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Leveling Up: The Story of Human Evolution, As Told Through Video Games

A geneticist discusses how games like ‘Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey’ and ‘Metal Gear Solid’ tackle the dawn and growth of humankind

Konami Computer Entertainment/Epic Games/Ringer illustration

Just before the final boss fight in Hideo Kojima’s 1998 PlayStation classic Metal Gear Solid, protagonist Solid Snake, held captive by his almost identical-looking antagonist Liquid Snake, listens as Liquid explains that the two are clone twins, products of a government supersoldier program.

“We’re twins linked by cursed genes,” Liquid reveals. “Les Enfants Terribles. You’re fine. You got all the old man’s dominant genes. I got all the flawed, recessive genes. Everything was done so that you would be the greatest of his children. The only reason I exist is so they could create you.”

Sure. Fine. Sounds sort of scientific. As Liquid lays out the truth about their dad’s DNA, “soldier genes,” and “Genome Soldiers” with 180 IQs, Kojima intersperses non-computer-generated clips of actual lab-coat-clad technicians fussing with test tubes, microscopes, and computers. The real-life footage lends a patina of plausibility to Liquid’s monologue, at least for laypeople who care more about beating the game (and, perhaps, skipping past cutscenes) than scrutinizing the science.

But not if you’re someone like Michael Clark, a Bay Area gamer who studies DNA at his day job. Clark is a human geneticist—that is, someone who studies human genetics, not a human who studies genetics (although that’s true too). He has the PhD and the long list of research papers to prove it. And as far as Clark is concerned, Liquid Snake’s biggest flaw isn’t his cursed genes, but his hazy understanding of science.

“It makes me laugh when he says, ‘I have all the recessive genes,’ because he’s not a clone, first of all, if he has a different genetic makeup from his clone brother,” Clark says. Solid point. Another issue: Why purposefully create a clone that’s full of flaws? But beyond that, Kojima mischaracterized how heredity works.

“There’s a suggestion that recessive mutations are bad, which is not always the case,” Clark says. “Sometimes recessive is good. Sometimes more people have a recessive phenotype than a dominant one.”

Clark is used to chuckling or cringing through games whose pseudoscience distorts his specialty. That’s not unique to video games; the Arnold Schwarzenegger–Danny DeVito movie Twins features almost the same origin story as Metal Gear Solid (except that unlike DeVito’s character, Liquid Snake is just as jacked as his more genetically blessed brother). But video games arguably use and abuse Clark’s field most flagrantly, partly because so many games feature protagonists with extraordinary skills—if we’re building a world, why be bound by our usual limitations?—and partly because games hook players by progressively empowering them. The medium’s deeply ingrained practice of leveling up relies on unlocking or upgrading abilities that allow players to run faster, jump higher, deal greater damage, and so on. One common, convenient explanation for how that happens is genetic alterations or implants, as in Deus Ex, Starcraft, Hitman, Horizon Zero Dawn, BioShock, XCom, and more.

“Most of them, they’re using it as a way to explain why there are certain exceptional people, because they have genetic mutations that they are born with, or they were engineered to have that make them special in some way,” Clark says. “It’s the X-Men–style approach to using genetics as a mechanism.”

At work, Clark concentrates on cancer genetics, investigating how the genetic mutations that occur in tumors cause cancer (and, ideally, how to halt that process via immunotherapy or alternative treatments). He’s an early adopter and power user of genomic technologies, including machines that can sequence huge amounts of genetic information in short spans of time. But human genetics is a wide-ranging field that encompasses human evolution, variations between different populations of people, and other areas of inquiry, and Clark—who’s been gaming since he got a Commodore 64 as a young child and still plays to seek respite from the stress of parenting and trying to cure cancer—is into it all. Consequently, he’s always on the lookout for cases where his work and his hobby overlap, and he maintains a list of games that use genetics as a plot device or gameplay element.

“I also have a lot of interest in educating people about genetics and how to understand it, how to speak about it correctly, because it is a complicated topic and I think people benefit when they start learning about some of the stuff that’s not that hard to actually understand,” Clark says. Given gaming’s popularity as an entertainment medium, he adds, “it’s important to try to get that right as much as possible and not mislead people about how this stuff works.”

As Liquid Snake’s soliloquy reminds us, video games’ track record of representing genetic concepts is mixed. “A lot of times they get them wrong,” Clark says. “But a lot of times they actually are trying to get them right and people are exposed to a lot of information that they don’t even realize they are while they’re playing these games.”

Considering his history, it’s no surprise that Clark perked up when he heard about Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, which came out for PC late last month and is coming to consoles in December. Ancestors, which was four years in the making, was developed by Patrice Désilets, who’s best known for creating Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise and serving as the creative director for the first three installments in that series. Ancestors is his first game since leaving Ubisoft and starting his own studio, Panache Digital Games.

Désilets first caught Clark’s eye with Assassin’s Creed’s “Animus,” a sci-fi device that allows the game’s protagonist to relive ancestral memories stored within his own DNA, an idea Désilets inserted after he saw “a TV show about DNA on a history channel.” That narrative conceit was the perfect solution for a series that hops between time periods and locations—Assassin’s Creed may never stop spawning sequels—but it wasn’t, well, accurate. “Those games have a lot of genetics elements in them that are scientifically questionable at best,” Clark says. “Genetic memory is not a real thing.”

For his first game as an independent operator, Désilets, the son of a mathematician, designed an experience that aspires to a higher standard of scientific rigor. Ancestors is essentially a simulation of human evolution, which the game’s website refers to as “the greatest adventure of all time.” The game puts players in control of a lineage of primates and tasks them with surviving and thriving over a span of eight million years. By exploring, experimenting, and avoiding death, the player can augment the hominids’ movement, communication, perception, and memory, unlocking capabilities such as tool use and medicinal treatment. That heightened intelligence is passed down to descendants, and slowly the species evolves. “I felt like character progression in a game and human evolution are the same,” Désilets said last month of his decision to render evolution in virtual form. “It’s just the amount of time that’s different.”

When players start a new game, Ancestors informs them that the gameplay is “inspired by true events,” which would seem self-evident outside of certain Southern school boards. “The world and characters you will encounter are meant to represent archetypes of a place and of a moment, not the exact depiction of what happened,” the preface continues. “Latest scientific discoveries were used as guidelines.” The introductory text concludes, “Evolution is not set in stone, it is your path to forge.”

Désilets read books about paleoanthropology to school himself on the process portrayed in Ancestors, and author and academic scientist Mark Maslin wrote that Désilets asked him for feedback on an early build, but the game’s credits don’t obviously cite any additional scientific input. When I inquired about the studio’s use of scientific consultants, an employee at Panache responded that the company’s communications director, who would be better equipped to answer that question, was out of the office this week. In general, though, it’s relatively rare (though hardly unheard of) for video games to draw on outside scientific expertise.

Rick Loverd, the director of The Science & Entertainment Exchange—a National Academy of Sciences program that connects creators in the entertainment industry with scientists and engineers who can review and offer feedback on science-related story lines—says the organization facilitates consultations on more than 300 film and TV projects per year, citing Star Trek and several superhero movies (Man of Steel, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Captain Marvel) as examples. By comparison, The Exchange fields a video game-related request “roughly quarterly on average,” although Loverd says it “would like to be more of a resource in this area.” NDAs prevent him from naming any individual titles that have taken advantage of The Exchange’s services, but he does disclose that the group has assisted Activision. As Clark notes, consulting a subject-matter expert on genetic questions isn’t only useful from a faithfulness-to-science perspective. It can also help developers—such as, say, Bethesda—deal delicately with potentially sensitive topics such as race or genetic diseases, disabilities, or deformations. “You don’t want to shut anybody down when they’re learning something or when they’re playing a game,” he says.

With or without extensive scientific oversight, Ancestors easily clears the Liquid Snake standard. “It’s better than most of the games I’ve seen trying to accomplish this,” Clark says, adding, “Ancestors is really trying to give you some representation of reality. Even though it doesn’t necessarily nail it, it gets a lot of it right.”

One thing Ancestors does well, Clark says, is draw a distinction between evolution’s ongoing, gradual, trial-and-error/survival-of-the-fittest nature and the more directed idea of intelligent design. “Intelligent design would be where you’re actually choosing what happens,” he says. “For example, I want to be good at killing saber-toothed cats, so I’m going to give myself really strong arms, or armor. That’s not how this works.” In Ancestors, players master abilities in a preset sequence by practicing relevant skills and spending “neuronal energy” (essentially, experience points) to unlock them. That sets it apart from “god games” like Creatures, Niche, Intelligent Design, or Spore, the oft-delayed 2008 opus by Will Wright, the creator of SimCity and The Sims. “A game like Spore uses the setting of evolution, but then throws away all of its rules and says, ‘Well, here’s a Petri dish,’ or, ‘Here is an environment, and give yourself whatever you want and play around with that,’” Clark says. “And that’s fun, but it’s not at all realistic.”

Clark notes that Ancestors mostly succeeds at conveying the slow pace of evolution despite accelerating the process to an extreme degree. When the player evolves at certain stages, the game displays a timeline that makes clear that the hominids’ new abilities didn’t develop overnight. “Those are the things that you experienced in your 20 minutes of gameplay or hour of gameplay,” Clark says, “but then they show you that, oh, those didn’t occur in an hour, they actually occurred over the course of 300,000 years.”

Ancestors—whose menu-screen images evoke neurons and phylogenetic trees—also simulates the phenomenon of spontaneous mutation, in which errors in DNA replication occasionally produce favorable effects. Polar bears, Clark points out, are probably descended from a brown bear whose offspring spontaneously mutated the trait for transparent fur. That polar bear progenitor then passed that transparency trait down to some of its offspring, which would have been better-suited to survival in the winter because their color camouflaged them. Eventually, those bears migrated north and stopped hibernating. Ancestors captures that process through abilities that aren’t learned, but rather innate in a baby hominid from a new generation. Those spontaneous mutations act as gatekeepers, preventing the player from mastering certain skills until the right mutation occurs.

Clark has a few quibbles with the game’s use of spontaneous mutations. The first is that they happen too often. “I wish that they had spaced it out a little bit so that it was a little bit more realistic, because it gives the impression that spontaneous mutations are giving people new abilities every generation, which is just not really realistic,” Clark says. However, he acknowledges that Panache was bound by the constraint of delivering a game whose length could be measured in hours, not lifespans. “If you consider that your five generations that you have before evolving represents hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, that’s actually not so inaccurate,” he allows.

He also observes that the game’s spontaneous mutations are all advantageous, whereas in actuality, many may be deleterious or may produce a different appearance without conferring an evolutionary advantage. Greater variety in mutations would have added realism, but it might not have made the game more fun. Similarly, the game focuses on spontaneous mutation to the exclusion of other means of differentiation, such as the founder effect, which can cause changes in isolated subsets of a larger population (such as humans who settled in different regions). “They didn’t really give a good example of that type of effect on evolution, like genetic drift and nonspontaneous mutation,” he says.

Ultimately, these are minor complaints. Despite some small scientific faults, Clark applauds Panache for having the conviction to employ lingo one wouldn’t find in Genewars. “Props to them for using spontaneous mutation as a term and not dumbing that down,” he says. For the geneticist, Ancestors’ implementation of spontaneous mutation demonstrates the power of exposing players to a complicated concept in an interactive game rather than via a lecture or Wikipedia page. “If you played this game for a few hours and you started seeing spontaneous mutations, you actually now understand the concept of spontaneous mutation at a base level regardless of ever being educated about it.”

Here’s the catch: While Ancestors is strong on science, it’s not very good at gameplay, which is—how do I put this?—pretty important. When the game begins, a message warns the player, “Good luck, we won’t help you much.” Panache isn’t kidding. The game’s lack of hand-holding is meant to reflect the fact that our forebears didn’t have a minimap or a heads-up display, but life in the wild as a primitive primate probably wasn’t a ton of fun. Nor is it more fun millions of years later, when we highly evolved hominids—relatively speaking (I know, I’ve seen the news)—are forced to role-play as a less intelligent species.

“I haven’t played that many games that actively try to make me dislike them as much as Ancestors did,” Clark says. The polarizing PC version’s 65 score on Metacritic aggregates a trio of 40s, a trio of 90s, and a wide selection of scores in between. Most reviews have praised the game’s ambition, novelty, and scope but slagged its repetitive gameplay, awkward controls, and maddening lack of guidance. “I’m pretty sad that it’s not more fun, because I would love to be able to say, ‘Definitely, play this and you’re going to enjoy it,’” Clark says. “Instead I have to say, ‘You should play this because it’s educational,’ which is not really something people care to do.”

Given the choice between a scientifically-phony-but-fun game like Spore or Assassin’s Creed and a scientifically-sound-but-frustrating game like Ancestors, most players would understandably opt for the former. But Clark doesn’t think designers need to choose between the two. Games can be both. “I think they got part of the way there with this game,” he says. “I don’t think the problems with it are its representation of science. … The problems with it are just that some of the gameplay elements are rough.”

Of course, it’s acceptable to entirely untether a game from reality; Clark mentions last year’s Jurassic World Evolution as an example of a title that stays in its lane and doesn’t masquerade as serious science. It’s also OK to take some liberties in the interest of entertainment (the “spoonful of sugar” approach). “If a popular video game exposes young people to big concepts like evolutionary biology, encouraging them to learn more about it from a trusted expert at school or elsewhere, then the game has served a critical role to the science community,” Loverd says. He adds, “The perfect video game for us would be one that incites a sense of curiosity about science and imbues players with a motivation to learn, not one that has the level of accuracy of a textbook.”

Some games deliver a modest dose of science merely by steering clear of glaring, inexplicable elements. Monster Hunter’s kaiju/dinosaur hybrids don’t look quite like any creatures on Earth, but they’re consistent with polar bear–style natural selection and adaptive evolution, which players may pick up on in a passive sense. “If you go look at their design in the context of their environment, you can actually see how they would’ve evolved,” Clark says, continuing, “It’s clear that they thought about those questions and actually didn’t just design something that looks cool and then throw it in an environment and say, ‘Well, there it is.’”

Likewise, some games enlist concepts from Clark’s world in ways that extend beyond supplying a flimsy basis for superhuman skills. The Metal Gear Solid series redeemed itself scientifically while also enriching its sometimes-tortuous story in the 2001 sequel Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, which foreshadowed the fake news era. In crafting a shadowy group called the Patriots—not that shadowy group called the Patriots—who aspired to control society through digital duplicity, Kojima adeptly drew on the notion that memes, or units of information, behave much like genes. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins introduced that idea in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, but it wasn’t in widespread circulation when MGS2 arrived.

In May, Désilets said he’d already written the second and third installments of what he envisions as an Ancestors trilogy. The original’s mixed reception so far may jeopardize that plan, but the game isn’t doomed to be the end of an evolutionary line. Ancestors 2, or some spiritual successor, could keep what worked and discard what didn’t. That’s how the hominids lasted millions of years.