Ciaran Devlin is a PhD student in the department of Sociology, Trinity College Dublin. His research interests involve exploring videogames through the lenses of gender, sexuality, and masculinities.
When Asobo Studio developed and released A Plague Tale: Innocence (2019; hereafter APT:I), it was positively received among gamers and reviewers alike (Chan, 2019; Parkin, 2019). The game is set in France in the year 1348, during The Hundred Years’ War and the onset of the Black Death. In this essay, I demonstrate that within this game world, players are beset by manifestations of masculine violence in the form of soldiers and armed civilians who will attack the player character Amicia and her younger brother Hugo on sight. This threat is compounded by the supernatural horror of the hordes of flesh-eating rats carrying the Bubonic Plague, which, as the game progresses, become a tool utilised by two male characters within the game narrative, namely Hugo and the Grand Inquisitor Vitalis (the antagonist of the game).
Game scholars have identified an observable increase in the number of “tough” and “competent” female leading characters in video games, a trend they have identified as “the Lara Phenomenon” (Jansz and Marti, 2007). Although they highlighted this trend, Jansz and Marti also noted that these same female leads tend to be visibly hyper-sexualised, thereby embodying harmful misogynistic tropes even as they present “empowered” female characters. This research demonstrates that it is important to evaluate and consider the representation of gender in games and the various ways gender and other constructions of social identity can be interpreted from game texts and mechanics. For example, Østby (2017) observed seemingly progressive representations and specific instances of diversity in BioWare’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect games – principally in the form of player-initiated romantic relationships – yet noted that other aspects of play outside of specific intimate relationships reinscribe heteronormativity.
This essay explores some of the ways gender is constructed in APT:I’s narrative and gameplay. Ruberg (2018) discusses the value of “unearthing the connoted meaning of games” (p. 81), and that is what this essay seeks to do. In other words, my aim is to closely examine APT:I’s approach to gender beyond the fact that it has a leading female protagonist. In particular, I contend that a number of thematically and traditionally gendered depictions are present within the setting and story of the game, including normative femininity and motherhood, as well as the feminisation of stealth gameplay.
Forging Ahead? – Amicia and the Path Ahead
Father: “You are dawdling Amicia! How will you be able to follow the lords at hunt?
Amicia: “Is that your only ambition for me? To follow? I will beat them and I will watch them eat my dust as I forge ahead! But for that, I shall need a good horse.”
Based on the above opening dialogue of the game between the main character Amicia de Rune, a 14 year old noble girl in 14th century France, and her father, I was intrigued and curious to see how the game – and specifically Amicia – would progress. Little did I know that despite this opening dialogue in which Amicia declares that she does not wish to merely follow, but rather seeks to “forge ahead” and make her own path, I would find tension between how her character is presented in the opening sequence of the game and her gendered gameplay mechanics throughout the remainder of the game.
In the opening level of the game, Amicia is in the woods with her father and her dog “Lion” as they hunt a boar. Amicia seeks to retry her “Knights challenge” – a time trial to shoot 6 apples in 10 seconds with her sling (her sole weapon throughout the game). On completion of the trial, Lion starts barking and heads into the woods, with Amicia and her father in pursuit. Eventually Lion disappears into a burrow, injured and dragged down by an unknown threat beneath the surface. This leaves Amicia visibly shaken and grieving the loss of her dog as she returns from the woods to the family estate.
Shortly after their return to the family home after the incident in the woods, the Spanish Inquisition arrives and begins to kill everyone, including Amicia’s father, in their search for Hugo – Amicia’s little brother who has been holed up in quarantine all his life with Amicia’s mother, Beatrice. At this point in the game it is unclear to the player why the Inquisition is violently seeking Hugo, but we later learn that he possesses the “prima macula,” a supernatural ancient curse said to be carried in the blood of a few noble families, including the de Rune family. As the game progresses, the prima macula grants the ability to control the plague rats as a weapon. This power is taken by Grand Inquisitor Vitalis by injecting Hugo’s blood into his veins in the later chapters of the game. The rats therefore, I would argue, transition from a supernatural threat based on the historical setting of the game to a tool of masculine violence through the manipulation of the rats by both Hugo and Vitalis. Amicia, on the other hand, remains excluded from this power struggle, retaining her role as guide and protector of Hugo, tasked with leading him through the gameworld. This task becomes the principle mechanic dictating the relationship between Amicia and Hugo for the remainder of the game: remaining out of sight from Inquisition soldiers and other predominantly male threats, all the while grasping Hugo’s hand and guiding him.
The emphasis is placed on staying silent, staying out of sight, and avoiding danger at all costs. This is stressed by both Amicia’s parents. After her successful completion of the trial, her father says “Well well… I must say I’m impressed! But your sling is frightfully noisy…” Later on, Beatrice whispers guidance that aids the player throughout the game: “Hold your brother’s hand and follow me in silence.” This brings us to one of the central mechanics dictating how Amicia is to explore and wander through the game world and avoid its threats – by being silent and hiding in the shadows.
“Hold your brother’s hand and follow me in silence, all right?”
Many games that involve conflict and threats of violence incorporate a stereotypical association of femininity with passivity and victimhood, while casting a heteronormative white male playable character as protagonist (see Murray, 2017; 2018). APT:I seems to break with this trend, as it features Amicia as the protagonist who functions as our agent and our guide throughout the world. Simultaneously she also acts as Hugo’s guide, as I shall explore further in this essay. But Amicia exists precariously within this world with tides of flesh-eating rats that explode onto the landscape across the different levels of the game, as well as the visibly male Inquisition soldiers and other bandits that will kill Amicia and capture Hugo on sight.
One of the only interactions with adult women outside of their home is when Clervie, an elderly French woman, offers to shelter Amicia and Hugo from the male villagers chasing them. Outside of this, women are less visible and confined more to the background than men are. This casts the violent game space as masculine, simultaneously casting Amicia as a feminine trespasser and Hugo as a feminised boy due to his frailty and illness, which thus accounts for their need to stay in the shadows to avoid detection.
This form of travel and engagement with the game world in stealthy and non-lethal means is often seen with a number of other female characters and their relationships with their game worlds. In so doing, these games recreate what Malazita calls “misogynist media tropes”:
[W]omen game characters forced to less-effectively navigate game systems designed for violent characters and masculinist problem-solving strategies. (Malazita, 2018, p. 46)
One example of this is in the BioShock series during “Burial At Sea Episode 2,” where players control Elizabeth, who is the first non-male playable character in the entire series. But rather than the traditional combat centred exploration in the series, players must keep to the shadows and move stealthily as Elizabeth to avoid combat – despite Elizabeth previously having magical powers and using them to assist her father-figure, Booker. In other words, before players can progress through the world as Elizabeth, her powers are stripped from her (Wysocki and Brey, 2018). Similar to Elizabeth’s survival tactics, in APT:I much of Amicia and Hugo’s survival is determined by successfully sticking to the shadows and out of sight of nearby armed villagers, soldiers, and bandits. In so doing, the already supernaturally dangerous space of the game is made even more dangerous, and players must successfully navigate this violence through less effective and less direct means, such as causing noise and distractions to displace guards and other armed individuals.
Aside from the feminised experience of stealth within the context of a violent game world, the threat posed to Hugo and Amicia differs slightly in a very gendered way. Because Hugo (as players learn through progressing) possesses some fantastical blood that is connected to the plague, he is considered more valuable alive than dead to the Inquisition, as heard in the cries of their soldiers, such as: “Kill the sister! Take the boy alive!” The immediate threat to Amicia is death, permanent and violent. Hugo will escape death, but be taken alive, rendering their victimhood markedly different. The more immediate and permanent threat to Amicia also casts her as less useful or not as valuable as Hugo; she is disposable to the antagonists of the game. As a young woman in a militarised setting during a violent conflict, she is surrounded by threatening and deadly men that will kill her on sight, a common pattern in the relationship between war, games, and gender as observed by scholars and critics (see Gandolfi and Sciannamblo, 2018).
The universality of armed male threats throughout the game is perhaps one of the most visible signifiers of war and violence as masculine spheres within the game. This is reflective of a traditional “masculinisation of war” (Herbst, 2006); whereby warfare and violence are seen as masculine domains. This corresponds to a simultaneous and traditional association between victimhood and femininity, an association that has hindered women’s participation and framed their experiences of warfare. Therefore, the background to this game, of a fictionalized historical setting of The Hundred Years’ War and the bubonic plague, provides an eerie landscape with battlefields full of dead corpses and the visibility of armed men painting this war-torn setting as a masculine one, a setting through which Amicia must stealthily traverse in order to survive.
“Mummy would protect us!”
Traditionally, video games have preferenced fatherhood over motherhood, with mothers being largely excluded from the gameplay experience in favour of richer father-daughter tropes – a trend often termed “dadification” (Stang, 2017; Vanderhoef and Payne, 2018). APT:I breaks from this traditional “annihilation” of mothers in games, offering visibility to motherhood. The children’s mother and their sole-surviving parent, Beatrice, survives to the end of the game. On the surface level, APT:I subverts dadification tropes, since the mother replaces the father following their father’s death in the beginning of the game at the hands of the Inquisition. However, Beatrice’s storyline revolves around caring for and isolating Hugo as she deals with his supernatural affliction, and after being captured by the Inquisition, she is held hostage until the children can save her. In this sense, the game simultaneously provides visibility to mothers and motherhood, while also presenting Beatrice as a stereotypical “damsel in distress.”
Arguably, motherhood also persists in some less direct/overt forms, one being in the form of the core mechanics that govern gameplay. As Amicia, players must summon Hugo to hold her hand as the player leads them both through the world, while also instructing him to stay when needed. This micro-management mechanic between the children is also coupled with the fact that Hugo will get vocally upset if players (as Amicia) leave him alone and move too far away, which will make noise and attract any nearby soldiers. The core mechanic here frames Hugo not just as a hindrance to the player in terms of limiting their mobility through the game world, but also contains within it a narrative of motherly duty for Amicia: from the beginning of the game, she must take care of her brother, guide him, and protect him from dangers. Ultimately it is Hugo and his supernatural blood that allows the children to overcome the Inquisition and defeat the antagonist Grand Inquisitor Vitalis. Read one way, this casts Amicia’s role throughout the game as one where she must protect Hugo, eventually becoming the principal agent in saving the world from both the deadly plague rats and the machinations of the Spanish Inquisition. Although still armed with her sling, in the final few chapters of the game it is Hugo’s powers that allow the children to deal with dangerous men, armed soldiers, and the remaining horrors of the game.
Scholars like Jansz and Martis (2007) refer to “the Lara Phenomenon” as an observable increase in the amount of female protagonists in video games (though they also note a continuation of hypersexualised women within their work). Yet despite this, we must also look deeper than surface level representations and consider the practice of “unearthing” meaning and connotations present within these video games as a whole. This essay has explored the ways that – despite having a female protagonist – APT:I maintains a number of traditional gender roles within both its narrative and the mechanics of gameplay. Those discussed in this essay have mainly been motherhood and the feminisation of stealth.
The fact that Amicia and Hugo are children compounds their limited options for traversing and navigating through the game world, which also results in Amicia performing a type of protective motherhood over her brother. Amicia is tasked with guiding Hugo and literally holding his hand throughout the game world as a visible limit on the overall mobility and freedom Amicia has as she traverses the dangerous game world. Through the required stealth mechanic for movement through the world, Amicia also succumbs to the common feminisation of stealth within gaming and embodies the traditional relationship between femininity, conflict, and war in general. She is placed in a violent and dangerous world, surrounded by exclusively male threats from soldiers and armed civilians who will kill her if she is seen. She must traverse a war-torn and plague-ridden landscape, all the while escorting her younger brother and keeping him safe from harm. The setting of the game, its threats, and the mechanics of play become gendered and act to reinforce Amicia’s status as a trespasser within this masculine space of warfare, violence, and conflict. This is further emphasised, I would argue, within the final chapters of the game’s story, when Hugo comes to learn how to use the power in his blood to control and issue orders to the hordes of rats, a power simultaneously given to Vitalis when he injects Hugo’s blood into his veins, thereby marking another supernatural form of masculine-wielded violence from which Amicia is excluded.
Despite her wishes at the beginning of the game to forge ahead and reject normative gender expectations, through the course of the story, she never finds that good horse she needs to ride at the front of the hunt.
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