Interview with Patrice Désilets on Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey and Playing the Most Badass Character That Ever Lived
Patrice Désilets is a man with a passion not just for video games, but the world around him. Known for working on games like the critically lauded early Assassin’s Creed titles and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, today he is the founder of the Montreal-based Panache Digital, who are working to create a truly new title with Ancestors. When I sat down with Patrice, I didn’t expect the nature of the world, the human condition, and theology to be among the subjects up for discussion.
But they had to be. Patrice told me he isn’t trying to make a survival game with Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, but due to the nature of evolution, it had to be a survival game. And as such, when talking about his beliefs and what pushes him to create these new games, he had to mention theology and the way humanity has evolved. All of the world, including its history and religions, has fascinated and inspired this man, and so when talking about his latest game, they had to be mentioned too.
Talking during Reboot Develop Blue in Dubrovnik, Croatia, Patrice Désilets gave a live demo of his game to a room filled with games journalists and described what players can expect. After the talk, he sat down with me so he could tell me more about Ancestors, Panache Digital, deities and more.
So, Ancestors. What was the impetus to make a truly unique survival game?
Patrice Désilets: Well, I think it was not about making a survival game, which is funny. Honestly, I just wanted to do a mankind odyssey. Which is a survival journey. And so all this is like, it’s part of the subject matter. But it was not my intent at first. It’s not that all along it had to be survival. This is not why I work at all. The real reason why Ancestors exists is that at Panache we needed a toolbox to make other games, just like we did with Assassin’s Creed one, then we can make Assassin’s Creed II, and then we can make everything else. That was the idea. But then, when I wanted money to make that first draft of the game, people were telling me ‘So yeah, that’s great, but where’s Assassin’s Creed?’ Basically said, ‘we want to make a billion dollars with you, so you need to make Assassin’s Creed’ and I’m like, ‘ah fuck, okay,’ and then I had an epiphany. I’m the historical guy, I’m also a game designer, and I know what I want, what I need, but if I do pre-historical time, I’ll be able to make a third person character interact with the 3D world, and I will not have to build a society or a civilization, no cities, you know, no tools, no costumes.
And that’s the beginning of it. And then I attack the subject matter, I study it, and then say, ‘okay, so it has to be a survival game.’ But, quite contrary to the other survival games. When I studied the survival genre, I didn’t play that much, because right away it was about inventory and menus. And I don’t like those type of games. In my games, menus are not good things. I love my UI artist and designer, but I’m always saying, ‘But I hate your shit. I love you, but your shit I don’t want to see.’ That’s why I often play without, but he’s so good that eventually, you can forget the HUD. It’s always the same with my games, we eventually get rid of the HUD. Because everything is in the character. But we weren’t trying to make a survival game that is really, really unique, it just happens that the survival of the humankind is unique. People tell me, ‘we’re used to playing the badass character, where’s your badass character?’ I’m like, but you’re playing the most badass character that ever freaking lived! That’s the thing that survived until we’re here talking about it. And now we’re watching a black hole from 250 million light years away! That’s a badass character! It’s funny because us, the two big apes, we’re talking about it!
This is the conversation that those apes died for. And on that note, did big cats kill alligators a lot in pre-historic time [referring to Ancestor’s opening cutscene], because I had no idea.
PD: Yeah. Check leopards and crocodiles on YouTube. You’ll see amazing things.
I always thought the fight would end the other way around.
PD: It depends. Depends who strikes first.
You see, now the game seems even more interesting.
PD: But just to clarify a bit. That is the beauty of our subject matter, though. It’s pre-history. History with a big game starts when we start. Everything else, we started discovering it in the Victorian era. Like, we started to dig into history and say, you know, this is kind of interesting. Before that, we’re like, ‘Who cares?’ And so it’s still a new science, roughly 150 years old. And we’re still discovering. So this is when I said, it’s written at the beginning of the game. Latest scientific discoveries were used as guidelines. And so we’re trying to be as accurate as possible, but sometimes I went like, ‘nobody can really say that we’re wrong, because we didn’t find the bones in the dirt yet.’ This is my subject matter. If you actually want to know the science, go read some books, go to the library. You know, that’s not my job, but I can attract you toward science. So I hope you still have a good time.
During your talk, you mentioned the inventory was your hands. Which I thought was fascinating. Does that mean when you’re literally holding something, will that impede your movement? Stop you from climbing?
PD: No, I didn’t go there. I went the other way. You can eventually have more objects. Then you cannot climb, but if you only have a tool, you can climb, but the inventory is more than just two hands. Because you can make your clan member follow you. They can hold two objects. So a clan can all bring objects. And you can play as a nomad, the beauty of Ancestors is that there’s no limit to your imagination. How do you want to play this action adventure game? Survival?
I’m guessing that means you can choose to either be, as you said, a nomad, or you can join together with your ape society. Are they going to do more to help in gameplay?
PD: I don’t want to say too much. But, yes. They’re there, I played solo today. I didn’t have too many interactions with my clan members. Didn’t rule anyone. I didn’t make any babies. We didn’t go into an expedition. We didn’t go hunting. You saw 30 minutes of me playing, I just showed you a bit of what’s going on in the brains of the characters and such. But you could play this for hours, that will reveal good and bad ways of playing Ancestors. There are as many ways of playing it as there are other big games to play.
You mentioned that you didn’t really want a HUD in your game if you can avoid it. And I did notice when your player character got injured, there was an animation to show that you’re hurt, and you’re eating heal the pain. As we all do. So have you implemented animations for a lot other status effects, or have you found other ways to avoid using a HUD in-game?
PD: I tried. Yeah, I try as much as possible. I know people like HUDs. Our game is unique enough that you can turn it off, I play without it. You can play it a really pure way, or a more gamey way, if you will.
Yeah, I did notice that when you were playing, from the game property starting, there was no tutorial messages, no pop-ups, no HUD. And then suddenly the first message I saw was when a clan member died. And that was the only way you could find out their name. I thought that was very interesting. I guess you do need to make the conversations obvious. You can probably understand what they’re doing without dialogue, but a little message probably helps.
PD: Yeah, there is like, when I finally put the tutorial on there, there’s also messages, a tutorial, that exists, it’s just that I feel in this type of environment when you show the game, I would like to show the real experience and not the game experience. Well, there is a HUD guys. It’s more gamey than you think.
Absolutely. When I was watching it, I couldn’t help but notice, especially in the intro cutscene, that so many of your animals looked fairly detailed. And I kind of wanted to explore that world as some of the other animals. Have you ever considered adding that sort of thing?
PD: No. Sorry. We’re 35 people. This is the thing we do. But I guess I’ll say to our artist that you feel like his models are good looking enough to hear you say that you would like to play with his character. He’ll be happy to hear because that’s just one guy. Every single character you saw? One character modeler. With the help of the technical director. So it’s two guys.
You said that once the game properly starts, you can pretty much go off and do whatever you want, make your own decisions. But will there be any sort of narrative path or any sort of conclusion?
PD: There is a conclusion. This is where eventually you change physically as a species. So you go from the very first one to another species, and eventually, they’ll kind of finish evolution. But you can always come back and start a new game. In the gaming world, you can find that you don’t have a car in your game, right? So the game world, you need to fucking get it there. And there’s no map, I wish, it’s my hope, that the community will draw a map. And that the wiki of Ancestors will be useful because we’re not doing that. It’s up to you, that’s your journey, your odyssey of life. Because it fits the subject matter. Our ancestors didn’t know. You know why our gods exist; because it’s the moon, and the sun, the stars. This thing appears in the sky that gives light, it’s god, will it come back tomorrow? Generally, it comes back, but what if? What if it’s the day it doesn’t come back? And the moon, oh, now we’ve got light, and it changes!
I had this epiphany the other day with my daughter. She’s 11 now but like two years ago, she was explaining to me the planets of the solar system. And I’m like, ‘my daughter of nine knows more about how it works than how to build an engine. And it struck me, that’s amazing. That we can actually understand, but that’s my fascination with the past. One talk I did last year was about that, that we’re mutants. We know so much. We have this little thing that you hold right now that has the entire knowledge of humanity. This is like holding the Library of Alexandria in your hand? I find it fascinated me. It’s like, I’m lucky enough to now have a company that makes games about what fascinates me.
What will combat be like in Ancestors?
PD: It’s not combat, it’s the kill system. You kill or get killed.
In your game demo, you used a warthog and a snake to distract one another…
PD: The freedom. They encountered each other, then they dispersed. It was not expected because I went towards the direction I wasn’t sure of, because of the blurry screen. Honestly, it was tough to be able to play. Animals will try to kill you, but they also interact with each other. So like I said, you can actually track them towards another one. So essentially, you’re not fighting because the game isn’t about that right away. But you’re a prey, and you really move towards becoming a predator. Not just some marketing saying. This is what happens.
As as the apes evolve and eventually approaching humanity, are we going to see the world around them change as well?
PD: Not that much. There is a bit. We needed to make a decision, we need to actually ship something that we can do. So it’s all about constraint and this is the box, and let’s make that the best possible. Yet, there are different regions. So you’ll play differently. And also the resources eventually deplete, so I didn’t do it a lot, but you have to eat, drink, and sleep, so eventually you eat and then the rest of the clan members will eat, and eventually…
Where’s the food?
PD: Well, let’s go to a different region. And this is a bit of how it works, no one knows the future, but what I wish we could change everything. But this is not how we managed to portray this idea of evolution, it’s not the changing environment. But there is a little bit of that.
So will there be drastically different environments between regions in Ancestors?
PD: There is. Eventually you’ll get to the savannah, and you better be good at walking on two legs if you want to survive.
Okay, that makes sense.
PD: To add a bit on the killing question, it’s kill or be killed, and you get killed a lot more than you kill them. Because I’m not telling you how. Find it out. Discover for yourself, what would you do to kill someone, right? Then when you get really good at it, the way the system works is that it creates a combat system, with really small mechanics, eventually, you feel like you have combat, but it’s not about going into combat mode. After a while, before you get to kill a big African buffalo, it’ll look like a combat system, but it’s not.
Is there anything we should know about Ancestors?
Excellent. Thank you so much.