Spoilers for A Plague Tale: Requiem and The Last of Us Part II follow.
I guess I’m here to talk about Ellie and Joel again.
California developer Naughty Dog’s 2013 opus The Last of Us inspired the gaming industry in a way developers dream of. To quote the smartest man in games criticism, Tim Rogers, The Last of Us is a “baby child/big friend” game, where you play the role of a protector, controlling the gruff Joel as he protects the young Ellie. This idea is obviously nothing new, but between The Last of Us, its 2013 fellow BioShock Infinite, and the year prior’s Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One, the idea was now an integral part in the AAA video game canon. This canonical idea is still worming its way through developers minds, both being iterated on in fellow Sony studio Santa Monica’s God of War reboot, as well as Asobo and Focus’ A Plague Tale: Innocence. Innocence, being the lowest-profile game on this list, is also the one that takes the most direct inspiration from The Last of Us. In it you follow 14th century teen girl Amicia de Rune as she carts herself and her sickly brother Hugo through the dual threats of the French Inquisition as well a sea of horrible plague-bearing rats.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is a really great video game, one that is as slickly designed as Naughty Dog’s imposing masterpiece, but one with its own identity (for example, A Plague Tale has good stealth and a less powerful story). Having played it less than two months ago to prepare for the upcoming sequel, A Plague Tale: Requiem, though, I couldn’t shake a feeling as the similarities to The Last of Us came up: this new game is going to take a lot from Part II, huh?
Back when I was working on videos with my channel Game Mechanics, we made what I consider to be our best video, a piece on 2020’s The Last of Us Part II. This game, a polarizing mega-hit that became a lightning rod for the worst opinions on the medium since Geoff Keighley had to go on Fox News to argue Mass Effect wasn’t porn, is an absolute nightmare to discuss. Not only because of the wave of hate and pointless bickering, but because for all of its flaws, successes, and weird choices, The Last of Us Part II is both a very interesting game and not all that hard to parse.
With a lot of difficult art, what becomes controversial is the ideas a work is playing with, but with The Last of Us Part II, not only is the theme relatively simple, but it’s agreed upon by both its biggest fans and harshest detractors. This is by no means a negative, most games, and almost all AAA games, exist to flesh out relatively simple ideas, and the most ideologically complicated one I can think of, BioShock Infinite, is, politely…a mess (a mess I like very very much, but a mess nonetheless). This is the natural order of art’s growth, the more time spent iterating on the medium, the more complicated ideas the medium can engage with clearly and succinctly. What made The Last of Us Part II such an annoying lightning rod for discourse was how it went about illustrating these themes. “Revenge bad” might be reductive, but that’s the core of this game, and is illustrated through frequent scenes of brutality but committed by and to the game’s various player-characters, the most impactful of these being the two direct conflicts between the dual protagonists of Ellie and Abby. The second act of the game climaxes in a delicious boss fight against Ellie, and the third act ends with a somber, emotionally wrought but mechanically simpler fight against Abby.
Having to play out these brutalities, as well as the much harsher brutalities against smaller characters (a QTE as Ellie where you repeatedly bash a character’s head in stands out) makes this theme feel visceral and uncomfortable. And yet, for all the impact that The Last of Us Part II has, there’s one moment that never hit me as hard as I wanted it to: the early death of Joel Miller, the first game’s protagonist.
On a story level, I’m a big fan of this decision. While I maintain my previous video’s argument that it shouldn’t have come so early in the game, I love the harsh bleakness that the game offers to the player, shouting from the rooftops that the audience’s affection is irrelevant to the game’s story. In reflection on this moment, over two years removed from the game’s release, I wanted to feel it more than watching it, I…I wanted to play it. The Last of Us Part II is a game about inhabiting your enemy and attempting to understand them, and I can’t shake the feeling that should the opening have been played from this stranger’s perspective, before we met her, before we met her friend, and took the club in our hands as we repeatedly hit the past in the head until it died, it would have bound the player, the character, and the game together in harmony. This harmony screams from the rest of the game, and the ill-advised discussion that the game is a guilt trip for forcing you to do bad things (like Call of Duty has never existed and then punished the player for participation) aside, The Last of Us Part II wants you to feel shitty for the things you’ve done. Even then, the game refuses to make us as an audience member culpable in this starting pistol of violence, only playing through the aftershocks.
I spend so much time on this because I get it, it’s a decision that could not have been made lightly, and The Last of Us Part II was already going to be a tough sell, and it’s something I can imagine a suit at Naughty Dog or Sony begging to be tempered down.
A Plague Tale: Requiem does not temper down.
I spent so much of my time playing through the bloated but greatly compelling sequel ready for Amicia’s death. The grim violence and rampant death clearly took notes from Naughty Dog’s sequel as the first games’ relationship did, and at multiple points, our heroine is minutes away from death, leaning into this comparison.
One of the most notable ones, in which Amicia is struck with an arrow after a Halo: Reach-esque last stand against an impossible mob of invaders, seems the priviest to poke fun at this assumption. It’s almost insulting how clearly the game makes you think the game will switch away from Amicia’s perspective only for her to immediately wash up on a beach, but better games have done worse, so I don’t care. Maybe I’m giving Asobo Studio too much credit, but I think this is an intentional misdirect playing on the comparisons.
This is because maybe an hour or two after the closest of Amicia’s many close calls, she is reunited with her brother, whose illness has been harnessed by a cultist Count, capturing him in Marseille, which is promptly destroyed by Hugo’s otherworldly disease and transformed into an otherworldly temple to his apocalyptic power. Broken by believing his sister and protector has died, shortly after his mother’s murder and the death of his father at the beginning of the previous game, Hugo has become a vessel of pure, menacing violence.
As Amicia falls farther into the ruins of Marseille, Hugo telepathically speaks to her, and confirms the inevitable: this power will continue to consume, and Hugo is powerless to stop it. At the center of it all, the game’s elegant HUD offers one option: Amicia’s sling with a rock nestled and ready to fire. In an agonizingly slow moment, you hold the left trigger to aim, and as the right trigger is held, the crosshairs inch ever closer to a perfect shot.
Then you release. The rock flings out of your control. Your brother is dead.
(I want to quickly acknowledge that apparently, if you refuse to euthanize your brother, your companion Lucas will do it, which is a decision I’m not fond of, but did not factor into my playthrough so I don’t feel particularly equipped to discuss this.)
A Plague Tale: Requiem doesn’t end on this note, but it does cut to credits immediately, leaving the seventeenth and final chapter as a mid-credits interlude. It’s nice to see the Amicia decide to continue to make the world a less awful place, and potentially set up a third game that I’m conflicted if I want to exist. Forgetting that though and sitting in the horror of what you’ve just done as Asobo staff names fill the screen, I was in awe. This awe was not just in my traditional awe of finishing a very good video game, but an awe of seeing something I thought wasn’t going to come in a major market video game for some time. Sure, A Plague Tale is not a AAA series, and while the sequel’s $60 price tag does betray this, it’s still a game with enough cache in game critic circles that it’s a title with eyeballs on it. These eyeballs got the one thing the famously grim video game refused to do and felt that sense of wonderful pain.
Earlier in the piece I discussed how big video games are still in their infancy and deal in simpler themes, and while I maintain my position, it’s games like The Last of Us Part II and A Plague Tale: Requiem that push us, piece by piece, into something more complicated, more heartfelt, and more powerful. One day, hopefully soon, and maybe in a direction other than severe misery, a new game will iterate on A Plague Tale: Requiem’s heartbreaking final major action to render this game somewhat obsolete, just as it renders pieces of Part II somewhat obsolete.
For the record, I couldn’t be happier.
So much sadder.