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Red's Read on Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey

By Red Thomas on September 12, 2019 | Columns | Comments

Red's Read on Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey

Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is an awkward title for an awkward game.  It makes me think the developers were intentionally trolling members of the media because it’s one of those names that are really difficult to work with when it comes to writing articles.  We usually try to make sure the entire name of the game is in the title of the article, and then attempt to repeat the name a hand-full of times through out the length of the article.


This game is now known as Ancestors hence forth, and that’s because I gave it a shot and really liked it a whole lot.  Today I’m going to be talking a bit about why the game’s been panned a bit in the media and why I happen to like it.   I’ll also be expanding on what I like about the game with some tips for new players.


No Spoilers

Don’t worry.  Figuring it out on my own is one of the things I like about the game, and so I’ll let you know before I get to the part you might want to skip if you’re playing the game yourself.  In this section, I’ll be talking mostly about why so many other writers are just wrong about this project from the newly formed Panache Digital Games.

I’ve basically seen two major complaints about the game.  First that there’s not enough explanation about what to do and how to do it, so players can end up lost and confused while playing.  I have little sympathy for that positions because the developers come right out before Ancestors even starts and warn you that there will be no hand-holding in this game.

It’s worth looking around at the dream images. Don’t know that they mean anything, but they are interesting.

There’s also some complaining, and probably the most common complaint that I’ve seen, that the game is too hardcore.  Again, not something I really agree with.  This is a game about survival and survival in nature is a constant struggle against a vicious and cruel environment that wants you dead.  Panache Digital captures that deadly fundamental nature of prehistoric life very well.

Players making these comments, I get.  For a lot of people, playing games is a chance to relax and not everyone wants either the difficulty or the deep experience that comes from it.  That’s totally cool and I get it.  It’s effectively the same reason some people really appreciate deep thoughtful cinematic experiences and some folks just want to go watch a movie where stuff blows up.  Both are incredibly valid and neither is really better than the other.

I expect a bit more from those who write about games, or movies for that matter, for a larger audience.  With Ancestors, I think a lot of those reviewers missed some incredibly intelligent game design decisions that reveal deep thought and very intentional effort on the part of the developers.  That doesn’t mean the game should be recommended or that reviewers should automatically like it, but there’s something incredible here that has to be recognized either way.

Ancestors is a game about evolution, and what the developers have done is managed to create a game in which the player evolves in the exact same way the characters in the game do.  Over time, you understand mechanics of the game better and you develop efficiencies.  It’s not something that happens the first time you play, or even the second or third.  Each time you start a new tribe and work your way through the game, you understand just a little bit more and your play through goes just a little bit more smoothly.

It’s a powerful message about evolution and time, and I find myself amazed at the skill and design experience the developers must have to create an experience that extends so far beyond the digital space to impact the player directly in that way.  That existential lesson doesn’t just stop there, though.  We’re also being taught about both how fragile and how persistent evolution is through the repetitive and vicious nature of the game.

The challenge of the game is notionally to advance faster than happened historically, but I’ve really just found that exploring the environment and playing with the various tools to be my own driving interest in the game.

There’s a lesson there that every athlete and entrepreneur would immediately spot, which is that success stems from a long stream of failure and pain, and is something only ever achieved through persistence.  It doesn’t physically hurt but watching your favorite member of the tribe get jumped, gutted, and eaten by a jungle cat has a certain psychological dissonance that is most definitely unpleasant at the time.

I’m seriously considering buying this game for a number of my nieces and nephews, and I really feel schools should consider adding it as a fun and educational tool.  The tangential learning opportunities in Ancestors are incredibly diverse.  Biology, zoology, geology, paleontology… the long list of scientific tie-ins that could be made with this game is huge. 

I bet it never even occurred to you that early hominids had to evolve to be able to ingest meat more efficiently, did it?   I certainly had never thought about it.  Ancestors makes it clear that they did and offers you a very unique kind of insight into precisely why that was such a big deal.

It’s that sort of asymmetrical gameplay that really impressed me with this game.  Realizing that I was learning and growing as a player of the game just as the characters I was playing in it were evolving over time was a really cool experience for me.  It’s only possible because the game doesn’t hold your hand and walk you through how to do every little thing.  Combined with the really awesome learning opportunities, I just feel this is a really intelligent game with a lot of angles.  It’s not going to be for everyone, but I definitely think that anyone should be able to understand the incredible experience the developers crafted here and appreciate it, even if it’s not really your sort of game.


No Shortcuts

If you’re worried about spoilers, you might stop here and skip to the last section of the article.   I mean, it’s not like you don’t know the basic plot of the game, so I’m not spoiling that.  I will be talking about a few of the challenging aspects of the game going forward here.   I think it’s important to understanding why some people gave the game the cold shoulder, but I will also be combining the commentary with a few tips for those who’d like them.   If you want the true experience of the game, stop here and play the game a bit before you read on.   If you’ve already played at least a few hours, I’m probably not ruining anything for you.

Experiment with everything on everything. You never know what might create a new tool or result in some new type of food or other useful item.

Unlocking new abilities and bonuses is a core mechanic to Ancestors, but it’s also done in a really organic and interesting way.  One of the first things you unlock is the ability to use your nondominated hand, which also then allows you to start creating tools and modifying the world around you.  From this point forward, life is about experimentation.

Curiosity and creativity are the most distinctly human traits we have, I think.  Panache does a great job of telling us that through gameplay without actually coming right out and saying it.  Smacking rocks together will create something new, but then you wonder what happens if you smack different rocks together, or if you hit one type of rock with another type.  Trial and error combine with creativity and curiosity to unearth new tool after new tool, but then what do you use them for?

Snake-bite is just one of the many ways to die in the wild, and it’s hard to spot them in the grass.

One of the first tools you can unlock is a grinding stone, but then figuring out how to use it is another adventure.  In my own play through, I never learned what you could use the grindstone on until three evolutions into my third or fourth tribe.  Considering medicine to prevent cold and broken bones is one of the very first things you should be able to craft (made by grinding the pink leaves from a common bush), my missing out on it really made my play-through harder.

I also didn’t realize that when you went into unknown territory and your dopamine levels start falling, that you can bump them back up with a little food.   I’d recovered dopamine by eating plenty of times, but the idea that you might be able to recover while under stress by eating didn’t occur to me for a while.  At some point I just had one of those “huh.   I wonder” moments, and I gave it a rip.   Turns out, exploring new territory immediately became a lot easier.

It’s this sort of thing that I’m talking about when I say that part of the game involves evolving the player even as you’re trying to evolve the character in the game.  The way I start a new tribe now is completely different from the way I did it the first time.  I also suddenly find new ways to play the game.

My next goal is to try growing the tribe and migrating around the map without evolving, which moves you automatically to the next place.

For instance, my next tribe I think will be a tribe of wanderers.  I’ll put an early focus on expanding the size of the tribe and on communication with the goal of arming my tribe with spears they can use and then trying to migrate across the map without evolving as quickly.  I’m thinking that’ll make for an interesting challenge, and I’m curious to see what new things I learn playing the game that way.

And that’s another thing that I’ve really found fascinating about Ancestors.  There are so many things to do and so many ways to play the game.  I’ve found several times, such as the case with the grinding stone, that my knowledge of how indigenous Americans used stone tools actually made the game harder for me.   In fact, National Geographic shows on primates have given me more ideas that worked in the game than growing up in the Choctaw Nation did.   That’s not what I would have done, but it shows how smart the devs were.  The period in this game predates the period in which old Iroquois women were grinding maize on large stones by 10 million years.  Many of my other ideas for how stone tools might have been used are equally modern, and that was a very fun and educational realization for me.


No Crying

I get why people wouldn’t like this game.  It’s not easy, but evolution is literally a succeed-or-die-trying game, so any project attempting to capture that in any meaningful sense is not going to be an easy game.  It is hard and it is frustrating, and I do think that there are a lot of people who won’t like it.

That said, I have to recommend it.  It’s such an amazing experience and one that goes so far beyond just the controller and screen that there’s just no way I couldn’t recommend it.  It’s much like I know a lot of people don’t like Oliver Stone’s Platoon, but I still recommend it as an incredible experience.  In the same way that Platoon offers viewers a glimpse into the insanity, cruelty, and general complexity of war, Ancestors offers equally fascinating insight into early hominid existence and evolution.

I think after playing the game, you’ll watch documentaries about primates in slightly different light, especially as you see a primate doing something as ingenious as fishing for honey with a stripped reed.  That’s why even though I know a lot of people may not really enjoy the game as much as I do, I still have to recommend you take the opportunity to experience it.  It’s so rare to find a game that can change your perception of the world so dramatically, and yet Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey does just that.  It will absolutely be one of those game that you think about far longer than you actually play.

Red Thomas / A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture. Follow him on Twitter: