Finding home among the horror: 650 years before the Last of Us lost hope in the face of disease and devastation, A Plague Tale: Innocence finds it once again.
Note: Full spoilers for The Last of Us, The Last of Us Part II & A Plague Tale: Innocence below
Through no deliberate effort, I’ve found myself consuming a fair amount of media over the past year which deals with plague, pandemic and isolation. I recently finished the first series of Sweet Home, a Korean horror-drama on Netflix about the residents of a tower block who become trapped inside, while a terrifying and unknowable affliction devastates the world around them and ordinary people are turned into diverse and deadly monsters. Within the confines of the building, paranoia among the terrified residents leads to the isolation of anyone showing possible symptoms of transformation, and a perpetual and increasing mood of mutual distrust. The parallels with the realities of coping with the pandemic felt all too real. What was once home for the mismatched group of civilians - an environment of safety and comfort - slowly morphs into a claustrophobic prison, a pressure cooker of conflict, and eventually a desperate fortress against the horrors of the outside, both monstrous and human.
While many shows, films and games have provided welcome escapism over the last year, like the idyllic Animal Crossing: New Horizons, or the nostalgic comfort blanket of Final Fantasy 7: Remake, living through this unique time in history causes us to engage with stories like Sweet Home on a level that would otherwise have been impossible. This has also applied to a number of games that released after the start of the coronavirus outbreak. Supergiant’s Hades is an immaculately crafted gem of a game, but if it hadn’t released against a backdrop of global lockdowns, would a story about a seemingly impossible and endless struggle to escape home and breathe the outside air have resonated quite as strongly? Older games which I’ve revisited also adopt a new mood when seen through the lens of the pandemic; Hollow Knight’s story of an insidious infection, and the futile efforts of a callous and distant ruler to contain it. Outer Wild’s perpetual time loop and inescapable sense of imminent dread. Age of Calamity’s account of a insidious corruption spreading across the land. Control’s transformation of the everyday and mundane into the unknown and menacing. Two games I’ve played over the last year, however, deal directly with the concept of widespread, apocalyptic disease — Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II & Focus Interactive’s A Plague Tale: Innocence, and provide subtly different perspectives on their characters’ struggle for survival.
The timing the Last of Us Part II’s release in June 2020, as the severity of the coronavirus was becoming all to apparent, was certainly notable at the time, and for many Ellie’s journey was almost too grim to endure. The cynical outlook of the game on human nature and the monstrousness of people in desperate situations was a focal point of controversy after the game’s release. The game ends on a note of isolation, regret and exhaustion in the aftermath of Ellie’s futile quest for revenge. This ending was undeniably affecting, but arguably too absolute in its cynical assessment of its characters. Perhaps a slightly less damning view of people living in the bleakest of situations may have made the game more palatable to an audience already despondent from the world outside. Of course, Naughty Dog had no idea into what world their game would be releasing, and this real-world context is far from the only factor that made the game divisive.
A key contributor to TLOU II’s reception was how it contrasted with its predecessor, and particularly that game’s ending. 2013’s The Last of Us was by no means a cheery game — there was no shortage of cruelty and fear colouring its story of people scraping survival from the remnants of a world already long-ravaged by infection. The end of the story, however, has an ambiguity which for many, leant the game its strength. Joel saves Ellie from a fatal surgery, and in so doing, likely ends humanity’s chance of finding a cure from her immunity. His reasons for doing so, however, are borne from his love for Ellie, and a desire to rekindle and maintain some of the human connection that lives in his memories of life before the outbreak. Joel lies to Ellie about what happened, setting a ticking time bomb of conflict, but in so doing allows them to start a new life in peace, in the burgeoning community visible on the horizon before the credits roll.
This ending is both bitter and hopeful, Joel’s actions both deeply sad but undeniably relatable. This view of the game on our characters is mixed and conflicting. From what we have seen of the real world over the last year, this seems a far more realistic take on how societies react to desperate situations than what we see in TLOUII. Frustrating acts of cruelty and selfishness have continued lockstep alongside acts of kindness and compassion throughout the pandemic, and there is no honest black-and-white assessment of human nature than can be drawn from either. In contrast, TLOUII’s final hours seem not only hard to watch, but also hard to believe.
Contrast Ellie’s slow descent over these two games with 2019’s A Plague Tale: Innocence, in which we play through the story of Amicia and her younger brother Hugo. The sheltered children of nobles in 14th century France, the pair are torn from their home at the outset of a terrifying plague of demonic rats, carrying a deadly sickness called the Bite (an exaggerated take on the Black Death). The siblings are forced into world they are barely able to understand, let alone survive. Hugo, in particular, has been isolated from even his own family due to a blood-borne sickness called the Macula. Hugo’s naïve curiosity and excitement at seeing the world outside is repeatedly and starkly contrasted with the horrors that surround them — the joy of meeting a friendly pig for the first time is immediately followed by the pair having to clamber through pits of hundreds of slaughtered swine, heaped into rotting hills to draw the rats away.
The game is clearly inspired by Naughty Dog’s work, and in many ways fits nicely alongside the TLOU games as a companion piece. Both are beautifully-rendered 3rd person stealth/action games, involving on-the-fly crafting using materials scavenged from cellars and cupboards (they also both share a fondness for rudimentary puzzle-solving with conveniently and improbably located crates/pallets). Both games involve grim journeys across barren and terrifying landscapes, and draw tension both from fear of an unknowable and unstoppable infection, and from the wickedness it instils in people. Hugo’s sickness is of great interest to the Inquisition, a merciless religious militia who are hunting him down, in a manner which strongly mirrors the Fireflies’ desperation to capture Ellie in The Last of Us, and the religious brutality of TLOUII’s Seraphites.
Despite this apparent checklist of similarities, however, there is a warmth at the core of A Plague Tale which in the Last of Us is slowly drained away over the course of two games. Amicia’s driving force is always to protect her younger brother, who at first she barely knows, and is frequently frustrated by. This is directly translated to the gameplay, as Hugo must be accompanied by the hand by his older and more capable sister, making you far more restricted than Joel or Ellie, and making Amicia’s constant frustration with Hugo all the more relatable. This fraught relationship is bolstered by great performances from both actors.
Making Hugo a far more vulnerable companion than Ellie - who in The Last of Us was seemingly invincible - and forcing us to constantly worry about his wellbeing centres the siblings’ relationship as the beating heart of the game. Amicia and Hugo grow to care for each other as the narrative progresses, and their frustrations eventually fade to the background. Similarly, as you play, you quickly get used to navigating the perils of the world while looking after Hugo, and he gradually feels less like a burden, particularly as he becomes more capable himself. Amicia’s love for her brother is established as the bright spot at the game’s core, often providing the only light against the permeating gloom. This idea is again mirrored in the gameplay, with scarce and fragile sources of light being the only means to hold back the ravenous hordes of carnivorous rats which spread the plague. While Joel and Ellie’s deepening bond is undoubtedly a core part of the narrative of the TLOU games, it is indelibly tainted by Joel’s choice at the end of the Last of Us, and by the end of TLOUII, the structure and comfort which the relationship had given Ellie’s life is all but erased.
By the climax of the story, Hugo and Amicia have befriended a misfit crew of young runaways: Lucas, an alchemist’s apprentice, Rodric, a burly young blacksmith, and Arthur and Melie, siblings who have turned to a life of thievery in order to survive. The unrelenting terror of the situation is never lost on the group - they have all seen loved ones killed in the cruellest ways possible - but throughout, their mutual support prevents any one of them from falling into utter despondency. This found family dynamic never descends into saccharine moralising about the power of friendship, and tragedy continues to follow them even when they are together. Despite this, their mutual resolve to survive together makes that survival believable, and makes tragedy all the more devastating when it comes.
The contrast between these two worlds and the characters within them is by no means an indicator of a disparity in quality, but rather made them fascinatingly different experiences to play at the current time. I picked up TLOUII near release, at the beginning of the pandemic, and while it is an extraordinary game, with moments that stay with you long after the credits roll, it is also completely exhausting. As we press on into 2021, still living under strict lockdown and with infection rates higher than they’ve ever been (in the UK at least), I’m glad I picked up A Plague Tale now, when we all need to see a glimmer of light in the darkness.