There are many things I love about Ghost of a Tale, which makes its PS4 debut this week – the ivy bursting through its bulging masonry, the witty and affecting script (with beautifully concise, optional footnotes for those who fancy diving into the lore), or the fact that one of the quests actually has you distinguishing trees by their bark and leaf shape in order to identify the mushrooms growing beneath them. But the biggest compliment I can pay it, perhaps, is that nobody in it feels expendable. The setting may be a prison, an edifice designed to crush the soul and rob the individual of identity, but the story is broadly about reclaiming that identity and finding community in a world of brutal divides. Even the rat guards who chase you around the battlements of Dwindling Heights are people, warts and all, though it’s easy to forget this when you’re spotted for the umpteenth time exiting a bolthole and the somewhat lumbering pursuit music kicks in.
“They’re not monsters or demons, intent on killing all the mice – sometimes they don’t give a fuck,” says Lionel Gallat, the French animator responsible for the majority of a project that has been in development since 2013. “They’re just doing their jobs. They’re living their lives. And their job is to catch the mouse who escaped from his cell, so that’s what they’re doing in the game. Until you find the guard armour, put it on and then you can talk to them, and you discover that, no, these are not just enemies you have to kill or avoid. You can talk to them, and you have to talk to them to learn about stuff.”
Among the things you’ll learn, as the aforesaid mouse runaway Tilo, is that the guards don’t want to be here either. They’re the dregs of the rat army, incompetents and misfits banished to a neglected fortress to babysit a sad little crowd of thieves, pirates and political agitators. In the course of this handsome 20 hour adventure your relationship with them slowly evolves, from fear through irritation to a sense of tentative camaraderie. It’s one of the many splendours of a storybook realm whose personalities, society and history are as cleverly wrought as its cobwebbed undervaults and turrets. “When the game starts, all the characters you meet have led lives, they come from somewhere,” Lallat continues. “It’s the same with a movie – you need to have the feeling that this world has been going on for a while. The characters don’t suddenly pop up because the story needs them, and you need to believe that they’re going somewhere.”