"I feel like we're mutants right now," says Panache Digital Games boss Patrice Désilets, speaking to GamesIndustry.biz on the show floor at E3 last month.
"We are so disconnected and people seem to forget that we are animals and animals need an ecosystem in order to survive. We are destroying the entire fucking ecosystem of this planet because we forgot we come from there. We need the air breathe, we need the food to eat, we need good water, and we need a clan around us to survive. We are totally disconnected from that."
Désilets' concern over the state of the planet is partially the driving force behind his new game, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey -- an open world survival game where players take control of the species that came before man. It begins ten million years ago and ends two million years ago, long before Homo sapiens inhabited the planet.
On one hand, it's in-keeping with Désilets' style of game. It's a historical title, akin to his work on Assassin's Creed and Prince of Persia, that involves climbing and exploring in an open world. Yet equally, it sounds like nothing we've seen before.
"When JF [Jean-François Boivin] and I started Panache, we started with the game designer needs. If we wanted to have multiple games, we need a character and a 3D environment. This is what you build at first. You can't run away and start with a story. You need to see if it's fun to run around, climb, grab... whatever. I design a game without any story whatsoever.
"We then have a discussion with the potential investors, and they're wondering: 'Where is Assassin's Creed? You're the historical guy.' And I'm like, ah fuck, they're right. But I know what I have to build. It's still a character and a 3D environment. Then I'm thinking, okay, I am the historical guy, so let's do the pre-historical time period. Because then we don't have to build cities and civilization and crowds and all the technology. We can just focus on the character and the 3D environment.
"Then the more I was thinking about it, I started to think let's go all the way to the beginning. Then I can do a character progression tree, if you will, but through evolution. If you go to the very beginning, well, nobody has done this before in a game.
"We are destroying the entire fucking ecosystem of this planet because we forgot we come from there"
"That is how it all started. And I thought it would be a bit easier to build, but it's not because it's all organic. Since we're going through time, it can't only be one character, so let's have a clan. And then my technical animation director, on the weekend, did a baby ape and put it on the back of a character. I come in on Monday, and said: "What have you done? It's amazing. But now we need a baby." So then we need a system to make babies and have generations, and we need to move through time, and then we need an evolution system."
Désilets certainly seems excited. Although he didn't have the game to show at E3 (the team simply didn't have the time to build a demo), it is almost ready for release. Ancestors has been four years in the making, and it's been almost ten years since Désilets last shipped a game.
"It is a bit stressful, but I try to be as zen as possible," he admits. "It's a video game -- chill out."
Although Désilets has been talking about Ancestors for the best part of half a decade, he's keen to stress that the development was extended by the need to build a studio in the first place. It also took a while to obtain the funds to set-up Panache.
"JF and I spoke to 45 people before somebody finally said yes," he says. "To start a business, you have to be willing to receive a lot of nos, but the first yes is what starts it all. Out of the four years it took to build Ancestors, those first two years was building a studio while making a game. We started with six guys coming to my place every Tuesday. Then we eventually got a little bit of money, and then I eventually could say: 'Panache exists, fuck it.'
"Out of the four years it took to build Ancestors, the first two was building a studio while making a game"
"I was at MIGS [Montreal International Games Summit] doing a micro-conference, and I didn't want to put my Hotmail address at the end of the talk. I thought that was cheap, so that's when I got the Panache email address. And people were like 'he's setting up his own studio,' which got picked up by a journalist in the crowd, and it was in the local press.
"Then a friend of JF said: 'Hey, do you need some money? Come pitch to us.' It was someone in Montreal and that was the first one to give us money. So we started to open up and tear down walls... And then Take-Two was doing their thing with Private Division, so they called us up. Now we are four years later."
The Panache team is 35-people strong. Désilets is eager to talk about his admiration for his team, and he even has a picture of them all on the wall of our room.
"I put it there so that people can understand that everything you've seen, all the images, all the footage... It's those people. I am the spokesperson, designer, blah blah blah, but the magic is them."
The media does like to credit work to individuals. This is the next game from the creator of Assassin's Creed, not 'a game from a new team, some of which worked on Assassin's Creed.' It's Désilets' name in all the headlines, including the one above.
"That's normal. That's entertainment. That's Hollywood. I get it, and [the team] gets it, too," he said. "We have an understanding between each other that if the game is good, it is them. If the game is shit, then it's my fault. So I make the decisions. Panache is not a democracy, but I am open to discussion and saying let's create the game together.
"Then I am in awe. Because I don't draw, I don't do animation, I don't code... but I am good at design. What they do with my crazy idea makes me really proud. They believed in me, somehow, and joined a studio that was brand new. Now you see the result, and it's pretty good what they've done, those 35 people. I want them to shine. But, like Hollywood, I am the director, so it's my name that's out there."
"If the game is good, it is [the team]. If the game is shit, then it's my fault"
Ancestors is a good looking game, but throwing around big names like Assassin's Creed sets a level of expectation that a 35-person team can't be expected to hit. It's this setting of expectation that can prove challenging for an independent developer. Désilets is proud of what his team has built, but comparisons to his past AAA work can be unhelpful.
"But at the same time, just because it's not Assassin's Creed doesn't mean Ancestors is nothing," he said. "You'll just have a different experience. And it's an amazing one. It's not about the hero journey, it's something else. It's about my own personal journey, so it will be about your personal journey, too.
"There's no narrative. You write your own narrative through the systems that we built. You might be creating a story sometimes, or playing with the system... I don't care. I don't care how you play Ancestors. But it's good looking, man. Out of all the games I've made, I've learnt that the pleasure of contemplation is important in the games I make.
"There are different types of pleasures. There's the hero pleasure where you become top of the mountain. This is the battle royale pleasure. There is the pleasure of discovery. There is the pleasure of an unfolding puzzle. And then there is the pleasure of looking at something fucking beautiful. Top of towers of Assassin's Creed, the vistas, and it's great. When you are in Savanna with your clan and the sun is rising in the distance and you see the elephants... you get a shot of dopamine to your brain and you're happy."
Désilets tells us that, whenever journalists ask him how many predators are in the game, he resists telling them because part of the point is finding these things out. Which all ties in to the reason this game exists in the first place -- to encourage people to re-connect with their ancient past.
"Some people have been asking me very precise questions such as: 'How many this or how many that?' But I don't want to tell you. Yes, there isn't an infinite number of predators, but if I tell you... what's the purpose of the game? That's the magic. Those creatures didn't know. If I want you to be those creatures, I cannot tell you any information. No maps. You don't know where you are. They didn't know they were in Africa. They didn't know the ocean was over there. They didn't know that, so I can't tell you. I'm asking a question: Hey, Homo sapiens, are you intelligent enough to survive like our ancestors did?' Since I am asking that question of every player, I can't answer those questions for you.
"Just because it's not Assassin's Creed doesn't mean Ancestors is nothing"
"The other day I was looking at an interview with David Lynch. He was being asked some questions and he was like: 'Why do you want to know that?' The movie is the talking, the game is the talking... it's not about me talking. I want the community to talk amongst themselves.
"With this one, there was a bit that I wanted to say. We complain all the time about stupid stuff. Maybe you did or not, but you fly to LA and you're complaining about it taking nine hours and how it was so fucking long. Are you kidding me? It took you nine hours. That's teleportation man. We're sending messages on the other side of the planet live, and we're saying it's not fast enough. Are you mad? I wanted to make this game so people realise that we are still just big apes, who are afraid of leopards killing us. So that's my message."
With his first game in almost ten years nearly upon us, what's next for Panache and Désilets? The creative director insists there are no plans to return to the giant AAA teams of Assassin's Creed. However, he does expect Panache to expand in the months ahead. Perhaps, he says, they could work on two games. Or even support one as a live service title while developing another.
And maybe, just maybe, Désilets can build a game that doesn't adhere to everyone's expectations of what a game from his team should be.
"Panache has another IP called 1666 Amsterdam, which we will eventually make. But I have my own personal portfolio of ideas and they're not all set in the past," he concludes. "Eventually, for sure, we will need to do a game set in the future, or a fantasy land, or set in reality... I have a game idea that's really precise about a story that happened to my father. My father is a survivor of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, and I want to tell that story eventually.
"But we'd have to meet again for me to tell you about that."