Game development studio Asobo opened its doors in Bordeaux, France nearly two decades ago. Their first game was an adaptation of a late 90s children’s book-turned-television series about friendly anthropomorphized animals, Sitting Ducks. David Dedeine, CCO and co-founder of the studio, described it to me with a chuckle, as, “A sort of GTA for kids.” The studio’s history is built upon strata of licensed family-friendly games just like Sitting Ducks. But this year, they plan to release A Plague Tale: Innocence — a game set during a time of pox and pestilence as the Black Death visited unfathomable devastation upon Europe’s population in the 14th century.
The tonal dissonance between the pestilent world of A Plague Tale and their saccharine early works could not be more pronounced. The grim nature of A Plague Tale, however, does not merely exist to allow the team to finally flex their creative muscles after years spent after being family-friendly mercenary developers, because they never felt creatively stifled in the first place. Their roots did not bind them to the Earth, but nourished them. A Plague Tale does not exist in spite of their history, but because of it.
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The “Garage Spirit”
Sitting Ducks was not a meteoric success for Asobo, but it proved to the dozen or so founders at the studio’s bedrock that they could stick around in the industry for the long haul. It led to Universal Studios asking them to create an adaptation of The Mummy: The Animated Series for the PlayStation 2 in the early 2000s.
“We were really happy to prove our talent despite the quite modest budget of such a project. We did The Mummy with ten guys in nine months. No more,” Dedeine tells me. “The game was not an award-winner for sure, but quality for value was really good.”
Speaking with Dedeine, it’s clear that every part of the studio’s history is the subject of fond reminiscence. In 16 years, Asobo has accrued a dragon’s hoard of nostalgic memories including what Dedeine describes as their “garage spirit” in the early days when they crammed together to sweat through their shirts in CEO Sébastien Wloch’s basement during the hottest summer of the 2000s. In 2009 they celebrated their Guinness World Record certification for largest console game for Fuel and its playable landscape which measured 5,560 square miles. Recently they not only participated in the 2016 reveal of Microsoft’s HoloLens, but also revealed both Fragments and Young Conker for it.
Another point of pride for Dedeine comes back to the studio’s licensed work. Their work on The Mummy established credibility early in the studio’s life and gave them a reputation which eventually reached Pixar.
“Working with Pixar was definitely our first major milestone, especially as a French developer. Because at this time of Asobo’s story, working with a US publisher brought us to another level,” Dedeine reflects. “Earning the trust of the Pixar team was for us was like a first accolade from the masters of the genre.”
Learning From the Masters
For Pixar they developed tie-in games for films like Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Toy Story. Dedeine says that they gleaned insights from Pixar’s creative process and seeing the Pixar mantra in action that has stuck with them to this day. In that way, their relationship to Pixar went beyond that of being a gun-for-hire for Pixar’s publishing arm. They considered themselves to be students, as well.
Although licensed games have acquired something of a bad reputation, projects such as Ratatouille were an exercise in creativity for Asobo. After all, creativity is often born not from having unlimited freedom, but from constraints. The constraints of working within Pixar’s universes forced the studio to consider which boundaries they could push and which they had to respect.
“This is very different from the complete freedom and loneliness of the white page when you start working on a title like A Plague Tale: Innocence,” Dedeine tells me. “But in both cases, it’s fulfilling.”
He and others viewed Asobo’s relationship with the animation giant as an opportunity to explore new territory. “Being a little character in giant world in Ratatouille was awesome to design,” he says. “Creating a fun and emotional game in Wall-E while playing as a lonely robot on a devastated Earth was also very interesting, especially at the beginning when he is the last robot standing.”
Most of the studio’s work has been in collaboration with another studio, within the confines of someone else’s universe, or otherwise commissioned. Aside from their licensed games, Microsoft hired them to create Fragments for HoloLens and Codemasters hired them to develop Fuel. According to Dedeine, A Plague Tale will be their first “100% Asobo,” game. The games they cut their teeth on, however, gave them the financial stability, experience, production skills, and technical know-how to make a run of seeing their vision through independently.
Not only did years of mercenary work and producing licensed tie-in games arm the studio with technical tools and stability, but the core spirit of their early games lives on in their latest game. You wouldn’t think it from watching trailers full of vermin harboring contagion-ridden hitchhikers terrorize two orphaned siblings, but the family-friendly elements of their Pixar-commissioned creations gave the studio material to play with.
“The core team came pretty early with Amicia and Hugo [The game’s main characters] and this idea of playing with childhood in a brutal and bleak world, as in the old tales we were told as kids. These tales, if you think twice, are quite brutal, and in our contemporary perspective, not at all child-friendly. It’s the vein we wanted to explore,” Dedeine tells me. “This friction between a childhood innocence and the darkness of the adult world. I like how the old tales twist a grounded reality into something that speaks indirectly to your mind, that you can’t completely describe, with a part of weird mystery. The middle age setting was a perfect fit for this.”
If the games Asobo cut their teeth on were forays into happy-go-lucky innocence, A Plague Tale is about a harsh world which steals away that youthful naiveté.
And if you look closely, you might even see more literal vestiges of their past scampering around in their future. “The previous steps we have taken have given us the chance to produce something that is 100% Asobo,” Dedeine says. “And even if the universe, the gameplay, the tone, the art are not comparable, still, I am sure Remi is among the plague rats somewhere, looking kindly at us doing our own cuisine in our own kitchen. I guess he is proud of us!”