How do you tackle one of the most horrific events in the history of Europe in a video game? A Plague Tale: Innocence is set in France in the year 1348 during the beginning of the worst outbreak of the plague, known today as the Black Death, and back in the Late Middle Ages as the Great Mortality. Within just a few years, most of Europe had become decimated by the plague, and many contemporaries believed that the end of the world was at hand. Today, historians estimate that on average around half of Europe’s population fell victim to the Black Death.
A Plague Tale isn’t shy about bringing us face to face with the inconceivable mass death brought about by the Black Death. Corpses are everywhere, piled up, haphazardly thrown into mass graves or just lying in the middle of the street. If you can stomach a closer inspection, you’ll be able to spot the tell-tale black buboes, large swellings in the neck, groin or armpits. These visions are eerily similar to eyewitness accounts of the Black Death, which speak of desolate streets full of death, full cemeteries, and hastily dug pits in which the dead were placed layer upon layer, or, in the words of the contemporary chronicler Marchionne di Coppo Stefani, in the manner of a lasagne.
While impressive, apocalyptic visions of mass death are not enough to express the horror and impact of the Black Death on the lives of individuals and communities. How, for example, would one express the omnipresent and constant threat to one’s life or the lives of those around you in a game? Reading historical texts, it becomes clear that it wasn’t just the lethality of the pestilence that struck terror into peoples’ minds, but also its aggressive and unpredictable spread. It was believed that merely looking at or speaking to a sick person could transmit the disease. The Black Death was an entirely invisible enemy that defied any attempts at comprehension or treatment. Today we know that the plague was most likely caused by fleas carried by black rats, but contemporaries attributed its origin to anything from evil vapours brought forth by earthquakes, to an unlucky conjunction of Mars and Jupiter, to Jews poisoning the wells, to God’s anger against the wickedness of mankind.