Michel Ancel: A Fallen Legend, Part 2

Concluding our reflection on Michel Ancel's legacy: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Michel Ancel: A Fallen Legend, Part 2
Photo by Lucas K / Unsplash.

In Part 1, we traced the rise of Michel Ancel as a game creator, from Rayman to Tonic Trouble and on to Beyond Good & Evil. But what Hollywood director took a liking to Ancel's work? And where would it all lead? Read on for the rest of the story.

King Kong - The Will to Surprise

Peter Jackson’s reputation precedes him, as his cinematic take on Lord of the Rings is beloved by many around the world. What some didn’t know, however, is that when he’s not making New Zealand an epic landscape for your next trip abroad, he’s actually quite the gamer. He even played Beyond Good and Evil, becoming an instant fan.

The game may have not resonated with the general audience, but it resonated with Jackson. So much in fact that he met with Ancel personally, asking him to lead the development of a game tie-in for Jackson’s next movie: a remake of 2005’s King Kong.

True to any movie-based game which respects itself, Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game Based on the Movie (I’m never referring to it in full again), came out at the same time the movie hit theaters. Usually, games based on movies become failures, as they’re often rushed and not given much of a budget. They become nothing more than a quick way to make money while the iron is hot. If you’re expecting me to say that, despite the lucrative deal Ancel scored with Jackson, the game ended up being a failure that tarnished the once respected developer’s name, you are wrong.

I was wrong when I first heard about the game’s release, but being wrong is not always a bad thing.

King Kong not only sold very well but was also critically acclaimed for being one of the best video games to have ever been based on a movie. If you think the game’s current age has brought out some of the ugly in it, you’d be wrong yet again. Many consider this little promotional piece to be ahead of its time.

As established previously, Michel Ancel is a man who loves to innovate. He hates being restricted and following a guiding norm. His will to surprise and give players an unforgettable experience was never compromised or shunned during the development of King Kong. In fact, I believe it was more present with Kong than ever before.

The game follows the same plotline as the movie, with a film crew making its way to the mysterious Skull Island in order to film a movie under director Carl Denham. Players take control of Jack Driscoll, the writer of the movie, after the crew crashes on the island. They present gameplay from a first-person point of view (a first for Ancel), but it’s not true at all to call it an FPS as there’s not much focus on shooting and fighting, but surviving. In what was at the time a very impressive innovation (barring Call of Duty 2, which came out only 2 months before King Kong), the game’s HUD (Heads-Up Display) was completely removed.

Source: Moby Games.

There’s no life bar, nor is there an ammo count. While you can turn the HUD back on in the options menu, the game starts you out without the two things you’d expect a game like this to have. Besides the screen filling with shades of red once you’ve taken too many hits and finding out you have no ammo left only when it’s out, the game doesn’t tell the players how well they’re doing. The game sent you to survive and you’re going to feel what it’s like to survive this dangerous island and the wild jungles which fill it. I remember trying the game out at a friend’s house, becoming horrified to learn I did not know how well I was doing and that the game would be over quickly if I wasn't careful.

Nothing compares to that night in which I took control of Jack and quickly realized I can’t just waltz through everything. I had to be careful, use my brain, and make each shot count. I was never big on horror while I was growing up and this game’s atmosphere made me tense like never before. It was a learning experience for me to realize being scared can be part of the fun and that it can help me get more engrossed in an experience. This was the experience that later convinced me to try out more horror games.

I shouldn’t forget the levels in which you’re actually playing as Kong himself as he jumps and swings around the island while taking on creatures with more ease and brutality than Jack ever could. Taking control of Kong was weird and surprising for me, as I was suddenly the big ape himself, doing everything I expected him to do. The surprises didn’t stop there!

Everyone who knows anything about movies knows how King Kong ends. It’s an iconic moment in cinema history and it is indeed in the game, but there’s an extra ending.

If the player clears the entire game while scoring 250,000 points on each level, an extra level is unlocked, which serves as an alternate ending to the tale of Kong. If you ask me, this is going above and beyond what any other game at the time would have done, let alone one that’s based on a movie. Once again, Michel Ancel proved that he was no one-hit-wonder, and that even the 'movie-based game’ curse can’t make him miss. At this point, I was sure the man could do no wrong. I adored him. I looked up to him.

His future, however, sadly shows that even the mighty can fall, disappoint, or worse… disappear.

Rayman Origins - A Hero's Return

Michel Ancel would vanish from the spotlight for the next few years. King Kong might have been a success no one expected, but Rayman continued to be overshadowed by the Rabbids. Despite Ancel’s passion and love for Beyond Good and Evil and his willingness to continue the story, he knew very well that it would never happen. A sequel ended up being announced in 2008 and footage of the game leaked a year later, confirmed as authentic by the man himself, and yet the only thing surrounding the game was silence. I remember going online every few months to squeeze some info regarding the sequel, but to no avail.

The start of the next decade seemed to bring Ancel’s much-awaited return with the announcement of Rayman Origins. Not only was the limbless hero back to star in a new platforming adventure with his creator guiding the ship once more, it was also the first game to support a new engine developed by Ancel himself. UbiArt Framework allows animators and artists to easily create interactive environments and implement content inside of them, while also producing beautiful graphics and a smooth experience.

Eyes were definitely on Rayman and Ancel to prove their absence was a mistake that should never happen again. I was ecstatic to play another true Rayman game, and the day I got to hold Rayman Origins in my hands was a day worth remembering.

Source: YouTube.

Reviews definitely welcomed both character and creator back with open arms. Fans, such as myself, rejoiced as Rayman Origins continued being a wonderful, imaginative, challenging, beautiful, and all-around fun adventure. I had the biggest smile on my face, playing through this new adventure by myself and with friends. I even wrote my first published video game review on Rayman Origins, again making Rayman an important figure in my life.

Sales, however, did little to impress, as they didn’t match expectations. Shockingly, Ubisoft saw the game as profitable and green-lit a sequel called Rayman Legends. While not innovating from its predecessor as the other games in the series, Legends doubled on the imagination, challenges, and level gimmicks which made it more than ‘just another sequel’. Everything which made me love Origins was present in Legends as well with even more creativity. It’s a game I’m never sick of replaying.

Just like Origins, however, the game failed to meet sales expectations. Legends sold more than Origins and Ubisoft continued claiming the game was profitable, but who were they kidding? It’s been almost a decade since the game launched and there’s no sign of Rayman returning soon. He’s made a few cameos and had a few mobile releases since then, but they’re not the next big adventure in the limbless hero’s journey. A big adventure which I’m afraid we won’t get to see soon.

Source: Wild Sheep Studios.

Wild Sheep Studios & Beyond Good and Evil 2

Unlike Rayman, however, Michel Ancel wasn’t done just yet as he announced a big move in his career. He was opening a new game studio named Wild Sheep Studios, separate from Ubisoft.

The first project from the team was a survival game named Wild, revealed in 2016 as an exclusive game for the PS4. Players would spy and control animals as they try to survive in a harsh prehistoric world. It definitely looks interesting from the little which was shown and I’d give it a shot if it ever comes out.

From the other side of things, despite opening his own studio, Ancel’s partnership with Ubisoft wouldn’t cease as he continued working on Beyond Good and Evil 2 under their leadership. No, I didn’t forget about Beyond Good and Evil 2, but the public sure did since that 2009 leaked trailer.

There was news, but nothing substantive: rumors about the cancelation of the game, conflicting statements from Ubisoft and Ancel regarding the state of the project, a rare treat to fans with the release of an HD port of the original game, and debates about an exclusivity deal with Nintendo. Reports regarding the game would pop up every so often, but they discussed nothing concrete until 2016, when Ancel posted some concept art. Ubisoft then confirmed the game was indeed happening, with E3 2017 blessing fans with a trailer and some gameplay presentation which actually disappointed and enraged fans instead of causing them joy.

Beyond Good and Evil 2 was now a prequel set long before the original game, featured new characters whom fans didn’t know nor care to know, contained a language I can only describe as ‘inappropriate for this article’, and no new information regarding a release date. Fans finally got another look at the game they’ve been praying for, only for the trailer to disappoint and deliver them the exact opposite of what they wanted.

On a personal level, I was baffled and disappointed by what I saw. I wouldn’t mind a prequel if the original game hadn’t ended on a cliffhanger that is yet to be resolved, or if it came out later down the road after an actual sequel. It felt like I wasn’t witnessing Beyond Good and Evil 2, but a random game that just shared the same moniker.

Source: Ubisoft.

How did BG&E2 and Wild turn out? Well, I sadly can’t tell you, since both games are in what I can only describe as a limbo. Would I still give Ancel the benefit of the doubt, considering he had braved challenges successfully before? I would if it wasn’t for the fact that in 2020 Michel Ancel quit the video game industry with the future of both Wild and Beyond Good and Evil 2 remaining unclear.

Ancel has confirmed that he believes both teams can finish the games without him, but after two years of silence, it’s hard to remain optimistic regarding the matter of their release. I’ll believe they’re out once I see them come out.

A Legend Fallen

I still remember the day I read about Ancel’s departure from the industry. Beyond Good and Evil 2 may not have been the game I wanted anymore, and I knew little about Wild to develop a solid opinion on it, but the news was devastating.

A legend just stepped away from two projects, one a sequel to his precious and beloved gem. No lead-up, no rumors, nothing. Hope for a new Rayman game also died that day, as well as a little part of my life. This man developed games that were such big parts of my life, not to mention an inspiration to embrace my ‘weirdness’, and then to suddenly know he’s stepping down? It was bound to happen, but it was still a sad time. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for what would come next.

One week after Ancel’s exit from the industry, a French newspaper, Libération, revealed that during questioning of abusive behavior at Ubisoft, they described Michel Ancel as hard to work with. It described the once legendary developer as abusive and narrow-minded, with many of his team blaming his disorganization and lack of coherent vision as the reason why Beyond Good and Evil 2 has been in development for so long with no release date in sight. Colleagues reported complaints about Ancel to higher-ups, but his close relationship with Ubisoft's CEOs protected him.

It was devastating to hear about yet another creator responsible for games I love dearly being exposed for his unforgivable behavior. This was different for me, however.

I grew up with Ancel’s work. Rayman is one of my favorite characters. The worlds he created served as an escape for me when I needed to run away from the world. His need to innovate taught me how to look at things differently. Thanks to him, I’m the gamer I am today and if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have met a lot of my friends, nor would I have taken risks and chances. I played every game he led and, even if it sounds stupid and naïve, I believed I got to know the guy based on his work. I wanted to meet him and tell him I owe him all the good in my life because his games helped me so much throughout all of my life. That he turned me into a better person… and it all came crashing down with just one article.

Ancel denied the allegations, admitting that he knew he was being investigated and that he left the industry regardless of the situation. Do I believe him? How can I? How can I believe the words of one person compared to so many other people? I want to believe him. I want to believe that in this world I live in, where there are no limbless creatures flying with helicopter hair, reporters aren’t fighting a corrupt government with a stick, and apes aren’t big enough to punch dinosaurs in the face, there’s some decency in the people responsible for the products I treasure. But I can’t…

Make no mistake. Michel Ancel is a hero of mine; I think everything I just wrote about him should make it clear enough. However, I cannot ignore, nor forgive, his horrible behavior and I’m saddened to learn the man who provided me with such happy memories and inspired me to be innovative and appreciate creativity is no better than the same people who shunned me for my creativity and for being different, not to mention bullied me or abused me because ‘I wasn’t normal’. They say to never meet your heroes, but I feel like I never even knew my hero.

I want to finish this article by talking to Michel Ancel himself. On the very slim chance that you’re reading this, thank you. Thank you for the memories, lessons, encouragement, laughs, incredible experiences both alone and with friends, and for inspiring me to embrace my differences. You’ve done a lot for me and I will never forget it, but the poor work practices and behavior you committed? The way you treated people that led to your own downfall? I can’t forgive that, sir. Because if I do, I’m going against everything you taught me. I will always call you a legend, but you’re sadly also a fallen one.


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