Few video game industry firings make the headlines, and fewer still get to sound as dramatic as the tale of Assassin's Creed co-creator Patrice Désilets getting the boot from Ubisoft, six years ago. Relieved of his services mere months after rejoining the company, Désilets was escorted out his office by security without being able to clear his desk or say goodbye to his team. I've heard the story several times over the years, as well as accounts of what may have caused it, but now I'm hearing the highlights first-hand, as Désilets introduces himself and his new game via a potted history of past escapades.
I hadn't expected Désilets to dwell on the past but he is, as he says at one point, known as "the historical guy". These war stories are his lineage. Désilets talks excitedly of being shut out on the Montreal pavement, and how some of his former co-workers came down to meet him. In the weeks following Désilets' firing, a couple of close allies would join him to found Panache Digital, a studio he named after his own initials. Désilets spent time preparing a legal challenge to regain rights to his big budget project, the now-mothballed 1666. And he began work on another idea, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey. Now, five years after Ancestors was first announced, Désilets is readying his first game in nearly a decade.
Désilets takes us through Ancestors' opening: an entertaining cut-scene which shows the kinds of awful prehistoric creatures that will happily murder our cuddly ape heroes and chomp them up for lunch. It's 10 million BCE, and evolution has got us to the point where we can swing through the trees and scamper about on all fours. You play as a succession of apes from a tribe with a finite number of individuals. It's your job to stay alive as long as possible to learn new skills, make new ape babies to grow your group's numbers, and survive.
But Ancestors' world can be a punishing place. Whether crawling on the ground or swinging from branches, you're at risk from a range of predators (snakes, crocodiles, wild pigs, evil birds) which can leave you bleeding, poisoned, hobbling around with broken bones or some combination of all three. You'll also have to continually eat, drink and sleep so you don't die some other way instead. Oh and you shouldn't fall from trees - that's bad too.
None of this bothers Désilets, who expertly picks up the controls to play the game proper - we're into a sequence which sees you guide an abandoned baby ape into a hiding place for a grown-up tribe member to find. Once retrieved, the adult heads back to the tribe's base camp for some grooming and one-on-one ape time with a nearby friend, which results in another baby appearing. This, it seems, is Ancestors' main gameplay loop - venture out, complete actions like these, examine objects in the game's world, and you'll sometimes unlock new skills to pass on to your growing tribe. One of the first abilities lets you hold items in both hands, which then allows you to combine materials and craft more complicated things. But, playing all this myself, it felt like there was a lot of trial and error along the way.
Objects of interest are marked in the world if you look around using your "intelligence" sense, a kind of Assassin's Creed-like Eagle Vision which fills your surroundings with markers for you to investigate. Most are for simple crafting materials like branches, or things to eat. Two more senses - smell and hearing - can be toggled between to visualise where predators may be lurking. Food sources must be examined before being consumed for the first time. Water must be tasted, and drunk slowly to avoid poisoning. Sleeping allows you to heal broken bones and poison, but puts you at risk of predators finding you, and leaves you hungry again.
If your ape dies (I was eaten a couple of times, and died from bleeding a couple more) then control will pass to another tribe member, back at base camp. You'll then need to repeat the process of re-finding the baby ape you were carrying, which can often put you back in the same harm's way. If all your tribe are extinguished, you'll need to recruit random outsider apes which may appear on the map. The game's opening area is large enough to get lost in, lush to look at but otherwise featureless. Outside your base camp, steep cliff walls pen you in to the jungle, and straying too far will put your ape into a claustrophobic fear mode.
Ancestors has gone through various changes over the years. Originally devised as an episodic game retelling various sequences of pre-human ape history, its focus was refined to 'just' 10m to 2m years BCE, and reshaped into a single release (although Désilets has already written "volumes two and three" to fill out a potential Ancestors trilogy). Mention of the game having action adventure elements also seems to have been toned down - it's very much a sandboxy survival game now, while the ability to pass on what you have learned to future generations feels almost roguelike.
Later, when I'm done killing off his virtual apes, I ask Désilets about Ancestors' survival elements - and specifically the ability to stop yourself bleeding to death, something most of the dozen or so participants in our play session did not work out through two hours of play, and suffered from as a result. "If I told you the answer right away you'd lose those two hours!" Désilets says. "I'm not saying it's a game of trial and error but through your pains you will learn a little bit. One of the pleasures is to find how you stop bleeding.
"Each time you develop abilities, they're shared with clan," Désilets continues. "When you change generation these are locked but you lose ones you didn't lock - it depends on the numbers of babies you have. Some will be born with special abilities, you have to ensure those reach adulthood. Eventually some missions will help you evolve at a certain pace - and that's how you win against science."
When Ancestors arrives (via digital release sometime in 2019, priced Ł33/€40/$40) it will be the next step on a journey still at the forefront of Désilets' mind, six years after those events he began today by recalling. Three Ancestors games is "the long-term goal", he tells me. "We hope to spend the next 15 years [making them]. But there's a good chance my next game will be an ape with a cape, in 1666....
Désilets is clearly keen on his new ape protagonists, but I get the feeling he's still desperate to return to that big budget project he was working on, six years ago. "Ancestors is about human evolution but it's about game studio evolution. The first thing we need if we do third-person is the tools and tool box to create something afterwards. I'm thinking long-term with Panache - it's not a one game thing. And now I have a character which can interact with the game world."
"It's there," he says of 1666. "I've designed a bit on the side, but [Ancestors] is the baby. It needs to come out okay." I note that Ancestors is a historical game about climbing and using senses to mark out your surroundings. Despite the species of main character, it's a familiar concept. "I am the designer of Assassin's Creed. And the Prince before," Désilets says. "There's a moment where time passes - and it's a bit like an [Animus] white room. We were doing it and I'm like... [pauses] okay, we'll do it. It's kind of like a signature."
And then we're back to talking about bleeding. "I knew talking to journalists - not in a bad way - but if I tell you the solution I'm removing the real pleasure of the game to your readers. There's a moment of frustration - fuck I'm tired of bleeding."
This article is based on a press event in Paris. Publisher Private Division covered travel and accommodation.