Following the well-received article on “Detroit: Become Human“, here is another videogame storytelling experience I recently enjoyed. Ironically, also this game has a lot to do with “becoming humans”. Except it’s not set in the future, but in our very remote past.
Released in 2019 by Panache Digital Games – the team behind the first two Assassin’s Creeds – “Ancestors: the Humankind Odyssey” is an ambitious and visionary game based on a fascinating concept (so interesting, it’s even been covered by the Guardian in their culture section). The action is set “somewhere in Africa” about 10 million years ago, and it tells the story of a clan of proto-humans and their hazardous journey through evolution – or in case of game over, to extinction.
It’s a very interesting experience. The visuals and sounds are fantastic – to be expected in this day and age, but I am a first-generation gamer and still find it exciting, every time – and they do a great job at recreating the environments of an African jungle from 10 million years ago. Towering, majestic trees are everywhere and the night sky is mysterious, impressive and absolutely awe-inspiring.
The jungle is alive. Everywhere you look are plants, flowers, beehives, birds dominate the sky and fish abound in the waters. And this is even before we mention predators…
In the short intro, the game warns you: “we won’t help you much“. And as one reviewer put it: “no shit”. Even though there is a “help” section, the game doesn’t do a lot of hand-holding and leaves the players alone as they make their mistakes. It’s considered part of the game experience.
Honestly: I found it refreshing. “Ancestors” opens the door to some old-style gameplay, based on exploration and trial and error, without radar maps and satellite navigation that tell you all the time where to go and what to do.
Much more than a “Sim Monkey”.
The whole concept of the game is to recreate what must have been the life experience of a clan of
monkeys proto-hominids from that time. Consciousness was just dawning, a sparkle of light in the vast mysterious darkness that preceded it. As you control your initial monkey hominid, literally everything around you is new and needs to be experienced. You can do it with senses (hearing and smell primarily), but also with “Intelligence”, a new and still a bit rough ability that, you have the feeling, will become a lot more important in the future.
You go around trying some fruit (yummy), berries (ouch, eat too many and they give you a stomach ache), mushroom – ouch, these are poisonous, better avoid next time. Your people will eventually become omnivore, but only after many (many) painful attempts. And the same goes for all your experiences in the game.
At the beginning, just getting how to eat, drink and sleep feel like rewarding achievements. And they are, because they guarantee the survival of your clan. I spent like half an hour figuring out how to open a coconut – just like me in real life, I thought – but then it felt refreshing and delicious, as if I was really enjoying it.
Climbing trees like, well, a monkey is also a lot of fun, as it is swinging and jumping from one branch to another from head-spinning heights. Forget the refined parkour moves of Assassin’s Creed however – here actions are less flashy and all to the point.
The gameplay has some more original aspects which are a bit of an acquired taste.
It can be frustrating, if all you want is fast action. Especially at the beginning, you will spend a lot of time performing and repeating completely mundane tasks, like bashing various rocks against each other – is granite harder than obsidian? And basalt? And then again, and again, trying to understand how to make your first tools. Once that is achieved, it’s time to find some branches and sharpen them to give your clans their first weapons. Or maybe you will want to experiment with plants, and make your first tentative steps in medicine? (Spoiler, yes, some will give you hallucinations too).
Every reaction has a reaction.
Probably the most fascinating concept in the game is how evolution is represented. Everything your hominids do becomes acquired experience, meaning that the specific member you are controlling becomes better at doing that specific action: anything, from recognizing the familiar smell of a mango tree, to communicating with your clan, to catching a fish in the right spot using a pointy stick.
This is reflected in the formation of “neural connections”: every time your characters go to sleep (and you can see their dreams!) a fascinating – if a bit confusing – progression screen opens, showing their brain, well, from the inside. You can see how different neurons become activated through experience and keep track of your advancements, which are roughly divided into four areas: Motoric Skills, Senses, Communication and Intelligence. The more you exercise a specific area, the faster those neurons are developed.
It is very rewarding to move from the first, completely clumsy attempts at creating a tool for example, to much more skillful and sophisticated actions, social skills and feats of prowess. But how to pass this experience to the next generations?
Children are your future, literally.
One of the most fascinating elements of the game is how the passing of time is represented. “Ancestors” spans over a period of several million years. Once a particular skill is acquired, your clan has to pass it on to the next generation, in order to consolidate its understanding. Of course, children don’t just grow on trees: your clan members have to meet the right partners (meaning, fertile and in the right age), groom them just the way they like it – the prehistoric equivalent of swiping right – until they fully consent, and then er… “mate”.
That’s how children were made, you know, back then. It’s science.
In “Ancestors” you are not so much concerned with the survival of a single individual, but of your clan, and eventually your entire species. Elders lead the way, adults (males and females alike) do most of the heavy work, and kids… are just incredibly cute, play and learn waiting for their time. As it should be.
Your adults will gain a lot more experience if they (literally) carry their juniors with them as they go and explore the world. It’s some sort of prehistorical “bring your kids to work” and it guarantees that the players become really emotionally attached to the clan’s little ones. Not only figuratively speaking, because a clan can only have so many kids, and if something happens to them the next generation will have fewer adults. This eventually can lead to the extinction of that specific lineage – in other terms, game over.
So you start to feel particularly nervous about taking your children with you in a dangerous area populated with predators. Is it better to try and make more experience in a potentially dangerous way, or to take the slow and safe route to evolution?
Random mutations (the realistic type, not this kind) are also present in the game, and suddenly a specific child can be born with a previously unknown and beneficial trait, which can then be passed on to future generations.
Can you be faster than science?
Every so often – consider it a chapter end, but the game does not tell its story in such a conventional way – you can open the “Evolution” screen and place a bookmark in your progress. At that point, the game will analyze everything you have done – the discoveries you made, the stuff you have learned and achieved – and compare it with their real-life counterparts as found by modern-day researchers.
How early in the game did you create your first sharp tools? Or move out of the jungle? If you did better than natural evolution, the system awards you with extra points. That’s what the game (a bit weirdly) calls “to beat science”. Although you are, technically speaking, beating nature. Science didn’t do anything. It just discovered the facts.
And that’s how your clan eventually transforms from one species of proto-humans, to a slightly more advanced one, unlocking more physical and social abilities, better intelligence, and so on.
A steep and ambitious learning experience, not for the casual gamer.
In a game that is all about gaining experience and passing it on to the next generations, “learning” is obviously a central part of the process.
This is probably not a game for everybody: if what you want from a game break is some down to earth mindless excitement (nothing wrong with that!), maybe you will not find it here. This is almost a hardcore strategy game in that it requires study, patience and a lot of repetition, especially at the beginning.
Careful planning will be necessary as you decide what skills to pass on to your clan’s next generation. Things take time. To move from one area to the next jumping from tree to tree to avoid crocodiles and saber-tooth tigers is a slow and tedious process. Just as it was, probably. And it doesn’t help that the (sometimes clunky) interface gets in the way and makes the experience even more frustrating than it should be.
But then – the rewards at the end of the journey can be incredibly satisfying.
Learning how to craft your first tools (and resisting the temptation to google everything right from the start) feels smart – and every time you discover something the game self-consciously rewards your primates with a dopamine boost, the same dopamine that the player experiences in the process. The first time my ape-like protagonist was able to defend itself against an aggressive predator (and oh aren’t they everywhere), it felt glorious. I found it hard to resist the temptation to thump my own chest in celebration (full disclosure: I may actually have done it). When I successfully guided my clan out of the jungle to discover the great lakes, it felt like an epic journey – even tough in terms of kilometers it must have been the equivalent of a walk in the park.
And it’s also a game that can teach real stuff. Take the most obvious scientific notions – for example I learned the difference between “hominids” and “hominini“, or that the game takes place between the Miocene and the Pliocene ages of the Cenozoic era.
The creators of “Ancestors” claim the game to be as accurate as it can, as it represents the current state of progress in scientific research on the subject. The story ends just before the Pleistocene (in other words, with the appearance of the Australopithecines, the first Lucy-like humans).
By unlocking the various “neural connections” I could also reflect on how complex our intelligence is. A mundane action like using my home keys requires a combination of so many advanced functions (senses, fine motoric skills, problem solving) that our species took millions of years to develop. It’s also interesting, having a small child at home, to observe how a baby can make the same progress in the span of just a couple of years. Intelligence really is a wonderful thing.
And all this made me think about some very big questions.
Maybe even more interestingly, “Ancestors” is a meta-learning experience because it’s a game about how learning works.
To experience something out of the ordinary, maybe even risky, for the first time; to repeat it again and again until it’s not just a lucky accident anymore but something well understood (scientific method anyone?); and then to pass it on to future generations so that somebody will eventually achieve something important maybe five, six hundred years down the line. And then, do it all over again.
You will also die many, many times: from accidents, falls, poisonings, injuries, drowning, exhaustion, and of course predators. The world is a dangerous place once you decide to explore it all. But this seems to be the main message of the game: it’s exactly what our ancestors did, and their untold stories made us who we are.
After the punishing initial steps when everything in the game world felt dangerous and unknown, I had a sense of real achievement and connection as I guided my troop across a territory that was now completely familiar, while predators kept themselves at a safe distance from my band of screaming, self-confident and armed primates.
I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of sympathy and respect for the protohumans of “Ancestors”. When in the middle of one game night I managed to climb the jungle’s “Father Tree” (the oldest, tallest in the game) and Ewu, the ape-like character I was impersonating at the time was able to stand tall and look at the night sky wondering at all its incredible glory, I had almost a transcendental experience thinking that there is a straight line that connects that fictional furry guy with me.
And even if we may be separated by many, many generations, my story is not so different from that of his clan members. Their epic journeys and heroic accomplishments, however obscure, are no less worthy of respect than anything I know from the heroes of human history. The love for their kids was just as profound as ours; their personal sacrifices and gains, just as significant. Their discoveries, equally ground-breaking.
And in fact, these are all the reasons why we are us.