I’m more excited to die in Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey than I am to evolve.
There’s always been a feeling of dissatisfaction niggling away in the back of my real life brain when my gamer brain accepts a video game fail state. Like many others, I play video games to kick back and have some fun with challenges, rewards, mechanics, and creativity. I also, like many others, play video games to explore new stories and characters. Those two aspects of gaming converge beautifully in games that allow me to explore new worlds with interesting characters and mechanics to keep me hooked. Many of these narrative games employ decision branches, or non-linear storytelling to retain player agency through a story, though just as many are guilty of pseudo-branching storylines.
Video games are, fairly traditionally, on-rails experiences. You’re travelling through the world a developer has created, adhering by their rules, and fulfilling the challenges they have set to further the story they are weaving. It’s difficult to break that industry habit, and it’s even harder to put true non-linear storytelling into practice. There’s got to be a point where the player’s wishes and the developer’s intentions diverge, and what happens when they do separates a good story from a great experience. There is nothing more frustrating than being promised power, only to make a decision and watch the game squirm out of going through with anything other than its main storyline. Let me make mistakes, as long as they’re mine.
So, when I head the recent news that Patrice Desilets and Panache Digital’s upcoming survival strategy game Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey will employ a unique, game-ending fail state, I was intrigued. Someone was going to let me make my mistakes, have their game follow through with my stupid wishes, and punish me with 50 hours of lost gameplay for it. In the survival adventure, players command a lineage of apes, developing into the human race as it evolves and spreads across the world through community building and procreation. If your lineage dies out so do you, putting you back to the start of a possible 50-hour venture. This isn’t a realm for casual play; every choice matters, and there’s no magical reload screen to put you back in the action.
If we take this idea of a player’s total control vs. developer intentions to its extreme, we arrive at the issue of the ‘You Died’ screen. Many accept death and regeneration as a fundamental prerequisite of a video game, and generally it is, and generally that’s fine. Trial and error is a hugely rewarding part of gaming, one that an industry has been built upon and continues to develop new challenges to play with in this way. But in today’s gaming landscape, I’m just as frequently asked to do away with the world around me and completely embody the universe I am virtually inhabiting as I am asked to adapt my ludic approach.
I could die at the first enemy in a Resident Evil game and in the real world that would be the end of the story: a biohazard operative found themselves in a dingy hellhole and was subsequently disembowelled by a zombie with a chainsaw. The headline would write itself. Obviously, though, that wouldn’t make for an enjoyable gameplay experience, and we all know that. That’s why we choose to ignore the fact that our character was ripped apart only three seconds ago and is now roaming some spooky halls once more. Death isn’t death in video games; it’s a dressed up declaration of a player’s inability to keep up with a game’s expected behaviour. The thing is, I want death.
Ancestors takes a much harder line. The moment the last heart of your lineage stops beating, you’re taught to evolve better next time, or you’ll find yourself with another 50-hour debt and nothing to show for it. It’s exciting to think that I’ll be able to engage with a narrative, my own narrative, that I know I am controlling rather than just experiencing as part of an on-rails fairytale in which everything will always turn out okay in the end. It’s simulation games in a nutshell, but in a realistic nutshell that takes no prisoners.
The fail state is only executed when that last member of your lineage dies; if your current player-character bites the dust you take on the role of another member of your clan. So, it’s still fun, there’s still room for trial and error, but there’s no wall to that linear experience that comes from an arbitrary fourth-wall obliteration.
There’s still an ‘if’ in there, however. If that fail state arises because I didn’t play in such a way that aligned with how Ancestors itself thinks I should play, my tune would change dramatically. In that situation I am no longer in charge of, and fully responsible for, my narrative game state, but rather I’m going through the motions of someone else’s story. I don’t want to be coddled by save files and ‘Restart Level’ screens any more. I want to know that the story I have spun is so uniquely mine that one wrong click could change everything. With great power comes great responsibility, and it’s time games stopped faking both.