Every year there are a handful of games that take both pundits and punters by surprise, with Asobo Studio and Focus Home Interactive’s A Plague Tale: Innocence shaping up to be one of those games. It’s been on my radar since its announcement in 2017, but after going hands-on with the game’s first three chapters and experiencing the potential first-hand, it has gone from being on my most anticipated list to being at the very top.
Recently I was lucky enough to speak to the game’s director Kevin Choteau ahead of its May 14 release about the game’s foundations, why Asobo chose to design a single-player game in a multiplayer-dominated market, and everything else A Plague Tale: Innocence.
WellPlayed: In your own words, briefly explain what A Plague Tale: Innocence is all about.
Kevin Choteau: A Plague Tale: Innocence is all about the relationship of our two main characters Amicia and Hugo and how their unique bond will evolve when they have to face all the cruelty and brutality of our world.
WP: The premise and setting of A Plague Tale is very unique for a video game. What inspired the idea?
KC: We wanted to tell a story with a kind of “moral” at the end, like the way the old folktales were doing it. A lot of those tales use the 14th century as a background context. This period is the crossroad of lots of major events in the medieval history – the Hundred Years’ War between the Plantagenets and Valois, the inquisition ruling the daily life and the arrival of the Black Death (one of the most devastating pandemics in human history…). It was the opportunity for us to expose innocent children to one of the most extreme situations humanity had to face.
WP: What were your influences from a gameplay perspective?
KC: One of our main references is Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, with this puzzle/action gameplay and, of course, big AAA references like Naughty Dog productions. But we also think we have something new to tell – we tried to define our own path in the story-driven genre and propose something different and very personal.
WP: The world looks incredibly detailed and authentic. I understand you did a lot of research into that time period to build the world. What were your main sources of reference?
KC: We wanted to place the game in an environment that is close to us, a place that we know very well to obtain something that feels authentic, so we stayed in the south-west of France where our studio is located. Of course, it’s not the 14th Century anymore, but since we were already “on-site” it was very easy for us to visit a lot of real places to find historical references in our direct area.
WP: Was there anything from that period of time that stood out in particular when designing the game?
KC: There’s plenty of very “interesting” historical anecdotes that depict what people were able to do to survive or by greed (often at the expense of the lives of others), we took all those little things and tried to put these somewhere in our story.
WP: History provides developers with an excellent foundation to build a game around. Why did you choose the historical path instead of building a world from scratch?
KC: As I was saying at the beginning, the game is a tale, and like folktales we are inspired by the real world but distort it to serve a story. Our goal is to obtain something that sounds “true”. It’s a strong guideline for our story, character, gameplay, setting and it was easier for us to obtain that using History instead of a fully fictitious world. And, to us, it looked far more engaging to live something that might be true to reality.
WP: It feels like the game is centred around an emotive narrative experience. How challenging was it to write a story that would hit players right in the feels yet still be an enjoyable video game?
KC: Super hard! When we started to develop the game we didn’t have any visuals, few animations, generated voices (robot voices!) and no music. In this context it’s extremely hard to figure out if what you are building is going to be credible and will create a strong narration with authentic emotions for the player. All those elements arrive very late in a production of our size so you must do many “leaps of faith” and hope that the final scene is going to reach the goal. Our story is about young kids and it must feel as natural as possible. We’ve failed many times before finding the right tone and mood that sounds true. Fortunately, we cast child actors for Amicia and Hugo, and they helped us in building authentic emotions. They were really involved in the game’s creation and made us interesting proposals to make the dialogues evolve into sounding more spontaneous.
WP: From what I’ve played, Olivier Deriviere has done a great job at composing the game’s soundtrack. How important is it for a game like this to have a soundtrack that adds another layer to the narrative experience?
KC: Yes, it’s a huge part of the emotion, and Olivier was a valuable help in conveying the right feelings at the right moments, staying true to our vision. He’s very involved in the production and really wants to understand the narrative goal behind every section of the game before offering a soundtrack serving this idea.
Amicia and Hugo – ’til death do them part
We wanted to tell a story with a kind of “moral” at the end, like the way the old folktales were doing it
WP: In a generation where open worlds seem to be the order of the day, you’ve taken a more linear approach to the game’s design. What made you choose this style over an open world?
KC: We wanted to focus on our story and there was no reason to go in an open world direction. We are 40 developers working on A Plague Tale and we had to stay focused and consistent, this is why we have selected all the features of the game to serve the story.
WP: Will players be able to play as both Amicia and Hugo during the campaign?
KC: No, we only see the story through Amicia’s eyes.
WP: How long can we expect the campaign to take to complete?
KC: Something between 12 and 15 hours
WP: Did you ever consider making the game a co-op experience given the story centres on the journey of brother and sister?
KB: Not really, as I was saying, it’s all about this precious relationship, one of our goals is to make you care about Hugo, to like him. Hugo is very spontaneous but not armed to face the world and won’t be able to survive without you. If someone else is playing this character, suddenly this aspect will be gone, it will become harder to obtain any of those feelings since it will be your friend playing among your side and not this naïve little boy anymore.
WP: How challenging was it to design rats that were intimidating to the player? Is it the sheer number of them that instils fear? How many can you generate on the screen at one time?
KC: The fear of the rats rely a lot on the way we are building up the legend around them before showing those little rodents in a spectacular way. After this, the number is less important because you know what they are capable of…We can display up to 5000 rats on the screen.
WP: Given the popularity of multiplayer games this generation, what made you choose to develop a story-driven single-player game?
KC: It was a huge risk when we’ve started this project, really out of the current state of the market. We play a lot of multiplayer games but there’s some sort of commitment when you start a new one. This dedication is not really needed for single player experiences where you know you will have “only” XX hours of a beautifully crafted experience. It’s very accessible, and something that you can share with other people in your own living room, we like this idea in the studio.
WP: This is a big departure from anything the studio has done previously. You must be proud of the growth the studio has shown?
KC: Sure! A Plague Tale is our dream project, everything we’ve learned in those past years is in there. The team is strongly involved in the development and I hope we won’t disappoint the players!
WP: What resolutions and framerates are you aiming for? Any performance boons for PS4 Pro or Xbox One X owners?
KC: The game supports an enhanced resolution and HDR @30fps on Xbox One X and PS4 Pro.
WP: With the Battle Royale phenomenon taking over the planet, did you ever think about adding a Battle Royale mode? Perhaps dropping 20 pairs of siblings into a map with the aim to get the other pairs eaten by rats?
KC: Yes! It’s a recurrent internal joke about the Rattle Royale©, putting children on a map with just a sling, armour pieces to collect protecting you from others while trying to survive an ever-spreading horde of rats (you need light to survive the rats but carrying a light make you super visible from other)…oh…wait… maybe we have a concept! 😊
WP: Thank you for your time. Good luck with the rest game’s development and its launch. We can’t wait to play it in May.
KC: Thank you!
A Plague Tale: Innocence will release on May 14 on PS4, Xbox One and PC.