He swings from one tree to the next. He slips often, but experience has taught his kind not to explore on the ground in broad daylight. Moments ago, he was gorging on wild berries, but the scent of an approaching predator sent him running in a flurry of leaves and wind. The growing neurons of his primate brain allow him to remember directions, and he’s confident he’ll get back to his tribe before sundown. But suddenly, before he even realizes what’s happening, a panther lunges out of the shadows.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is a strange video game. There are no objectives, no quest markers telling you where to go. In your first hours, you’ll fumble through lush rainforests, stopping to sniff every rock, mix together every item, and investigate every oddity before you’re jumped by some unseen predator. Expect to die often.
The goal, if you can call it that, is simple: Use the limited resources at your disposal — your hearing, your keen sense of smell, and the smallest trace of a developing intelligence — to evolve, just like your primate ancestors. The game offers no direction, only occasional prompts to tell you how fast you’re evolving. Just as the theory of evolution implies, there is no single pathway to success.
Patrice Désilets, the creative director behind several titles in the Assassin’s Creed series and Prince of Persia, spent the last five years developing Ancestors, attempting to chart the entire timeline of human evolution within just a few hours of gameplay. Désilets founded Panache Digital in 2014, and Ancestors, released in August for PC on the Epic Games Store, is the studio’s first game.
Désilets focused on the earliest years of human evolution because they were unexplored in the gaming world, and he thought they would be relatively easy to develop; after all, there were no civilizations or crowds to recreate. He now realizes he was naïve. Human evolution involved multiple timelines across several species of early primates that evolved to become the first hominins 5.3 to 2.6 million years ago. “The hardest thing was the conception,” Désilets tells OneZero. “We read books, took notes, and watched documentaries. Then, I tried to forget it all and just focus on making a game.”
“Evolution has no direction or pathway.”
He consulted scientists, however, “to make sure we had their stamp of approval.” Mark Maslin, a paleoclimatologist at University College London and author of The Cradle of Humanity, helped Désilets understand the complex relationship between human evolution and prehistoric climate change. Maslin’s pulsed climate variability hypothesis, which posits that rapid periods of flooding followed by extreme drought drove the evolution of brain complexity in primates, helped Désilets portray gradual changes in the landscape as humanity’s ancestors evolved and moved into different biomes, eventually migrating out of the African continent.
To Maslin, the point of the game is to reconstruct the process of evolution rather than the exact circumstances under which humans evolved. “You can choose from many different pathways to win the game — you do not have to be smart, you do not have to walk upright — but you do need skills and advantages that allow you to survive the tough world of predators that surround you in Africa,” he says. “Evolution has no direction or pathway.” In evolution, the survival of a species is the only priority, and this can be achieved in many ways.
“The most interesting thing about the period is that nothing is set in stone.”
Mireya Mayor, an anthropologist and wildlife correspondent for National Geographic, helped create companion mini-documentaries for the game. Admitting that human evolution is “difficult to communicate,” she says, “I was especially intrigued by the idea of using a game to get young people engaged in the most important human story ever.” Ancestors, she notes, emphasizes the “importance of adventure as a tool for human evolution, which is something I believe strongly.”
Mayor and Maslin agree that it’s impossible to depict the evolution of early humans in a completely accurate way because we simply don’t know enough about that period. The fossil record is sparse, and a lot of the evidence has been destroyed by tectonic shifts that occurred over millions of years. “The most interesting thing about the period is that nothing is set in stone,” says Désilets. “New discoveries lead to constant changes to the timeline of our ancestors.” The game works around this dilemma by offering multiple ways to evolve your way out of Africa. While the exact details of the evolution of humankind are debatable, the general principles of evolution are not.
Ancestors is not the kind of game that has you gunning down five-legged monstrosities with a laser gun. It’s much more challenging than that. Like human evolution, it is a game about making mistakes, learning from them, and attempting to survive and succeed — all without any idea about what it means to win.