Q&A with Asobo Studios Narrative Designer Sébastien Renard
Asobo Studios was founded in 2002 and has worked in the background for much of its existence, doing support work on a number of high-profile titles and releasing a mix of licensed and original work on their own, but they step out of the shadows with today’s release of A Plague Tale: Innocence. The action-adventure game, set in France in the Middle Ages at the outset of the Black Plague, puts players in control of a 15 year old girl named Amicia, who must shepard her brother Hugo through increasingly dangerous environments.
After a hands-on period with a limited demo of the PC version of the game in the lead-up to launch I was able to pose some questions to the development team, with narrative designer Sébastien Renard taking the time to provide answers.
Star News: When gamers think of the Middle Ages and gaming, they tend to think more of the square-jawed hero wrapped in metal armor, wielding a large sword – nothing like Amicia and Hugo. Though it stars a pair of children as the heroes, this is an incredibly dark game that features mature themes – was that the plan from the outset or did it evolve over time?
Renard: The first thing we came up with were the main characters. Hugo and Amicia were born even before the rats and the historical setting, they were the starting point around which everything was built. It helped us project in whatever the setting would be, imagining them evolve in there, and the emotions we were already feeling about them.
They were the pillars of this world, for we knew we wanted the game to be an emotional intimate adventure. The most important was everything that would happen to them, how broken and lost they would be at the beginning of our story, and how they were going to grow up through this hell.
Star News: The rats are more of an implied threat than a direct one. You flee them, you hold them off with fire, but for the most part you don’t really fight them directly the way you’re forced to with the human enemies.
As an Albertan I have zero experience with rats, but I still find them terrifying because of the tension they bring to the table. What was involved in bringing the horde to life and how much of your original vision for what they’d be like were you able to incorporate?
Renard: The rats had to be the literal incarnation of the plague on screen. They needed to look terrifying, which is not an easy trick. Personally, I don’t find rats that scary but we knew they were connected to a universal fear, as they’ve always been these creatures that lurk in the dark under our feet, in the sewers… They’re associated with filth and disease. And they would create a strong visual impact, give the game a unique identity.
It was a technical challenge but our programming team led by Cyril Doillon did a great job along with the artists and animators to give life to them, make them look like a swarm with their bright little eyes. This is how we ended up having five thousand rats on screen. And the deaths when they attacked people needed to be striking, which was also a beautiful challenge in terms of animation. The first time you see this is a memorable for a lot of gamers.
But I want to say (for all the rats lovers out there) that we don’t have anything against rats… They are very intelligent creatures totally adapted to survival. They were just there at the wrong place, at the wrong time.
Star News: The game is gorgeous, and it’s done with an in-house engine. Why did you decide to go that way versus bringing in a middleware engine and do you feel it was easier/harder in the long run to do it that way?
Renard: I’m not a programmer but it was certain we were going to use our technology. We have a very strong team of engineers upgrading the engine based on the needs for each game we do. In the case of Plague, the visual rendering was one of the priority and the engine made a huge leap forward from the beginning to the end of the production, as you can easily see on screen. It’s just a tradition in the company to keep pushing the engine forward. I can’t say it’s always the easier way, but it’s a long term investment.
Star News: Though it’s not what I’d call an action-heavy title, Amicia gains quite the arsenal of abilities via alchemy. While things like sparking/extinguishing flames and knocking out enemies made the list, were there skills you wanted to put in that you had to leave on the drawing board? If so, what were they and why did they get cut?
Renard: Everything we did was based on what Amicia was able to do as a 15 y.o. noble girl facing the reality of a dying world. We knew she wasn’t going to fight with a sword for example, and it helped a lot narrow the possibilities.
We did cut one alchemical ammo that eventually wasn’t useful in the gameplay, but nothing big. A Plague tale is not a big game, so we had to take the right decisions and limit wandering around too much (which we did anyway but hey, it happens everywhere).
Star News: Is A Plague Tale: Innocence a one-and-done narrative experience or does the team have more ideas for exploring this time period whether via DLC, sequel, or spinoff title?
Renard: It is a one-and-done narrative experience. We’re all so happy to have come up with a game we can love so much… It’s been a crazy roller-coaster and the whole team is now of course very excited/nervous as we’re a day away from the release. Everybody’s spending a lot of time online checking the first feedbacks. It’s also time for vacations and well deserved rest as you can imagine.
Star News: Since the studio’s inception in 2002 you’ve created or been part of a wide variety of games, including Fuel – one of my favourite racing games (and one in need of a remaster)… What does the future hold for Asobo?
Renard: A Plague Tale has been a long-standing desire at Asobo. We’ll keep focusing on making games we want to play. For now we are focused on seeing how the audience will receive this new creation. Then it will be time for a rest for a great part of the team.
But we have a lot of other projects in mind or on track so see you soon 😊
Thanks again to Sébastien for taking the time in the whirlwind of the final days before launch to sit down and answer some questions, and to the team at Asobo Studios for the job they did on a stellar game.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is available today on PC, PS4, and Xbox One. You can watch the first seven chapters sans commentary here on YouTube, and watch for a review of the game on Friday.