Children of the First Pandemic

Amicia and Hugo De Rune lightinging candles at a side altar in a church Review of A Plague Tale: Innocence

The year 2019 saw the outbreak of disease leading to widespread social unrest in Europe.

I’m referring to A Plague Tale: Innocence, last year’s historical adventure game that won awards for narrative achievement even as its praiseworthy young characters won the hearts of an adoring fanbase on Xbox One, Playstation 4, and personal computer.

Launched one year before the coronavirus reset many of our expectations, A Plague Tale has been inspirational beyond its modest goals and its linear story due to its expectation shattering aesthetic: its appealing use of the values associated with childhood without being conventionally “family friendly.”

You should know three things about A Plague Tale. It’s a straight shot through a simple story inside of an action-adventure game. It’s both a fun videogame and a sophisticated experience designed for both artistic impact and nerd cred. Most importantly, it’s a serious, joyful game for both children and adults that bridges the gap between them. To achieve this, A Plague Tale starts out with a family scene from an idyllic and detailed vision of the European Middle Ages.

The year is 1348, one year following the outbreak of the Black Death in Europe, in the kingdom of Aquitaine in southwestern France. Fifteen year-old noblewoman Amicia De Rune must protect her five year-old brother Hugo as they flee for their lives from the murderous Inquisition, who are imposing a martial quarantine. The De Rune siblings meet other displaced children along the way, who join the party at various points to utilize their youthful competence as they unravel the mysteries of the De Rune family and of the plague. Along the journey, the children encounter eerie parallels to our current daily experience – rumors of an encroaching illness spreading through the land, causing social unrest leading to an atmosphere of distrust while the political pot begins to boil over.

A Plague Tale wins its players’ hearts not only due to the lovely camaraderie of its young cast, but also due to its strategic and puzzle-solving adventure-genre characteristics and the feeling of constant acceleration incited by the narrative design. To identify what makes A Plague Tale rewarding and unique, we’ll need to cover both its artistically portrayed character-based story as well as its implementation of its gameplay features. First, though, we should go over the unifying factor that holds this masterpiece together – its setting, a historical interactive landscape full of beauty and depth but also terror and decay.

Leveraging the genre conventions of its setting – knights and castles, armor and ruins – A Plague Tale exudes the sense of the medieval ethos at every turn. It accomplishes this by depicting its historical detail from its characters’ own medieval worldview, showing the fear and the social disturbances of the 14th-century pandemic in a way that feels authentically medieval.

The fantastic and the historical are united in this vivid setting through an abiding sense of authenticity. This authenticity is perhaps borne of the close relationship between the developers and the land, for the game development company Asobo Studio is based out of the city of Bordeaux in the very locale where their game is set. Narrative designer Sébastien Renard commented on Reddit regarding the creative inspiration for the setting, “As we’re French, living in a city with a rich and heavy past, we walk all day long in the shadow of medieval monuments, so it helps imagine the way villages and cities were built, what the countryside looked like, etc.”

That detailed historical intrigue interlaced in the story’s setting and the game’s environment is best described by examples:

  1. Hugo picks up a wooden shield from a fallen English soldier near the scene of a recent battle of the contemporaneous Hundred Years’ War, and the children soon encounter one of the foreign invaders in a powerful expression of empathy.
  2. A genealogy listing Amicia and Hugo’s lineage gathers dust in a castle surrounded by statuary and tapestries depicting mysterious alchemical symbolism.
  3. In a meticulously and hauntingly rendered interior of a large, austere church, a simple fourteenth-century rosary can be found. When discovered, Amicia tells Hugo what it is, and they resolve to use it later to pray for their parents.

Scenery of ruins and statuary expresses the aura of layered civilization, of an already old period of history building on the bones of generations still more ancient and mysterious. The medieval characters of A Plague Tale might not know the complete history of Roman activity in Europe, but a simple journey takes them to centuries’ old fortifications containing devices, structures, symbols, and information that they can use to escape danger. This creates a world full of material significance, an objective world close to its sources of meaning. In the game, the reverential attitude of the Middle Ages arises naturally out of this direct relationship to the forces at play in the world.

The central presence of religion in the society depicted in A Plague Tale is modeled in the game world. Multiple church structures are featured prominently at various points in the game, often at critical plot junctures. The church interiors, with basic stone statuary and side altars as well as simply painted interior domes, reflect a time when Christianity was more unified and objective. The churches could be Orthodox and in their stone austerity almost look Reformed, despite being solidly Western and Catholic in their historical context.

Religion in the story appears starkly contrasted between the imperial, self-righteous zeal of the Inquisition and the innocent faith of Hugo and Amicia’s prayers. As much as religion is depicted as a force of evil through the zealotry of the Inquisition soldiers, the artifacts of religion in society are continually portrayed as a positive, a psychological defense for the poor children against their trauma. Churches throughout the game are portrayed as places of safety, refuges for the children’s threatened innocence.

Taking a precedent from a historical time and region where many gnostic and non-mainstream sects existed, the story explicitly draws a distinction between mainstream catholic Christianity and the religion of the Inquisition. At one point, a cutscene shows a bishop from the Church reporting on the Church’s investigation of this Inquisition. The bishop says that the Inquisition was operated without the approval of the Pope and stated that he found only “heresy and occultism.” No further argument or example needs to be given than this to convince theology nerds and Church history buffs that they should love A Plague Tale.

But A Plague Tale is not a religious game, in the same way, for example, that the 2008 indie title That Dragon Cancer about a Christian family’s struggle is. Instead, A Plague Tale reverberates with the religious realism of its historical worldview, expressing the longing for living myth at the core of the fantasy genre by externalizing it in the framework of real-world history.

Asobo seems to shy away from the fantasy genre label, preferring to promote the game as historical drama. This is reasonable, as nothing in the world as presented would be far outside the expectations of reality from the characters’ medieval worldview. However, the story’s grand-scale mysticism functions as a kind of fantasy, the low kind, where the mythological has retreated into the artifacts of history. Alchemy unites the legend with the gameplay itself and with the greater plot. The gnostic references and alchemical paraphernalia offer up the leftover remains of the great spiritual forces of epic myth after they have passed into our historical experience.

The historical context serves as a referee in the game’s story construction, mediating between the immediate drama and the mythological background from the framing plot. The practical relevance of the historical context to the game is that it builds the aesthetic incentive for continuing to interact with the narrative.

The desire to play in order to experience the narrative is central to the game’s aesthetic design, setting the expectations players bring with them into the experience of interacting during the challenging action sequences and while exploring the setting. Along with the fun of adventuring in medieval Europe, A Plague Tale’s aesthetic interweaves the visual satisfaction of the realistic graphics with the artistic beauty of the pastel color design.

And the aesthetic is immersion.

A Plague Tale is clearly designed to be experienced from within. Distractions that break immersion, that is, anything reminding players about the fact that they are indeed playing a videogame, are kept to a minimum. The effect of the emotional rewards for the plot and gameplay along with the audio-visual experience is to forge a realistic simulation that is fully convincing in its own context.

Immersion is a sense of being inside of a game’s simulation, but in A Plague Tale even the auxiliary features strengthen the structure of the game world that sustains the immersion. For example, the Settings section of the game’s interface menu contains an option to remove the informational HUD overlay in order to remove any distractions from the richly rendered medieval world. This is also a difficulty setting, as turning off the overlay requires players to listen more carefully to audible clues and to pay more attention to the environment in order to evade detection by enemies. Since focusing on the environment is part of the ideal gameplay design and the overlay adds little value, players are strongly advised to use this setting.

The seamlessly captivating visual experience works together with the attention to detail expounded at every level, even outside of the actual game-world simulation. The game keeps track of various objects that the player may encounter, which trigger narrative sequences when the characters find them but have no major role in the story and do not affect gameplay. In the game menu, these objects are listed in a “Codex” screen, where brief historical blurbs are displayed along with the 3d artwork for each object. These special easter-egg objects come in three different categories – “Curiosities” for everyday objects that illustrate medieval life, “Gifts” for knick-knacks that the children find during the course of the game, and “Hugo’s Herbarium” for flowers, which when discovered prompt Hugo to pick the flower from the ground and place it in his sister’s hair.

While calling attention to the historical setting so directly might risk making the game feel too artificially nerdy and distract from the main gameplay experience, in A Plague Tale these systems help to promote players’ focus on the game world as they hunt for these optional objectives while also reinforcing the story and theme. And the historical nerd-lore attached to the game’s interface can be part of the hard-core gamer’s set of bells and whistles, as strategy games like the Civilization titles demonstrate.

Complementing the graphics and immersive interface design, the depth of the gameplay experience is fulfilled by the audio; namely, the traditional string and woodwind melodies of the score composed by Olivier Deriviere, along with the voice acting. There are three separate voice tracks selectable from the menu, in three different languages – English, French, and German. Given the historical context, playing in either English or German feels like an odd betrayal. The voice track language can be adjusted independently of the written language in the game interface, allowing the captivating combination of the disabled HUD combined with the French language track to be experienced even by players who don’t understand that language, though understanding the dialog is important to appreciating the game.

That experience is confined to a single plot thread spanning the seventeen chapters, without multiple plot choices or divergent endings. There is little choice in the development of the characters and no choice at all affecting their relationships or conversations. Character development occurs in scripted dialog between characters being triggered around the players’ exploration and actions. Supporting this narrative design, the map design directs the player’s movements without allowing open world exploration, while still feeling realistic at the reasonably natural boundaries.

Although stirring great empathy, the characters never feel very much like avatars for the player. There is not even a specific player character. Through most of the game, the third-person over-the-shoulder viewpoint follows Amicia and Hugo together, and at various times the party includes other characters who can perform tasks at the player’s initiation. Instead of being blank canvases for players to fill with their own self-actualization, these characters are part of the brush by which the game and the player cooperate to paint within the lines.

Within those pre-drawn lines, A Plague Tale grants players situational freedom to interact with its romanticized medieval aesthetic and its moral depth. This is most evident when the player has to decide whether or not to save strangers from being killed or whether or not to allow guilty enemies to die in the process of solving a problem. Choosing to save lives requires more thought and skill and rewards the player with the immediate narrative recognition of the accomplishment in the succinct scripted moments of character interaction. These scripted events recognize the moral significance as well as the emotional impact inherent in the player’s choice. The game excels at accommodating multiple strategies and for rewarding ingenuity and small-scale exploration, and the most significant of those rewards are the secret, spontaneous beats – scripted dialog and reactions, as well as alternative solutions and optional places to explore in the various chapters.

Player agency in A Plague Tale arises out of its gameplay mechanics. The primary gameplay genre is definitively stealth, firmly in the tradition of live action games where success is dependent on one’s ability to sneak past enemies or otherwise to avoid direct conflict. In A Plague Tale, standing and fighting is not an option, but players are still afforded the choice of how to get by the numerous opponents. Tactics include higher violence solutions involving Amicia’s ranged attack with her sling and lower-violence solutions based on distracting enemies.

Thus Amicia and company sneak and snipe through the story under the player’s control, at times bringing their special abilities to bear on a team problem or going off on their for a scene. Both of those situations involve the ever-changing gameplay mechanics, which progressively become more sophisticated as the narrative advances. This maintains attention by ensuring that interest in the developing story does not outpace the learning curve of the continuously introduced techniques for problem solving.

Chief among these emergent mechanics is the introduction of new types of ammunition for Amicia’s sling. Initially, Amicia’s alternatives to shooting guards with her sling include throwing rocks at metal objects to create distracting noise or throwing clay jars, which has the benefit of being usable when a metal surface is not available. Eventually, Amicia receives the ability to throw or to fire several kinds of ammunition that affect flame, the rats, and the guards in various ways.

Related, Amicia finds alchemical resources that she uses to make the special types of ammunition. Those resources can also be used to craft upgraded equipment, such as a better sling and a larger ammunitions pouch, which make gameplay substantially easier and affect the available strategies later in the game. This crafting system creates a dynamic of strategic resource management, because the equipment can generally only be crafted at specific workbench facilities which occur only sporadically throughout the chapters, and the ammunitions compete with the equipment upgrades for the limited resources. This also rewards behavior indicative of being immersed in the game world; namely, exploration and attention to the environment, since resources are often found in out-of-the-way places. Clearly, A Plague Tale’s focus on immersion does not preclude its appeal as a videogame.

And the game can be hard.

Traditional hardcore gaming elements abound, even those as simplistic as arcade-like boss-fights, of which there are three. While the game evokes comparisons on the one hand with artistic narrative-driven indie titles, it also feels like a console action-adventure game such as, for instance, the 2013 Tomb Raider, with which it shares several conceptual characteristics – adventure-style narrative and spatial puzzles, live action mechanics, equipment upgrades, and female action heroine protagonists. Though Laura Croft may have more toys at her disposal, Amicia De Rune and A Plague Tale possess a level of self-sufficient confidence that the hipsters can only play at.

A Plague Tale falls into a gray area between the conventional classifications of a mainstream “AAA” videogame and an indie game. Journalists seem to classify it as an indie work, and the validity of that designation is granted by the immersiveness, artistry, and lack of reliance on traditional combat, while its difficult gameplay and its traditional milieu reflect the expectations of the mainstream gaming community. It manages to be both a game that focuses on delivering an artistic experience and a game that is conventionally fun to play.

The gamer community on the Steam platform elected A Plague Tale as 2019’s Outstanding Story-Rich Game, while the community of videogame journalists awarded it four awards and nominated it for 18 in the NVGTR awards, making it the game with the highest number of nominations. The game’s lack of superfluous violence in its implementation of its feature set must have been a creative risk, and it evidently paid off, as Asobo announced on July 1 that the game had sold a million copies.

The fans have been busy on social media, sharing their screenshots made with the game’s Photo Mode feature, which allows the viewpoint to be moved while the gameplay is paused as well as photographic lens effects to be applied in order to take high quality virtual photos from any angle. Russian content about A Plague Tale is plentiful on YouTube, and a Spanish games journalism website runs a Twitter community page about it. Meanwhile, the French people have adored their own, the game having won six awards in the French competition for gaming awards, the Pégases.

Something in the game speaks to a craving for an authentic culture beyond the limits of the specific culture portrayed in the story; perhaps that is why other international communities have celebrated the game without even having voice translations in their languages. The relatively small Plague Tale fandom community on microblog and art oriented websites has created a variety of original illustrations, often reveling in the familial warmth expressed in the game’s characters. There is even fan music based on composer Oliver Deriviere’s score.

The sentiment that the fan content disproportionately picks up on is the affectionate family bond between sister and brother and between the De Rune siblings and their parents, who are featured prominently in the first chapters. Family affection is certainly a leading emotional beat in the story and in the official supporting media released from Asobo. However, Asobo itself seems to prefer to emphasize its heavier emotional themes. From the design of the cover art to the many promotional videos produced by Asobo’s distributor Focus Interactive, the official marketing has branded the game as a serious, grim historical drama, noting Amicia’s and Hugo’s psychological trauma. The official announcement video, presented in the 2017 E3 gamer’s convention, depicted the then-upcoming game as solid Gothic horror. Later on, Focus Interactive hired Sean Bean to star in one of the release trailers, narrating a classic poem by William Blake with intense melodrama. This famous actor’s participation automatically evokes comparison with A Game of Thrones, and it seems like that series’ well-known tragic and brutal take on a medieval milieu appears to align with at least Focus Interactive’s marketing of the game. Yet it is the other motion picture franchise for which Sean Bean is known that better represents A Plague Tale’s aesthetic and spirit.

While A Plague Tale is indeed serious and may well be frightening, even its shock horror sequences showing the children wandering through putrid corpses fail to approach the coarse, unmitigated despair favored by the grimdark movement. Even in the darkest of scenes, even when making an explicit point about how the children are being forcibly ejected from their innocent ignorance, the game always honors the childrens’ innocence. The closest the game approaches to the total tragedy of grimdark is during an interactive sequence when the player may choose to have Amicia act vengefully, but even there the context of the tragedy is different from the empathetic but hopeless moral ruin of grimdark characters.

Because the childhood characters are so justified in their tragedy, the game has a pervasive childlike quality. This creates that sense of adorableness that the fan community has picked up on. The dark tragedy in the game is part of its identity but does not dominate the titular quality of innocence. It is this aesthetic duality of the coexistence without contamination of virtue with stark horror that empowers the game’s more explicit narrative duality concerning the disparity of childhood and adulthood.

For in A Plague Tale, the children are fighting to preserve and defend their parents instead of the other way around. The story makes Sir Robert and Lady Béatrice De Rune empathetic in a different and complementary way to the way in which their children are empathetic. In the story, adult and elderly characters are evil antagonists trying to destroy the innocent children and teenagers; however, the plot rises above a simple exultation of youth by the deliberate redemption of adulthood by the efforts of the oppressed children. Out of all the emotional chords played by the game, this is perhaps its most compelling: it bridges the gap between unspoiled childhood and broken adulthood by inviting adult players to forgive themselves and to accompany the children in the justified struggle against corruption.

In the end, Amicia and her little brother face down the institutional corruption in their diseased world. Coronavirus had been breaking news during the hype from the Steam and NVGTR Awards, and the player community has reveled in the coincidence of A Plague Tale depicting the effects of an uncontrolled infectious disease. This timely coincidence has given A Plague Tale the relevance to be for some of us a standard raised in the midst of nearly absolute uncertainty, fluttering above the bloody soil where the powers clash over the right to control the diseased while feeding off the life-force of the honest.

To keep that standard in perspective, let’s leave it planted upon the heights of the context that makes it so moving by closing with one final comparison: the anonymous medieval English poem entitled The Pearl. That poem was actually written in the very same century in which A Plague Tale is set. It is easy to imagine the young girl who is the subject of The Pearl, believed to be the daughter of the author and viewpoint narrator of that epic poem, as a contemporary of Amicia and Hugo from across the Channel. In lamentation of the death of his daughter, perhaps in the very same plague for which A Plague Tale was named, the author of The Pearl engaged in a lengthy lament on the concept of the death of the innocent. In one of the major sections, the specific refrain repeated at the end of each stanza reads in Middle English, “The innocent are safe by right.” The poem expresses the agonized confusion over the fact that innocent children suffer and die, and the poet’s conclusion resonates well with one of the strongest subjective narrative inferences from A Plague Tale, that though the innocent are vulnerable, though they are forced to suffer and to compromise, that even their camaraderie and friendship can be broken, they will be vindicated.

Even if we find that we struggle to live up to that beautiful standard, we can uphold the universal aesthetic of innocence and seek to honor it in our interactions with others and with society. Come what may for the twenty-first century or for Asobo’s greatly anticipated sequel in the fourteenth, the gaming community is richer for the magnificent depiction of family honor in A Plague Tale: Innocence.