[Cleaning the Backlog] A Plague Tale: Innocence

Six years ago, in March 2017, James Stephanie Sterling raised a shitstorm of slightly more than average proportions with this review of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Nintendo fans couldn’t comprehend the audacity of rating a Zelda game as low as 7/10. Even the unambiguous word «good» under the score failed to prevent the gamers’ outrage. It was just another incarnation of a long-known problem in the gaming mediasphere—there is no such thing as a good or decent game. Mass consciousness allows only two game types to exist—a complete or slightly flawed masterpiece or a disgusting trash pile (everything below 8/10). Although, some anomalies in the shape of trash pile masterpieces are seldom allowed.

We’ve come a long way since then as a society. Oh no, gamers still go full berzerk, taking every smallest excuse, and the hyper fixation on Metacritic scores still exists in this world. But most of the media that matter—those critics that make critique and not merely decide the amount of ‘fun’ in the product—either don’t use the scoring system at all or use it in an intended non-binary and spectrum-based way, therefore normalizing various adjectives like «good» and «decent» for describing and evaluating digital games.

All those words were written to explain that I consider A Plague Tale: Innocence a decent game, and it’s not bad! Sure, I’ve seen better stories about siblings traveling dangerous and grim European landscapes—some of them are more memorable even without pestilence and swarms of rats. Still, Amicia and Hugo’s journey to kill the pope was far from a waste of time, albeit I barely remember the details. I remember roughly three main aspects of the game that together made the experience of playing A Plague Tale: Innocence meaningful for me.

1) RATS. 1348 A.D., Medieval Europe. Black Death roams the continent, dancing and reaping, and swarms of rats pour into the streets, devouring every unlucky soul on their way. A Plague Tale: Innocence is not a historically accurate story—the plague here is not an epidemic disease brought to Europe by sailors, but an ancient chthonic evil awakened from the depths of hell. Rats are not merely rodents but a metaphor for a powerful force of nature, an existential threat to all living. Also, they are a tool, or rather a weapon.

2) POPE. Hugo is not an ordinary boy. He can control rats, so he may be a key to saving the world from this dreadful pestilence. Unfortunately, the Grand Inquisitor of France knows about Hugo’s power and wants it all to himself. Thus, a more personal conflict arises in addition to the existential struggle.

3) FOCUS. A Plague Tale: Innocence knows precisely what story it wants to tell and how it must be done. The game is strictly linear and focused—no open-world roaming, tower-capturing, or similar chore doing. Yes, there are some collectathon and crafting aspects, but they are implemented in a tasteful manner that doesn’t dilute the main gameplay mechanics (RATS) and central plotline (POPE).

Of course, there are other aspects to the game. There are various narrative themes, additional game mechanics, technical and aesthetic audio-visual elements, etc. They are important but not crucial for the central message, and in this particular case—not so impactful for me personally. If they were, I would consider this game more than decent.

I played A Plague Tale: Innocence around the time when COVID-19 officially became a significant threshold of modern history. We all saw how various forces utilized this existential crisis in different ways: some consolidated power, some capitalized the shit out of newly emerged opportunities, and others tried to channel the force of zeitgeist towards meaningful changes. No doubt, real-life context contributed to my impression of A Plague Tale: Innocence and amplified the strength it resonated with me. Still, I would consider this game decent even without ironical coincidences.

A Plague Tale: Innocence is an excellent example of the schematic simplicity of decent storytelling in a videogame. You need a central theme enforced by plot and mechanics and an overall focus on this theme. The rest is a technical matter. Of course, the devil lies in the details, and additional layers are necessary to empower the experience further, but the structural formula is pretty simple.

Unfortunately, such a simple concept is often ignored by the mainstream AAA machine that breeds mechanical and thematic mishmash that, even if succeeds in conveying some meaningful, coherent message—does it unintentionally.

In short, we need more games like A Plague Tale: Innocence.

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