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September 2, 2019 3:13 PM   Subscribe

Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey – Beautiful Concepts And Disastrous Execution [Game Informer] “I adore the notion behind Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey: Follow not one individual, but an entire evolving clan of hominids as they navigate the vagaries of survival and evolution across an inconceivable stretch of prehistory. However, deep and fundamental faults riddle the experience that stems from that idea. As a simulation, it creates rare moments of discovery and reflection about the miracle of life. As a game, it collapses under the weight of history, the ambition of its own concept, and a gameplay model that offers too little reward at the cost of far too much frustration and routine.” [YouTube][Launch Trailer][Gameplay]

• 'Ancestors' Is an Audacious Experiment. I Never Want to Play It Again. [Vice Gaming]
“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: The Humankind Odyssey - Experience evolution by repetition in this prehistoric survival game. [PC Gamer]
“An average day in Ancestors is spent exploring the forests, swamps, and savannas of Africa, using your senses to examine your surroundings. But the novelty of detecting something by sound or scent wears off almost immediately due to repetition and awkward controls. [...] Discovery itself, though, can be satisfying. Early on I found another hominid, a stranger to my clan, up in a tree, holding his wrist as if in pain. Having broken my leg a half-dozen times by this point, I knew there was a type of plant that provided a buff for bone strength, so I brought him a handful of it and he was grateful enough to join my clan. There's also a little thrill when learning how to use tools, like stripping a branch into a spear or using a rock to smash open a cacao pod to drink its pulp. Discovery activates your ape's neurons and unlocks new skills, but progress is achingly slow and only comes from performing the same types of actions repeatedly and hoping it will eventually lead to advancement.”
• Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is equal parts baffling, frustrating, and thrilling [Polygon]
“And thus begins my strange, frustrating, compulsive journey through a game that I’m not sure I enjoy, but that’s continually intriguing. I play the third-person survival game as a young hominid living millions of years ago, or at least, that’s where my experience begins. I’m alone at first, but soon I can take direct control of any member of my clan after I link up with a group of hominids that seem to have everything they need, from nearby fruit to clean drinking water. So why go anywhere else? Why put myself, or other members of the group, in danger? It’s a good question, and the game itself doesn’t seem that interested in answering it. The only way to learn more skills and to evolve through the generations is to explore the world, learning about the environment around me and what I can do with it. I can use my “intelligence” by holding down the Y button, which highlights interesting objects around me that can be identified once I move close. Each item can perhaps be used as a tool, eaten as food, or crafted into an object that gives me a better chance of survival.”
• Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey: If this is where humanity came from, no wonder we’re so messed up. [Kotaku]
“Ancestors wants you to play through an incredibly complex and convoluted process—the direct, hands-on advancement of a species!—yet at the same time revels in its decision to tell the player almost nothing about how to actually do this. And I don’t mean in a “failure of presentation” kind of way, I mean in a deliberate, “we say we’re not telling you anything in the loading screens” kind of way. Much of my time with Ancestors—and this was pre-release, so I’m one of the few to play as it was intended, without FAQS and walkthroughs—was spent not knowing what the hell to do next or how to do it, which left me feeling endlessly lost and frustrated. I can see the reasoning behind this, as our ancestors didn’t have anyone helping them learn the world around them. But as a player, I hate it. Ancestors wants me to engage in an endless game of trial-and error to discover what helps (and what hurts) me, but there’s nothing fun or interesting about this, because in this game you only learn things by simply doing them, over and over.”
posted by Fizz (18 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
you face many, many hours of identifying the same plant types, having sex and childbearing (far more boring than you would think or hope), and the endless maintenance of clan members’ wellness. Sharpening that stick for the 20th time is little more than a chore.

sounds like they did a perfect job. Living life is tedious and hard work.

That said, other games have found ways to make it engaging. There was a time when I realised I had to stop playing the Sims, as I spent hours ensuring that my people were fed and cleaned and had a clean house - while dealing with none of that for myself.
posted by jb at 3:50 PM on September 2, 2019 [5 favorites]

Aw, disappointing... but considering I usually buy games four years after release on Steam or Humble sales, I may still check it out.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 4:03 PM on September 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm glad this game exists but I'm never going to play it.

I will watch when someone speedruns human evolution in 15 minutes.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 5:11 PM on September 2, 2019 [5 favorites]

ARG! It's like someone designed a game for me, but designed it poorly!
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 5:35 PM on September 2, 2019 [22 favorites]

Now I'm tempted to go dive in to Jason Rohrer's One Hour One Life again. It's an experimental MMO encouraging co-operation and building up of technology. Mostly it's an interesting art piece. I've gotten my money's worth just reading his weekly updates, there's a lot of interesting writing there. But there's a whole game too!
posted by Nelson at 5:46 PM on September 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Kotaku link complains that the game doesn't tell you what you need to do to advance in the game. But - isn't every puzzle game like that, though? You know, you just sort of try stuff and through trial and error you find the exact sequence of things that you need to do to get to the next level? At least that's the way I've experienced them.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:40 PM on September 2, 2019

I wonder what the reviews of Ancestors: The Darkest Timeline are like, up there in the future of whoever's playing us.
posted by hades at 6:43 PM on September 2, 2019 [6 favorites]

Oi shit! Someone stole my excellent idea... Well, at least if it isn't good I still have a chance, I guess...
posted by Meatbomb at 6:59 PM on September 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

What's the cheat code to get the monolith to come down and tell me how to kill things?
posted by dannyboybell at 7:02 PM on September 2, 2019 [6 favorites]

I think I like the idea of this game more than it's execution. Will consider this when it eventually goes on sale in a year at a massive discount. It's also apparently the first of a trilogy. Though that may have been scrapped. I still appreciate this game's ambition.
posted by Fizz at 8:22 PM on September 2, 2019 [5 favorites]

Much of my time with Ancestors—and this was pre-release, so I’m one of the few to play as it was intended, without FAQS and walkthroughs—was spent not knowing what the hell to do next or how to do it, which left me feeling endlessly lost and frustrated.
This is my experience with every video game I've ever played. I figured there must be something appealing about video games that I was just not aware of but now I'm confused.

2. I think this might be a fun premise for an rpg?

C. The thing in one of the reviews above about "Why leave if we have everything nearby?" I think "I wonder what's over there, let's go look" is probably a pretty early feature of human behavior, I'd be surprised if it wasn't.
posted by bleep at 10:21 PM on September 2, 2019

"I wonder what's over there, let's go look" is probably a pretty early feature of human behavior, I'd be surprised if it wasn't.

Fair enough, but I'm in the camp of "we're jerks and we're forcing you to leave." / "Ok, fine, we already know someplace better so screw you!"
posted by porpoise at 2:26 AM on September 3, 2019

The thing in one of the reviews above about "Why leave if we have everything nearby?" I think "I wonder what's over there, let's go look" is probably a pretty early feature of human behavior, I'd be surprised if it wasn't.

Patrick Klepek , the author of the first review in the OP, brought this subject up on the Waypoint podcast, saying that as much as they'd tried to incentivise experimentation, it still bumped up against a depiction of these early hominids as kind of a robotic blank slate or starting point, rather than thinking creatures in themselves at a point in evolution.

So figuring out which berries are poisonous (very gradually) worked but less so stuff like the hominids having to realise that they could pick up or put down objects, or that bleeding from a serious injury is bad. The kind of stuff any animal knows. Trial and error but with a lot of obvious stuff to get past. And on one level, fine, this is kind of telling a fable with an endpoint rather than modelling primate behaviour but I can get why folks found it frustrating.

I'd agree with the sentiment that this sounds fascinating and I'm glad that it exists but that it's probably less engaging than it could be, even taking account of its stated artistic goals and daring design choices. And that's ok, these games do sort of get remembered and recognised eventually. It feels like acceptance of weird not-quite-masterpieces is something that games only recognise in extreme retrospect, unlike maybe film or literature. If people, on release, are appreciating bold games that don't quite stick the landing, I'm happy enough with that.

I'd also note something Austin Walker said about the difficulties with reviewing this in relative isolation, as opposed to the experience of players in a week or a month, where they will be disussing it with their friends or online and probably engaging more successfully with the opaque elements. From the podcast transcription:

I hope it's that and not so off-putting out the gate that it doesn't get that critical mass. 'Cause one of those things games like that often I need is enough people to maintain a community. You know, you don't get the back and forth of "how do I do this? Oh, I discovered I can do this with a rock," without there being enough people to actually have that conversation with, so I hope it gets that.
I am with you in that I think it we're in a weird place right now, because a lot of it right reviews about games like that and go like "Well, what the, what the fuck? How was I-" But the actual play experience is about being on Wikis, it's about being in message boards, it's about being in discords increasingly.

posted by ocular shenanigans at 5:20 AM on September 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

I posted this game here because, despite how mixed the reviews are, I'm impressed with it's overall ambition. It's a game that is antithetical to what so much of modern gaming has become. It's slow, it doesn't give you a lot of information, it does not hold your hand. I love this aspect of the game.

I will pick it up eventually because I do want to support a game like this. I don't need another Call of Duty 37: World War Zombies. I want games that sort of make the player reconsider what it means to game, that makes us pause and think. At least on this front, Ancestors is doing it's job. We'll have to see if it can hold a community long term or if this ends up being just a kind of artistic experiment that is glossed over.
posted by Fizz at 5:34 AM on September 3, 2019 [7 favorites]

I was not just kidding around, although yes of course ideas are cheap, just farts in the wind...

My version of this game is much more indie in terms of production levels. A Rimworld sort of thing with plenty of character stats and a simple top down view. Your d00ds are a lot like sims or automatons, with you influence being on the environment, suggesting good places for focus, and an idea/culture bank, in which you have some influence on emphasising and locking in preferred ideas within individuals. Culture is emergent based on behaviors and ideas, which you are tweaking and prodding indirectly.

But lots less pretty graphics, much more attention to the detailed DF type of action going on under the hood.

**oog has burnt himself again** 3 dmg to right hand
--> opportunity! try to: learn "fire bad" // learn "fire can hurt animals" // learn "fire cooks meat"

etc etc. So lots of explicit chances to interact with the mental development of your sims...
posted by Meatbomb at 5:58 AM on September 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

I've been playing Ancestors all week and since y'all seem so curious I figured I'd chime in.

I think the biggest issue is that there are two kinds of opaque in the game. There's the one where you can use intuition about the natural world to solve things- Hmm, if I bang two rocks of different hardness against each other, I can make a knife!- and one that's game-y and interfereing- But also there's a timing component to crafting that's not explained that makes it so even if you have the right idea you can still fail a craft.

That tension- between the simulation and the game is all over Ancestors. It's early hours are a total blast for a game designer. It's completely off-trend, almost hostile to the player. It's like staring at a console of a 1000 buttons and poking each one to see what it does. It feels nearly infinite.... until it doesn't.

There are some painful lessons you'll need to learn in order to succeed (Especially around breeding, generational leaps and evolution) that feel like they could be explained to the player without damaging the toybox feel. Again, it feels a little opaque for the sake of it. And once you learn these lessons the game turns away from being a cool "Let's explore and grow!" sim to a sludgy, min-max headache. And that's the way the game is MEANT to be played. Basically, past a certain point any upgrades/discoveries etc. will all be lost when you evolve/skip a generation. SO you're strongly incentivized to participate in this min-max cycle.

That said, I think you should play it! It has WILD ideas about what games are. It feels like a pretty natural continuation of what Pat Desilelet was up to in early Assassins Creed games, especially around controls. Having to LEARN two-handed use and the having a button for each hand is some real dedication. And while the later game has been dissapointing. the early hours are a blast.

Check out the Ancestors subreddit for some wild discussions!
posted by GilloD at 6:01 AM on September 3, 2019 [8 favorites]

Is there a wiki? I don't think I want to play unless there is a wiki...
posted by Jane the Brown at 3:49 PM on September 3, 2019

I’ve not played the game yet, but read the linked reviews (and the ones here!)... one thing stood out for me early, and has been reinforced for me by some of the subsequent comments:

Much of my time with Ancestors—and this was pre-release, so I’m one of the few to play as it was intended, without FAQS and walkthroughs—was spent not knowing what the hell to do next or how to do it, which left me feeling endlessly lost and frustrated.

So... what if THIS part was intentional, too? Again, I haven’t played it (or even watched a trailer) so the format of the game may argue against it... but what if *community* was an intended aspect of the games premise? It seems (from my reading, at least) that as the player, you’re leading a community, a tribe; that perpetuation/evolution of the species is the point; and the designer of AC2 can’t be oblivious to the existence and importance of the communities (tribes?) that grow around great games... so, perhaps part of the point of the obscurity of the game play is to foster exactly this kind of community, as an external metaphor for what goes on in the game itself? As the external tribe experiments, succeeds, shares, and evolves, it becomes easier for the internal tribes to do so as well... perhaps proving the designer’s point.

On the other hand, I could be giving the game way too much credit. You that play it will have to decide.
posted by Kelrichen at 7:24 PM on September 4, 2019

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