Neil Nagwekar, Mumbai, India
Disclaimer by Neil: This is not your average IGN review. We don’t rate a game’s story strengths, combat mechanics or engine. Instead, we ask questions like: Why was the game developed in this particular way? How is it best enjoyed? What new does it add to the history of videogames, narratives and texts in general? And what does the game say about us?
Also, don’t worry about spoilers.
In many ways, A Plague Tale: Innocence is your typical single-player journey.
The game has no dialogue options, no alternate endings, no co-op, no open-world. The ‘chapters’ are firmly demarcated levels you would find in classics like Prince or Wolfenstein 3D. The story is good, even if it has a few overused tropes—a bunch of children surviving in a big bad world, a cliché villain with a vague Christian ideology, are some that spring to mind.
The general vibe of Plague’s gameplay reminded me of how Espen Aarseth1 describes a feature of most videogames: that they require a nontrivial effort from the gamer to ‘travel’ through it. In a movie, the story does its thing while you view it like a voyeur. In a game like Plague, you are an active participant. You are faced with obstacles on your path, and you expend real energy to navigate past them.
Aarseth calls this property of a videogame (or any text for that matter) its ‘ergodicity’, and classifies the whole genre as ‘ergodic literature’2. This is the first thing I’d like to talk about.
In next-gen gaming, Plague is one of the best examples of the classic ergodic text. Each chapter can be reduced to a set of elaborate puzzles, to which there is often one answer. Whether there are three or four ways depends on your gadgets, not on carefully constructed alternate storylines. This is not Detroit; the larger story is fixed. Your task is to simply move through the puzzles in a way they kinda want you to.
This shows that there is an ongoing, very palpable cause-effect relation. You do this, you progress. You do that, you die.
This can make the journey of the game slightly scientific or forensic. Let me offer an example: the rats in Plague are, at first, terrifying. There are literally thousands of them in most chapters, and they are EVERYWHERE (fun fact: Asobo’s awesome engine can accommodate unique AI for around 5,000 rats). Fortunately, they can’t stand light and fire, which means if you stand near a lamp, or hold a torch in your hand, you’re good to go.
In the beginning, the rats scared me sh*tless. What if I stood near a torch for too long and it extinguished? What if I stepped a toe out of the fire and got instantly eaten? What if my companions roamed around and got caught?
As time passed, and the puzzles became more complex, it didn’t take long for the fear to disappear. I began to ask myself, how do I solve this complication? How do I pull this lever or grab that stick or slide under this hole in the wall? I spent whole minutes under dim fire, with hundreds of rats near my feet, knowing full well that the game won’t allow them to eat me.
To put it another way, I became pulled out of the raw emotion, and instead activated the problem-solving faculties of my mind. The game stopped becoming horror-stealth and became a math hurdle. Over time, I asked myself: was I consuming this game correctly?
That brought with it an anxiety… an anxiety of being immersed.
James Newman3 has something very interesting to say about the ergodic genre. “Videogames,” he says, “do not present a singularly ergodic experience. They are highly structured and comprise episodes of intense ergodic engagement.”
This, as mentioned above, describes Plague Tale to a T. The ‘intense ergodic engagement’ are the puzzles. The rigid structure can be seen through the labyrinth-like design of every level. But how do you make such a rigid game not seem like Tetris?
By making it pretty.
No joke, Plague Tale is drop-dead gorgeous. Even amidst mountains of corpses, rivers of blood and swarms of ravenous rats, the game manages to be a thing of beauty. Creative Director David Dedine said that they relied on their strengths as a Bordeaux-based studio. It shows. The lush countryside, winding urban lanes and French estates are as stunning as they are realistic. The effect is enhanced because there’s no invasive HUD and no Detective Mode that makes holograms out of the game-world (looking at you, Arkham series).
The graphics, immersion and realism are probably Plague’s greatest strengths. The game is built around this experience. Even though the world is somewhat restricted, you can sometimes stray from the beaten path, climb random ladders and venture into rat-infested areas. You will be rewarded with collectibles, objects to interact with and short, endearing dialogues between characters. You don’t care if the game is not as open-world as Fallout, because it’s worth getting lost into.
There’s just one catch.
I remember the game’s idyllic, pastoral start, where Amicia, the protagonist, looks like she would rather invite a rat to dinner than kill it. Fast-forward an hour, and with no practice, my girl is better with her slingshot than Jesse James with a gun.
But how does that happen? How do you find random workbenches to upgrade your inventory, in the middle of rats and Inquisition soldiers? How do rocks and sulphur spawn conveniently when you’ve run out of raw materials? Why can’t you properly explore this beautiful, lived-in world without NPCs scolding you?
Even though Plague banks on immersion and realism, certain mechanisms are distinctly non-immersive. And look, ANY game (no matter how immersive it tries to be) will have leaps of logic. This is a videogame, after all.
However, in Fortnite or Super Mario Kart this is a non-issue, because they make no attempt to appear real or grounded. Plague is different. The Black Death, the Inquisition, were all a real thing. Amicia will be one-shot if caught, which makes sense since she’s not the daughter of a ninja.
There’s little doubt that Plague offsets its outmoded stealth mechanics by being immersive and realistic. Which is why it’s jarring when a game undermines its own realism by, say, letting you craft stuff in the middle of a boss fight. It takes you out of the moment.
In these little pockets of doubt, you wonder if there was another way of progressing through the chapter. You wonder if you were meant to craft or upgrade stuff before, or if the game is unnaturally holding your hand. You wonder if Amicia would do this, and then you wonder if Asobo Studios would even want you to ask yourself that.
In essence, you wonder if you’re playing the game right.
This is a worry. But, in my opinion, it is not the gamer’s worry or the worry of the Plague team. It is a folly in how we are trained to analyse videogames in general.
Take character, for instance. Newman notes that a gamer’s playing experience is often reported as “one of first-hand, being, doing and participation.” We can empathize with Amicia, Hugo, Roderick, or even Grand Inquisitor Vitalis. We see them as real, living, breathing people.
Here lies the pickle. Even though we know videogames are a unique medium of its own, we still talk about Plague’s ‘relatable characters’ or ‘plot points’ as if it were television or theatre. It’s not. It’s a videogame, a simulation made for you. What does it matter how Amicia would act in real life? Amicia is a conduit for you. You are real, while Amicia is a locus of cleverly coded pixels.
The game is nothing without you. It’s up to you to feel fear or apathy in the face of rats. It’s up to you to love Hugo, hate Roderick, agree with Vitalis or think whatever you please. Plague will verily nudge you in one direction—and sometimes force your hand—but it cannot change what you take from the game.
Newman boldly advices that we stop seeing the characters as human beings we can empathize with. Instead, we should try to “disregard representational traits in favour of […] character as sets of capabilities, potentials and techniques offered to the player”. He extends this logic to Tomb Raider quite well: “Lara Croft is defined less by appearance than by the fact that ‘she’ allows the player to jump distance x”.
This is an odd way of thinking. But it happens to solve several of the so-called criticisms of Plague Tale. It encourages you to not worry whether you’re consuming the game the right way, or if the events of the story are real. It encourages you to not see the unifying truth between realistic settings, stylized history and unrealistic abilities of realistic characters. Paradoxically, it is because of its delicious, single-player restrictiveness that we come to this realization.
Perhaps, above all, if Plague Tale teaches us one thing as gamers, it is that we need to stop analysing videogames in the same way we analyse dramas and sitcoms.
1. Most of Aarseth’s ‘ergodic literature’ views stem from his book “Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature”.
2. Curiously, ‘ergodic’ comes from the Greek words ergon (work) and hodos (path). It literally means the amount of work required to continue along your path.
3. All of Newman’s quotes come from the article “The Myth of the Ergodic Videogame”. Find it here.
Neil (24), is from Mumbai, India. After completing M.A. in English Literature, he is currently editing two books. He reviews potato PC games, indie games and/or preceding instalments of popular games. Find him on Twitter @NeilNagwekar!