I’m a history nerd. I’m minoring in it here at Northwestern, and I love telling people about what I learn in class. Our ancestors got up to a lot of crazy stuff – that’s for sure – and it’s always a joy to discover untold stories.
Josh Sawyer and the folks at Obsidian must also be huge history nerds because it takes some guts to develop an entire video game set exclusively in a small, 16th-century Bavarian town. Pentiment isn’t just a history lesson, though. It’s also a somber, bittersweet tale of generational trauma, self-discovery and regret. It’s one of the best-written games I’ve ever played.
Right from the start, Pentiment demonstrates its commitment to the Reformation-era aesthetic. The game’s graphics evoke the style of medieval illuminated manuscripts, and all the game’s text is rendered in medieval scripts – written and typeset. The game’s style provides a sense of immersion rivaling the most stunningly-detailed first-person games. I could tell Obsidian had not only done their historical research, but also worked hard to treat the medium with respect and not just as a gimmick.
The game’s story begins in 1518, just as the first rumblings of the Protestant Reformation begin to reach Bavaria. Players take on the role of Andreas Maler, a journeyman artist working for the Benedictine monastery of Kiersau Abbey in the fictional town of Tassing. Players are able to customize some elements of Andreas’ background, such as where and what he studied before arriving in the village. These details add additional dialogue options to the game’s many conversations and allow players to flesh out their own character in a way that feels natural and authentic.
Pentiment realizes players need something to do in the quaint Bavarian town though, and soon spices things up with the murder of a visiting noble. Andreas is then given just a few days to solve the mystery and uncover the truth (or sufficient evidence to condemn whoever they find most suspicious.)
The gameplay of Pentiment is an acquired taste: The whole game consists primarily of speaking to the village’s residents in order to find clues and sniff out lies, as well as exploring the town and abbey to discover objects or people out of place. While the game features the occasional minigame – repairing some pottery, deciphering a code – Pentiment’s heart is the dialogue, which is incredible. Nearly every resident can be talked to at length, often more than once. Even the most humble farmer’s ambitions, fears and hopes shine through. The characters of Pentiment are deeply human, which makes every risky dialogue choice a gut-wrenching affair. Does Andreas reveal a scandal among the Kiersau monks or keep it quiet to ensure peace? Does Andreas protect a hated resident even though the others seem to think they are a prime suspect? There are no right answers in Pentiment, only human ones.
While Pentiment sets itself up as a medieval murder mystery, it delivers much more than a detective fantasy. The whole game actually takes place over about 30 years, and players get to see the residents of Tassing grow up, settle down and yes, die. Daughters struggle with their predetermined societal roles. Sons seek to escape from the shadows of their fathers. Widows mourn. Priests reckon with their faith. Nearly all of the characters stay in just one place throughout the whole narrative, but none are left unchanged by the events that unfold. Watching these characters simply go about their lives, and seeing my past decisions come back to bless, or, more often than not, haunt them, was an emotional experience for me. A story that could have been drier than the parchment it’s drawn on is made moist – by my tears, that is.
Not everyone will like Pentiment. Some will find its dialogue overwhelming, its story convoluted or its characters too quaint. Pentiment is a story about ordinary people living in an extraordinary time, a time that historians love to dissect but few seem to understand in human terms. Pentiment rectifies this with its intimate, profound story that tells us history is always with us.
Thumbnail credit Obsidian Entertainment