Lots of games imply fate is in your hands, but Ancestors is one of the few games I’ve played that really tries to make good on that promise. I can’t overstate how much Ancestors leaves players to their own devices. Beyond running, jumping, climbing, and using a sense of smell and hearing to detect predators, Ancestors refuses to explain basic mechanics because, at its core, it believes the discovery of those mechanics is, itself, part of the evolutionary process, a symbiotic relationship between the player and the characters they’re controlling.
This ranged from the simple questions, like what food to eat, to more complicated scenarios, like controlling a bleeding wound. At one point, I’d been exploring the nearby area, and got wrecked by a boar. I had no weapons, and goofed up the one form of defense I have: dodging out of the way. I managed to scamper up a tree and give myself some breathing room, but the game quickly informed me, through increased breathing by my character and a steady and deafening red pulse that flared all over the screen every few minutes, that I was bleeding.
Most games would tell you what to do next, and provide some suggestions—or, at least, hints—on how to survive. Ancestors does not. I tried sleeping, hoping the wound will heal over time, before remembering I’d watched another ape die in its sleep from a similar open sore. I tried...well, I didn’t know what to try. Ancestors has crafting, but you need to discover how things interact yourself; there is no guide to pull up that says what interacts with what to heal a wound. And so...I tried things? I swam in the water, I laid in the grass, I looked at rocks out of boredom, I ran away from a snake who was clearly not afraid of me.
Eventually, by chance and exhaustion, I tried—well, I found something in the trees that helped. (I’m staying vague on purpose.) The bleeding stopped, the game filled in a new icon that permanently serves as a reminder about what object helps with bleeding, and I unlocked a new cerebral “node” that corresponds to various upgrades, like being able to swap what object is in your hand while running, or calling to your entire tribe. Acts of desperation are the heart of Ancestors. It’s how you’ll discover what leads an otherwise ordinary stick to become a weapon, how a creature with weak arms can later push enormous rocks, and much more.
It’s a process that sounds so freakin’ cool on paper, and while the individual moments were undeniably satisfying, they often proved to be a brief oasis in a larger desert of frustration, only coming after hours of fruitless investment. It ignores the many times I started over—completely!—because I wondered if I’d missed some tutorial tip that would provide a sense of direction. It ignores how the game’s interface, however purposely limited, is often inscrutable to the point of making the accomplishment of basic tasks hard to understand. It ignores how the game’s admirable desire to capture the player’s imagination runs up against how difficult it is to grasp the possibility space when the game doesn’t help conceptualize it.
For a while, I tried to meet the game on its own terms, but eventually, I needed a lifeline. (My copy of the game came with a “review guide,” but going through it felt like cheating—no one who plays this game will have access to something similar, and it appears to betray the game’s intent. ) I was experiencing honest, legitimate anxiety while playing, wondering how someone who’s been playing video games their whole life was somehow unable to figure out what to do next in this one. I stumbled on a lengthy video from Game Informer, wherein (former) associate editor Elise Favis tried to explain the game to a few colleagues. Over and over, in response to various questions, she would laugh and say “I don’t know?” in a way that suggested she’d also come away from the game pretty confused. I... breathed an enormous sigh of relief; I wasn’t alone. I threw up my hands, started texting colleagues who were also playing the game—one of whom expressed deep relief at learning someone else was also confounded—and started exchanging theories about things we could do in the game.
And that was the moment I realized how much different it’s going to be when Ancestors is released, and thousands of people are unleashed upon its punishing playground. You’ll be able to read message board threads with people sharing hints and discoveries, or sit around with a group of friends and pass the controller, as someone decides to test a hypothesis. I didn’t have that. It might go against the spirit of the game, but it’s also going to prove a necessary relief valve. And maybe it’s not against the spirit of the game at all! Maybe it reflects how different tribes would exchange information, helping the species as a whole.
It’s also the only way I can picture myself playing more of this game
Of course, perhaps I should have all of this seen coming? During the game’s introduction, it comes with a warning: “Good luck, we won’t help you much.” But I’ve heard similarly bold declarations before, and most games eventually offer a hand. Ancestors, for better and worse, truly doesn’t. When I was shouting at the screen about how unfair everything seemed, the game didn’t flinch. To the contrary, my reaction was validation of its mission.
Ancestors might not be for me, but there’s no doubt it has conviction. I can respect that.
Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you can help me survive the evolutionary process, drop an email: firstname.lastname@example.org. He's also available privately on Signal.