If we’ve learned anything from games set in medieval worlds it’s that, if you grow up in the Middle Ages, your family is going to be massacred and your village razed to the ground by a horde of bandits/soldiers/angry peasants. You’ll then have no choice but to take up a sword/bow/slingshot and go out into the world seeking revenge. If you’re hero material, that is. If not, you’ve probably already been decapitated/run through with a spear/tortured to death on your short trip through this vale of tears.
The opening hours of A Plague Tale: Innocence feel like an ambitious bid to cram in as many clichés about the Middle Ages as possible. When the religious fanatics of the Inquisition arrive at the de Rune family’s doorsteps, they are accompanied by a sinister knight in an armour covered in cruel spikes. After Amicia and her little brother Hugo have fled to a nearby town soon after, they witness a random burning at the stake before being chased through plague-ridden alleys by a brute with a giant mace.
To be fair, most of A Plague Tale's issues greatly improve over time. But given the relative rarity of video games set in the historical Middle Ages as opposed to medieval-esque fantasy worlds, it’s disappointing how familiar, even trite, the iconography, tropes and story beats of A Plague Tale often feel. What should be a refreshing change of pace ends up playing with the same dreary old toybox that has been used by popular media for decades.
Emphasising the misery and pain of the Middle Ages is of course inevitable in a game set during the Black Death, which killed 30 to 60 per cent of Europe’s population between roughly 1348 and 1350. There’s also nothing wrong with refusing the siren-song of ‘historical accuracy’ in favour of more imaginative reinterpretations of events.
Whether making the horror of the Black Death more graspable by visualising it as swarms of hellish rats is a successful metaphor is a different question, but it’s not a fundamentally wrongheaded idea. The problem is that a lot of the interesting texture that comes with setting a game in an actual historical period is either not capitalised on or gets drowned out by an onslaught of pop-cultural clichés.
The portrayal of the Inquisition as what is essentially a paramilitary terrorist group full of homicidal fanatics killing and torturing indiscriminately is one such example. Defending the Inquisition is something of an awkward position, but approaching the subject with a less black-and-white world view might not only have given A Plague Tale a more intriguing antagonist, but also one more grounded in its historical setting.
Contrary to popular belief the medieval Inquisition, despite its inhumane methods, was more interested in ‘rehabilitating’ heretics than in torturing or executing them. Unlike most medieval courts, it regulated and curtailed the use of torture, and only unrepentant or relapsed heretics were turned over to the secular authorities to be burnt at the stake. I'm not saying this means we should applaud the Inquisition so much as acknowledge that, judged against the usual standards of the Middle Ages, it was if anything less cruel than might be expected.
The problem here is not that the Inquisition serves as the game’s antagonist, but that A Plague Tale seems uninterested in the Inquisition as a historical phenomenon and instead just presents the usual cliché which is quite removed from what we know about it.
The Inquisition here is little more than shorthand for the cruelty and backwardness of the Middle Ages: a ready-made villain. Anything that might make the Inquisition complex, contradictory or, in short, interesting, is ignored in favour of an easily digestible and instantly recognisable stereotype.
Given the large role played by the Inquisition, it’s also strange how spiritual and religious issues are almost completely absent. This is a game ostensibly set during the traumatic upheaval of the Black Death, when many believed that the end of the world was near, and the flagellant movement swept across Europe in an attempt to sway an angry God through self-mortification.
And yet, apart from the religious iconography of churches in the background, religion is mostly brushed aside, and none of the game’s characters seem to have any time for spiritual considerations.
The fact Amicia and Hugo live through a massacre that claims their parents’ lives makes this absence even more conspicuous. In one scene, Hugo lights a candle for his parents in a church, and that’s about it.
While it’s not surprising that in our comparatively secular age game developers might be hesitant to tackle the fervent and omnipresent religiosity of the Middle Ages, it’s yet another aspect of A Plague Tale that is played safe. As a result, it misses a chance to engage with something very few games do, and to present the Middle Ages as a period that fascinates through its otherness and unfamiliarity.
The more I played, the more this setting felt like a missed opportunity. There’s a lack of historical detail here as we move through unnamed regions and towns that makes the setting feel strangely loose and interchangeable. Much of the game’s story, gameplay and even some of its otherwise gorgeous architecture (I’m looking at you, Château d'Ombrage) comes across as overly contrived and drags down the authenticity these environments are going for.
Then there are more pet peeves, such as valuable illuminated manuscripts, painstakingly hand-written and hand-drawn by poor monks struggling with repetitive strain injury, strewn about willy-nilly on dirty floors. To say nothing of that functionally useless single piece of plate armour Amicia wears on her right elbow for some reason.
A Plague Tale is not a bad game at all so much as a disappointing one. It's a shame because there are nice touches that hint at the potential this had: the Roman ruins and aqueducts, the denser towns with narrow and twisted tangles of alleys, and the persistent engagement with alchemy.
Sadly, they’re not quite enough to keep this interpretation of the Middle Ages from feeling stale, hamstrung by cliché, and just a bit old.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.