A Plague Tale has the best digital rats I've ever seen in a damn videogame
Look: if you want to see the world’s most impressive digital rat swarm technology, you’ve gotta check out A Plague Tale: Innocence. Asobo, the French studio behind ReCore, is responsible for the single most intense digital rat swarm I’ve ever seen in my life. The rats have little glowy yellow eyes that reflect in torchlight. They swarm with what seems— to my untrained rat-eye— like incredible rat-realism. They heap up on top of one another when they’re forced into a small space and they squirm with extreme grossitude. I am a fan of these digital rats!!
I am also intrigued by the game they are in. A Plague Tale stars Amicia, a 14-year-old girl, and Hugo, her tag-along 5-year-old brother. They’re from 1300s France, and their family has been killed by a fictional version of the “Inquisition.” Real medieval inquisitions in France were small and often low-energy, as inquisitions go; the one in the game is not based on any actual Catholic inquisition, but definitely seems inspired more inspired by the Spanish Inquisition. It’s dark stuff!
The other stories that inspired this game— Brothers Grimm-type stories like The Pied Piper and Hansel and Gretel— are creepy as hell, too, if you read the originals. “Those tales which are quite well known in our culture, they are actually quite dark,” said David Dedeine, the game’s creative director. "Sometimes you even wonder why adults were telling us those stories, they were very scary actually. It's something in the DNA of this game." I believe him— the demo we saw opened with Amicia watching Hugo cry in a cage as hundreds of rats swarmed around him and inquisitors joked about killing him.
Those rat swarms form the meat of A Plague Tale’s gameplay. They kill anyone whom the swarm is able to touch, but they’re repelled by light— so the majority of the puzzles seem to involve using light to keep the rats away from Amicia and Hugo. “You will use most of the time the rats against the inquisition and the inquisition against the rats,” Asobo’s demo presenter told us. If you have light, you are protected from the rats but visible to the inquisition; if you have no light, you are hidden form the inquisition but vulnerable to the rats.
We saw this early on in the demo: Amicia carries a sling, which she can use to knock out lanterns in the hands of Inquisition soldiers. Turning out a handheld lantern lets rats swarm all over the lantern holder, killing the soldier instantly; the rats then form huge gross gnawing heaps and remain distracted for a while as they chew up the bodies. Amicia killed both of the inquisitors who are holding Hugo hostage by knocking out their lights, which then caused the sea of rats to part and allowed her and her brother to take refuge in a nearby church.
…which was ABSOLUTELY FILLED WITH GIGANTIC DISGUSTING RAT NESTS. The developers swore up and down the the rats in the game are not supernatural— they want “to keep them as realistic as possible” and give them “special behavior that rats could have in an extreme plague context, but we will not go further than this.” Which… I don’t know. These rats are fucked up. The inside of the church we saw was so coated in gigantic fleshy rat nests that looked as if they were made of bones and flesh that I started having Dead Space flashbacks.
In that church, we got to see a puzzle where Amicia and Hugo try to get ahold of an inquisition lantern so that they can enter the church’s basement without dying by rat. To do this, they had to shoot down a chandelier, light a candle at it, and use the candle to light a brazier that would drive rats away from the lantern they wanted to grab. Although the player only controls Amicia, Hugo performed a variety of essential puzzle-solving roles throughout this process— he slithered through a gate to grab a candle, then lit the candle and carried it around for Amicia.
In this way, A Plague Tale is more of an action-adventure game than the stealth game its light mechanics would imply. Stealth is important, Dedeine said, "but twisted, I would say, with the presence of Hugo... We play on the fact that he's young and smart and he will be useful, but still he's five years old... When you're five you're not able to understand everything, so Alicia will basically have to manage her brother.” She does this with d-pad commands that send Hugo to fetch objects and perform tasks with them.
After Hugo and Amicia got the lantern, some awful groaning echoed through the church— and the the light illuminated the gross bony rat nests, and huge quantities of rats came out of the nests and swarmed the kids. Hugo and Amicia hugged each other to stay in the light and walk slowly through the sea of rodents— and when they did that, the rat movement was fucking wild. These rats stay at the perimeter of the light in a really weird and interesting way, and even heaped up on one another disgustingly when they’re forced backward into the entrance of the church undercroft.
When I asked Dedeine about the technology behind the swarming rats, he told me that it wasn’t hard to get the rats working, but that it is hard to make them look and feel scary and work as part of the game’s puzzles. “As very often in life, you have a pretty good version quite early, but it's when you want to make it feel great that it starts to feel difficult.... because basically displaying lots of rats is easy but making them feel real... it's another challenge.”
The rats also have to react to player behavior in a way that serves the gameplay. “The AI which is related to this is very important... because it's not only a visual thing,” Dedeine said. The rats have to be intelligible as a puzzle element. “So with all the feedback, the rats need to convey how you will manage them. So the subtleness of the work there is really that, to make it feel impressive, beautiful, organical— but at the end of the day, gameplay first.”
The game will be about ten hours long, Asobo hopes, but they’re aiming for narrative coherency above all, so they’re willing to make the game a little shorter if it makes it feel more powerful. This game seems like it will live or die on the power of Amicia and Hugo’s relationship, so that’s probably a good priority.
A Plague Tale currently has no release date, but it’s coming out on console and PC at some point. I was pretty impressed by the stuff I saw (particularly those rats!!!), so here’s hoping it’s sooner rather than later.