Patrice Désilets might be an unfamiliar name for most people, but his video game heritage is certainly not a small one. Désilets is one of the masterminds behind Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and the three first Assassin's Creed games, a creative spree that came to an end when he and Ubisoft went their separate ways in 2010 after the completion of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood.
Things have mostly been quiet from Désilets since then. Project 1666: Amsterdam, his first work after going solo, got cancelled then THQ went bankrupt in 2013. Ironically, the rights to the project were bought by Ubisoft, who simply cancelled the entire thing and forced Désilets to spend three years trying to regain the rights to the game. Of course, one can't spend three whole years doing nothing apart from being stuck in legal limbo with Ubisoft, so Désilets went on to create Panache Digital Games in 2014 and started a new project. Five years later the result is playable in the form of Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, and the game's vision is just as grand and ambitious as you might expect from the director of Assassin's Creed.
While the Assassin's franchise has brought gamers to a number of different eras and locations throughout human history, this game takes you even further back in time. In Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, you play as the very early ancestors of the human race way before there was anything called Homo Sapiens. We are taken to the deep jungles of Africa ten million years ago, and your objective is nothing less than evolving the species of hominids to increase their chances of survival and reproduction. If you master the game's mechanics, you're even able to evolve the species at a faster rate than our actual ancestors. Fail the game, on the other hand, and the human race will be extinct before it even got started.
Evolution is, as most of you hopefully already know, an extremely long and slow-paced process (despite what Pokémon teaches you). Video games, on the other hand, are made up of purely immediate responses to keep the player's interest. Putting these two opposites together into one concept is bound to involve some scientific compromises. Evolutionary quantum leaps like the use of tools, bipedal walking and communication happen way faster in the game than scientifically possible, so using this game as a basis for a biology thesis is probably not a good idea. Still, even if the science has been somewhat gamified, the game is still able to show the player some of the main concepts behind evolution in an interesting way.
Our ancestors had, of course, no idea how to evolve their species, which is also one of the core philosophies behind the game. Players are pretty much left to themselves, with the developer even starting the game by writing "Good luck, we won't help you much." This causes the first hours with the game to be a confusing affair, where you scratch your head making grunting noises as you try to figure out what the game wants you to do. This design philosophy balances on the edge of a knife. On one hand, we certainly don't want games to hold our hand the entire time, and games that allow you to figure out things for yourself can leave you with a feeling of accomplishment and mastery. On the other hand, this must be done in a creative and innovative way. The line between laziness and pedagogical design is thin at best, and in this case, the developers find themselves on the wrong side most of the time. Just a simple thing as figuring out what all the HUD elements are requires more research within the game's menus than it should, and that's even when playing with all tutorials on in the game's initial settings.
Some might argue that the steep learning curve and the lack of good tutorials only strengthen the game's premise. Evolution is a tough and merciless force, leaving only the most adaptable for survival. This might be the case, but the question is whether this works well in a video game. A game shouldn't be just creative and/or educational; it needs to be fun to play too. The first hours of Ancestors are far from fun. On the contrary, they're quite frustrating.