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two hominids walk over a body of water using a fallen log in Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey

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Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is equal parts baffling, frustrating, and thrilling

I’m not sure I’m qualified to be in charge of evolution

Panache Digital Games/Private Division

The goal of Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey seems to be whatever you’d like to make it.

The first game from Panache Digital Games — co-founded by former Assassin’s Creed lead Patrice Désilets — Ancestors doesn’t give you much guidance, even when played with the tutorials enabled. I have no idea how things would’ve gone if I had tried with the tutorials turned off, and I’m not sure I’d like to find out. “Good luck,” the opening text tells me, “we won’t help you much.” No shit.

And thus begins my strange, frustrating, compulsive journey through a game that I’m not sure I enjoy, but that’s continually intriguing.

If I’m going to die either way, I might as well try something new

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.

I need to explore beyond my immediate community to gain a better understanding of the world and my place in it, but of course, that puts me at risk of predation, starvation, and other natural dangers. I can play it safe and stay close to home, or avoid the forest floor by climbing in the trees, but that will limit how much I learn, which in turn limits how much my clan will evolve as generations die and pass on their knowledge and skills.

There is no right way to play, which means there’s no wrong way to play, which means that I have to find the motivation to continue and grow within my own ambition, not in the game’s systems themselves. Don’t expect to watch numbers go up as you try new things; there are no scripted missions, and little guided feedback, after the first few minutes of the game. I’m so used to being given some idea of what to do, and some reason to care about doing it, that the opening hours feel overwhelming and slightly uncomfortable.

Trying to break down Ancestors’ many systems would be a mighty task for a review, and to be honest, I don’t understand enough of them to try, even with about 10 hours’ worth of play under my belt. The strongest motivation I found to try new things was boredom — and I mean that in a flattering way. I could stay near my clan, and eat and drink and sleep as a contented hominid for as long as I’d like, but why would you play any kind of game if you didn’t want to go on an adventure?

So I start using my intelligence view to pick out new places to explore and new items to interact with, and suddenly ... things happen. And I can do a little more. And then a little more. And then I may die, although death isn’t a tragic event in Ancestors; it’s an inevitability, and it will come sooner the more I try to stretch my understanding of the world around me. Then, in the next generation, my clan will understand a little more, and will be able to stretch even further.

Playing a game that hides so many of its cards can be frustrating, but it can also be thrilling. Sharing notes with my co-workers to try to figure out what was happening and why was one of the most enjoyable parts of the experience. I believe I now have a pretty good idea of the best ways to interact with the youngest members of my clan, and Désilets himself hinted at certain ways to benefit from the elders in the clan when I interviewed him about the game.

A week later, I still only have a limited idea of what he was talking about, although I can now see the rhythm of making sure I’m treating the babies, grown hominids, and older hominids differently. Here’s a tiny hint: You should probably always make sure you’re carrying a baby on your back.

Even the control scheme — designed for gamepads, not a mouse and keyboard — takes some getting used to, with an emphasis on long button holds and timed releases. I spent more time than I’m willing to admit trying to figure out how to mate with other members of my clan in order to make babies; the only real failure condition is the complete annihilation of your social group. As long as there are new members, the clan can continue.

I don’t want to survive for the sake of survival, though; I want to learn and grow and adapt. I get excited when I gain a new ability, even if that ability is laughably simple compared to the skills in most games. Being able to pass items from one hand to the other, oddly enough, is a very big deal.

It’s a refreshing experience, and I have a feeling that some players are going to give up quickly — I can’t say I blame those that do — while others will become obsessed with trying to figure out what the hell is going on, even if there is no extrinsic reason to push each generation past a certain point. It can also be distressing how little agency the other hominids exhibit until I take over, and how little instinct we seem to have in general. If I don’t take the lead in making babies or gaining territory, the clan becomes an inert group of hominids that are more or less waiting to die.

But even the complete death of my clan doesn’t mean I lost. it just means that my evolutionary strategy was unsuccessful. I can always start over in Ancestors, understanding a tiny bit more of what I need to do.

Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey will be released Aug. 27 for Windows PC via the Epic Games Store, and in December for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The game was reviewed on PC using a final “retail” Epic Games Store download code provided by Panache Digital Games. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.