A Plague Tale: Innocence was one of the game industry's surprise hits of 2019. Asobo Studio jumped into the single-player adventure genre dominated by the likes of Naughty Dog and delivered something fresh and different. The studio mixed together a healthy amount of historical authenticity, an otherworldly rat plague, and a sincere cast of teenage heroes—and the result was something unique and special in a genre defined by run-and-gun gameplay.
The title would go on to sell one million copies in about a year, and a sequel, titled A Plague Tale: Requiem, was announced in 2021. Though the first game left some plot threads hanging (the rat plague's supernatural origins, how Amicia and Hugo de Rune would survive a new life on the move), it was worth asking—how could Asobo top the first game's freshness in a sequel?
What technical or gameplay improvements could be made in a game that had such a focused gameplay loop? How could the hordes of rats be made any more terrifying? In a conversation with Game Developer, game director Kevin Choteau broke down what Asobo's goals were for the sequel, and explained how the team took inspiration from the rich history of Southern France.
A Plague Tale: Requiem is a "story first" sequel
The business of video game studios makes it very difficult to stop with one successful single-player game. If you've got a hit on your hands, your studio needs sequels or successors to keep the lights on. Asobo at least has the benefit of being buoyed by Microsoft Flight Simulator, but you'd be forgiven for assuming the company would pursue a Plague Tale sequel out of sheer financial need.
To hear Choteau describe it, A Plague Tale: Requiem was only ever going to happen if the development team could find a story they wanted to tell for Amicia, Hugo, and their friends and family.
"More than anything, the first thing we worked on the story," he said. "Plague Tale is really about the story. If we hadn't found a good story, it would have been a 'no-go' for us."
With Requiem, Choteau said the team found something they "wanted to talk about," and then pivoted to what could be improved on the gameplay side. He explained that one key negative feedback the team saw from critics and players was that the gameplay was "too narrow." "You'd have just one choice, one way to do things, and it's something we wanted to address," he said.
That led Asobo to build larger areas for Amicia to navigate, with more tools for getting past rats or the various soldiers blocking her way.
In the final product, there are some neat innovations that Asobo's come up with. There's a big effort to minimize the user interface, giving players an open and uncluttered look at the detailed environments. The game's skill tree also borrows from The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Instead of having players earn points and choosing how to invest them, the game tracks how the player navigates certain environments and rewards them by granting abilities from that tree.
So if a player wants benefits in using stealth, they'll want to be as sneaky as possible. But if they make a mistake and survive a combat encounter (combat is still quick and dangerous—Amicia is not ready to go toe-to-toe with murderous assholes), they'll be rewarded with combat skills.
Choteau called it "a more systemic world" that still contains the diegetic puzzles of the first game (Requiem really leans into the idea of a secret ancient order that thought it was so smart it could put puzzles everywhere to keep its secrets safe).
Drowning in hundreds of thousands of rats
In A Plague Tale: Innocence, Asobo was able to put 5,000 rats onscreen at once, each powered by an AI system that could act independently if a rat navigated away from the horde. Choteau explained that in Requiem, the game is able to generate up to 300,000 of the murderous little buggers, who've now learned how to climb up the walls and operate on multiple floors at the same time oh god.
But despite the very visible fact that there are whole cities' worth of rats now onscreen, Choteau noted that during development, the improvements weren't super visible to the player. The number of rats onscreen in Innocence was "already quite impressive," Choteau noted.
So Asobo turned to making the rats deadlier. Requiem's rats are much better at avoiding the light (which is fatal to them), which reduces the amount of room for error the player has when navigating through the dense hordes. In Innocence, casting a light sent the bulk of the hoard away, and individual little rats caught in the open weren't a threat to the player.
Now, if you guide Amicia too close to the edge of the light...a lucky few hundred rats have their hunger sated (and the player has to reload the last checkpoint).
One huge spoiler from the end of Innocence was the fact that Amicia's little brother Hugo had a very close connection to the rat hordes thanks to an ancient supernatural force called The Macula. In the final hours of the game, he gains the power to control them in a limited capacity. Asobo did little to hide this fact in marketing Requiem, showing off sequences where the player works with Hugo to control the rats. It lets them sense enemy positions and of course, direct them in for the kill.
It's a powerful weapon that risks getting away from the grounded tone of the first game, where Amicia and Hugo are just as vulnerable to the horde as the Inquisition that hunts them. Preserving that tension in Requiem was still a vital task. Asobo was able to maintain that tension with two easy tools: limiting how many rats Hugo could control (he's not a full rat archwizard or something, he's literally a child), and creating narrative reasons for Hugo not to be with Amicia.
Because Hugo isn't with Amicia all the time, Asobo found itself in some challenging spots when it came to combat design. There are specific sequences where the player will have access to Hugo's powers and ones where they won't. That means the level and AI design needed to be flexible enough to support those setpieces as well as ones where Amicia is more isolated and vulnerable.
Choteau said that Asobo "updates" its level and combat design based on whether or not the player has access to those rat powers, encouraging players to wield them with gusto when they do, and making them yearn for those tools when they don't have them.
In practice, this philosophy denies players access to Hugo's powers for a large, meaningful chunk of gameplay. Amicia's first encounter with the rat horde in Requiem isn't with Hugo, but with Lucas: an alchemist's apprentice who stuck with the de Rune family after Innocence. With no supernatural power at their side, the pair must navigate a condemned slum built inside the ruins of a Roman arena.
Feeding back into the story's narrative, Choteau explained that the team wanted to explore the fact that Hugo and Amicia are now both exceptional killers—but they're still just children. Amicia begins the game exhausted and terrified at the notion of more violence, and Choteau teased that for Hugo's part, there will come a time when he thinks he has control over the rats—but letting that control slip will have major consequences.
Exploring southern France
The Plague Tale games benefit greatly from real-world inspiration. Though there are plenty of fantasy titles that do wonders with the aesthetics of Medieval Europe, Asobo Studio gets to play in a specific place and time: the 14th century. Innocence brought to life a more traditional northern/central France that players might be familiar with, but Requiem heads to the regions' southern regions that border the Mediterranean sea.
Choteau pointed out that the region is mostly unexplored in the world of game design, and that heading south meant an overall shift in the series' color palette and environmental direction. He said it was "funny" to build up such a contrast. The environments are often sunnier, the buildings brighter and more colorful, but still filled with death and destruction as the Macula plague rears its head.
He grinned while describing a region mostly defined by photogenic postcards and paintings. "And then we're going to smash it," he joked.
An interesting challenge for any game designer working with real history is when historical facts clash with the popular perception of a given time and place. While researching the city of Bordeaux (where Asobo is located), Choteau said that the team at Asobo learned that a "historically accurate" recreation of the city at that time would have meant the city's streets were filled with trash, with some piles as tall as a one-story building.
"You couldn't enter through the front door because it was full of trash—you'd enter by the window on the first floor," Choteau said. Asobo chose not to depict that historical reality because they worried players would assume they were overselling the grossness and filth of a rat-ridden city.
Choteau's other favorite historical fact that the team dug up: when the real Black Plague struck France, there was a monastery not far from Asobo's office that immediately shut its doors. "It's the church, you're not really supposed to do that!" he exclaimed. It's the kind of real-life tale that fuels the series' suspicion of powerful religious organizations.
A Plague Tale Requiem, just like its predecessor, mixes a healthy amount of horror and earnestness to explore a setting few games get to exploit. It's exciting to see developers explore these kinds of fairytale-like adventures that blend historical events with supernatural circumstances.