Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey Review — Monkey See Monkey Do
The creative director of the first three Assassin’s Creed games, Patrice Désilets, helps bring you Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey begins 10 million years in the past and puts you in control of our evolutionary forefathers. You must guide them on their path toward humanity, which means teaching them how to fish, how to hunt, and how to walk on two legs. Ancestors executes its vision of our evolutionary past with care, but it just isn’t very fun to play.
The best part of Ancestors is that it can be kind of “chill.” The icons on the maps of Assassin’s Creed always gave me a feeling of anxiety—too much to do—and Ancestors throws those out of the window. You will never navigate a menu, a journal, or an inventory. Instead, exploration and progress occur organically and exclusively by paying attention to what’s around you, and you’re regularly rewarded by discovering new plants, animals, and landmarks. When you arrive in a safe place, the game’s soundtrack responds with dulcet but definitively jungle-themed music. Enjoy it—have a mango and get some sleep. Life as a monkey can be pretty sweet.
As your clan grows and you begin to understand the steps you must take in order to ensure its continued survival, you start to develop a nice rhythm. Mate important monkeys, get some food, get some sleep, then begin searching for a new place to raise the next generation. These searches tend to be pretty pleasant, too. Ancestors is a nice-looking game, and its landmarks are iconic and memorable. Many of them have fairly unique characteristics as well. “Alligator Island,” for instance, maintains a pretty obvious gimmick–don’t stay for long.
The other quality on display here is purity. The developers have sacrificed nothing to bring you the most authentic depiction of the evolutionary cycle that they could. When I first started playing, I wondered if this game would be anything at all like the Super Nintendo classic E.V.O.: Search for Eden. In that game, you begin life as a harmless fish, but you quickly upgrade your jaws and fins, and by the end of a few hours you can evolve into a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Ancestors is nothing like this. You begin the game as a monkey, and over the course of the game, you become a somewhat more intelligent and capable monkey. You stay in the jungle and grow more accustomed to what the jungle can do for you. That’s it, and I fully respect the developers’ commitment to this vision. On the other hand, if this sounds a bit bare-bones, well…
Despite Ancestors‘ hypnotic accessibility, I can’t help but feel that something is missing. There is some novelty to climbing around as a monkey and the game’s jungle vibes are pretty charming, but these things aren’t enough. When the progress loop gets stale and the jungle locales start to look samey, the lack of a real gameplay hook makes Ancestors feel like a chore rather than a pleasure to play. It becomes a series of “have tos.” I have to create a new couple, have to mate, have to look at the trees, have to establish a new settlement. I have to find a safe space to enjoy that music and a mango. A good game shouldn’t make you feel like you’re being held hostage. You should want to complete tasks for the game, want to make progress, want to level up your character, want to explore.
Basically, Ancestors needs to be more fun. Swinging around from tree to tree should be awesome—who doesn’t want to be your friendly neighborhood primeval Spider-Man? Unfortunately, your monkey moves slowly (realistically?), and climbing up trees is a clunky experience. Even as you get used to the game’s stilted movement and controls, you soon find that the landscape is conspiring against you—oh, you wanted trees to grow in a fashion that offers challenging but convenient platforming? Tough luck—that wouldn’t be realistic. Instead, the jungle frustrates you. Branches are often just out of reach, and you must climb—slowly, carefully, clumsily—to the ground.
Ancestors features a variety of “mini-games”—but these aren’t fun either. Most of them just ask you to hold down a button. For example, you hold a button to bond with other monkeys, to mate them, and to give birth. Sometimes you need to tap a button repeatedly. You do this to comfort distressed babies and to build beds. There are two problems here. First, holding a button or pressing a button repeatedly hasn’t been good gameplay since 2006. Second, all of these activities are boring to begin with. Once their novelty is gone, you never want to have to do them again. Maybe Hideo Kojima could turn giving birth into fun gameplay, but he didn’t work on Ancestors. Without his influence, the process is just as tedious as you’d expect it to be.
Perhaps nowhere is the tedium of Ancestors more apparent than in its upgrade paths. You know how your wizard from Diablo III had magic missiles at the very start of the game, and soon learned all manner of insanely powerful abilities? At the start of Ancestors, your ape can pick up one item. Later, in perhaps the saddest ability upgrade in video game history, he learns to move an item from his right hand to his left hand. By the way, he has to be standing completely still in order to perform such an advanced maneuver. Somebody call the police—I don’t think it’s legal to have so much fun.
Despite the exasperation they are bound to elicit, the design choices of Ancestors all serve its total artistic vision. The theory of evolution recognizes that the universe is stark and indifferent, and the player-controlled monkeys of Ancestors are appropriately inconsequential. It is hard to begin to dominate the jungle and the planet, a lesson you learn quickly as your clan struggles to survive each day. Being able to move a mango from one hand to the other doesn’t do much to solve some of the bigger problems you’ll face, but it is a small step in the right direction. As you take more and more of these minuscule steps, you begin to develop a healthy appreciation for the game’s immense sense of scale—again, no less than 10 million years of evolutionary development inform the events of Ancestors. Likewise, considering the game’s devotion to its vision and to realism, the fact that the jungle does not grow for your platforming convenience makes perfect sense. A hundred monkeys can fall to their death, but the world would continue to spin.
However, immersion, realism, and storytelling should not come at the expense of fun. Too often Ancestors neglects this point. For instance, if you get too far away from previously known territories, your monkey suffers from anxiety and the screen is cluttered by hallucinatory noises and visions. I realize that exploration in an environment populated by saber-toothed cats is bound to create a sense of dread. However, this screen seems to be a replacement for fun gameplay. I suspect that if the developers had made swinging from tree to tree a more fluid and fun experience, then they wouldn’t have wanted to hide it behind an “anxiety screen.” Instead, their sole focus was realism, and so they mark an untempered zeal for exploration as dangerous and game-breaking. While I respect their focus and even value the story they tell with it, I don’t think such limitations helped make Ancestors a great game.
One of my favorite things about Ancestors is its “game over” screen. It has arcade flair, showing “points” for things like how far you walked, how far you swam, and how many couplings you created. Arcade games that tally points in this fashion are concerned almost entirely with gameplay—Donkey Kong, for instance, has a nominal story about rescuing a princess from a giant monkey, but the only thing that really matters is your ability to successfully jump through each stage. Ancestors’ game over screen is a sad reminder that it needed a focus like this—it needed a gameplay hook. Donkey Kong offers challenging but fun gameplay, and so its tally of points has meaning and import. When you die in Ancestors and the game counts your mileage, though, you feel empty. Could I have just walked in circles for hours and performed better? Jumping over flying barrels or picking up divine hammer powerups would be too much, no doubt, but it takes more than a pedometer to impress me.
In the end, it’s hard to know who to recommend this game to. Some probably just want to continue to pay attention to Patrice Désilets’s career, and that’s fine, but I don’t think Ancestors will appeal to people with a more ordinary interest in video games. If you’ve got a million games vying for your attention right now, why would you elect to deal with its tedium? And if you like the idea of a story about evolution which refuses to sacrifice its integrity in order to appeal to a wider audience, why not just watch Quest for Fire?
My most confident recommendation of Ancestors goes to casual gamers. Despite the game’s apparent commitment to realistic survival mechanics, it doesn’t ask you to raise your nerd levels to any great heights. It isn’t weighed down by lore, for instance, nor do you need to read a Wiki to figure out how to do stuff. Rather, your motivation is simple—you’re a monkey—and you solve challenges with patience and by following on-screen instructions. “Hold A to give birth.” Got it. Now enjoy watching your baby monkey bounce around. Show Ancestors to your friend who doesn’t really like complicated or difficult games, and I’m sure they’ll enjoy helping the monkeys fight for survival. As I said at the top, Ancestors can be pretty chill.