The Black Death eliminated tens of millions of humans throughout Europe and the Middle East, unsettling the very foundations of society that had been built up throughout the Middle Ages. It left an impression on every aspect of culture, including art, where death became a constant theme. It’s surprising, then, that the plague doesn’t have a greater presence in videogames, a medium almost exclusively fixated on death. It’s a perfect fit.
Asobo Studio, the French developers who have worked on ReCore, two HoloLens games, and a variety of Disney tie-ins, wants to fill that hole in videogame’s historical record with A Plague Tale: Innocence. Set in Southern France in 1349, not far from Asobo’s home of Bordeaux, and at the peak of Europe’s first brush with the plague, A Plague Tale shows a studio trying to establish a new reputation for itself, while also paying tribute to its home, its history and a beloved game made by a studio from California.
As Kevin Choteau, the game’s lead designer, tells Paste during a recent demo in Paris, A Plague Tale started with their love of a Naughty Dog hit. Over coffee breaks at the studio, Choteau says, “We’d talk about games that were really immersive. The biggest one was The Last of Us. It had a huge impact on our thinking. They’ve taken so much risk with The Last of Us.”
The crux of that appeal came from the emotional ties between two characters, which is something Asobo aims to replicate with A Plague Tale. “We were talking about [The Last of Us] every day, and the bond between these two characters,” Choteau says. “I remember a moment where Ellie stops talking after killing a guy, and I felt so bad as a player—why is she not talking? It’s super subtle and well done. So we say, okay, this is what we want to build. We want to tell a story about two characters that are linked together and forced to face a world they cannot face.”
Choteau and his colleagues didn’t have to concoct a fictional apocalypse for their game, though. They only had to look back at French history. It’s a history they knew well. “For us [the plague is] something we knew about from when we were a child in school,” he says. “We learned about this period. It was super interesting to visit it with an adult eye and create a more adult version of this story.”
France was ravaged by the plague throughout the Middle Ages. At the same time that pestilence first crept throughout Bordeaux in the late 1340s, France and England were engaged in the early years of the Hundred Years’ War. Death was a constant. War and disease conspired to destroy whatever life had been like, and the sister and brother at the heart of A Plague Tale are two of their indirect victims.
That sister, a young teenager, is the hero of the game. You guide her through this ruined world in search of a mother that may or may not still be alive, all while protecting the five-year-old brother you barely know. Just as Ellie did in The Last of Us, that brother actively assists you throughout the game, squeezing through small openings into areas you can’t get to and helping you solve environmental puzzles.
In the hands-off demo Paste watched in Paris, we saw the two sneak past guards into a cathedral that was still under construction. The sister knew they’d need a light in the darkness, and had her brother crawl through a metal grate to get to a candle. She used a slingshot to shoot a chandelier down, and used the candle to light a large brazier on the floor of the cathedral. With the entire building now illuminated, they were able to find a hidden entrance into the catacombs beneath the city, where a surprising voice called out to them as the demo came to a close.
Light is crucial to A Plague Tale. It’s the best way to avoid the biggest enemies in the entire game: rats. The fleas rats carried into Europe spread the plague far and wide, and A Plague Tale focuses hard on the role those vermin played. Rats are everywhere in the game, swarming wherever light doesn’t fall. They were even everywhere in the temporary booth constructed to host the demo, at least in plastic form.
That’s the primary focus of the in-game action, based on this demo. Avoid the river of rats, who will immediately devour you if you try to pass. Find light to make them scatter. Use your slingshot to extinguish the torches of the soldiers and guards determined to kill you, so that they in turn can be devoured by rats. The showpiece of the demo was a bit simplistic—it was a basic three step puzzle to find a light source and clear up a rat infestation—but if properly developed and thoroughly explored it could lead to an inspired game with an unusual setting.
Choteau indicates that this unusual setting will remain as brutal as you’d expect, adding that one of Asobo’s goals is to stay grounded in history, avoiding fantasy and chronicling how the apocalyptic world of 1349 shapes the developing minds of a young French boy and girl. “A little boy knows nothing about the world, nothing about the plague, and his family is slaughtered,” Choteau says. “He has to flee and face this violent world in such a short period that he will grow up with a very bad vision of the world. Everyone being violent with them, chasing them, trying to kill them. The way they will grow up, the way their mindset will change, it’s interesting.”
Continue to the second page to check out a gallery of A Plague Tale concept art.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s wrestling, games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.