The Rats Are Definitely a Metaphor In A Plague Tale: Innocence [Paris Preview]

As I waited for my appointment, I watched as a man in a muted tie-dye sweater painted a full-sized portrait of what looked to be a woman and a young boy. Dozens of rats leapt out from the shadows of the portrait. It had the kind of sketchy look that reminded me of Ah-Ha’s “Take On Me” but with less police and more plague-ridden rodents. I later learned that this “live painting” was in the works over the last forty-eight hours. What game awaited me behind closed doors that warranted such a work of art?

Behind those closed doors was A Plague Tale: Innocence, a new game from Asobo studio. A quick Google search informed me that this studio had a history of licensed games, particularly Disney and Pixar adaptations. Their latest work was not a Ratatouille rip-off, however, as the brief hands-off demo showed a world Disney would dare not touch.

The demo began with our protagonist, an unnamed young woman, slinking through the shadows of a town consumed by the bubonic plague. The town is mostly dark, save for the few lanterns held by the Inquisition guards on patrol. The young woman climbs the steps to the front of a church, where her young brother is currently being held.

A Plague Tale, fittingly, takes place in the Middle Ages, a time when people were highly superstitious. Many see the rats and the plague as the work of witchcraft. The young boy is being held hostage by the Inquisition, who believe that their mother is a witch and responsible for the scourge of rats just outside the lantern’s light. Personally, I did not blame the Inquisition as the rats were not only numerous, they were otherworldly in their movements.

As a child, the young female protagonist was no match for the Inquisition guards. Instead, she uses a sling to launch a rock at the guard’s lantern, snuffing out the only source of their protection against the scourge. The rats wasted no time in attacking the guards, rushing up their bodies and consuming their flesh like a plague-filled tide smashes up against the rocks. It was violent, brutal, and absolutely wicked. As the rats are distracted, the young lady rushes in and saves her brother.

It is important to note that the choice of protagonists was intentional. The crux of the game is a conflict between shadow and light, both literally and figuratively. However, it is not about the contrast of light and dark in the context of good and evil. Rather, it is about witnessing the depths of human darkness through innocent eyes. The example given to me was the movie Grave of the Fireflies, which the developers cited as a huge influence on this project. Much like how that movie was about the bond between siblings in a world and a moment so much larger than themselves, so too is A Plague Tale about familial bonds against the wake of a large, imposing force; in this case, the bubonic plague.

What stood out to me was how they made the rats almost supernatural. While this will be a very grounded (read: non-magic) game, the rats possess an alien-like presence. Huge, dripping rats nests cling to the church pillars as if James Cameron had a say in the set design. Watching the rats wriggle and move amongst each other is unsettling and captivating. Their presence is a constant obstacle in the game, but an obstacle that can be used to the player’s advantage. As was described earlier, rats can be used as both a distraction and a weapon. While not shown, I was able to learn that later on items can be crafted to be used as bait for the rats, in addition to firebombs to keep them at bay.

The final image of the demo was a lasting one. The back wall of the church painted black with rat hair, the descent into a living hall of flesh and gnawing teeth as she gave chase toward her brother. While still early, my curiosity overrode my disgust for the fleshy plague capsules with a tail. I just hope they don’t include a live rat with the limited edition.