Throughout the early chapters of Pentiment, I was struck by how utterly charming and lighthearted the game felt despite centering on a grisly murder in a Bavarian monastery with the coming Wars of the Reformation looming the background. It’s a game that is long on charm and warmth: its signature element is the fact that the whole game is presented in an art style reminiscent of illustrations and marginalia in illuminated manuscripts, and when characters speak they do so in the stylized text associated with various forms of antique publications. Monks speak in ornate Gothic script, the town printer speaks in an old-fashioned typeface. You can pet every animal in town. It feels, in other words, like you are about to go on an historical romp, and the review I was outlining in my head was going to be about that effervescent whimsy.
Then I came to a doubtful resolution of the initial mystery, I made some major choices and some characters I’d met paid some major costs, and finally I hit the game’s first time-skip and felt the ground give way. However cute and witty Pentiment can be and usually is, cruel twists of fate and bitter realities are waiting around every corner. All its characters know this, and once Pentiment makes clear these same rules apply to your character and major members of its cast, the charming period comedy gives way to a searching and frequently sweeping historical drama whose sense of scope is made all the more pointed by the fact it all takes place in the same few locations in a small Bavarian town.
Speaking to Pentiment’s director, Josh Sawyer (also the design director for Obsidian) on Waypoint Radio for a show later this week, he summarized Pentiment as a medieval Night in the Woods meets The Name of the Rose. As nutshell descriptions go, I really can’t do better: as you solve the mysteries swirling around a declining Benedictine abbey, you will run all over town chatting up the cast of characters who live there as they go about their lives and come to major crossroads. There are no significant puzzles to speak of, mostly you just run from place to place and watch them exchange speech bubbles. The major constraint you are under is that there is typically some kind of deadline and you have to choose who to spend your free time with, which is how you learn key pieces of evidence and have significant, relationship-altering exchanges with the other people in town. Given how much re-treading of old ground this involves, and how much of this game involves waiting for the game to finish writing text into those speech bubbles with the sound of brushes, quills, and printing presses, Pentiment is a game that lives and dies by how much you like looking at it and reading what it has to say.
Happily, it is a triumph of art and writing, each underscoring and reinforcing the other. It’s visible from the first moments of the game as you take your character, an ambitious young artist named Andreas Maler, through an ordinary day in the village of Tassing as he heads to work at Kiersau Abbey, where he is completing his masterpiece and learning his trade from the monks who work in its venerable-but-obsolete scriptorium. Squeezed by printing presses on one side and growing competition from professionals like Andreas wants to be, the abbey is an ancient institution in a world on the cusp of modernity. All these themes are drawn out in lively, never-stilted expository dialog and beautiful details in the scenery and on the costumes of the monks themselves. The wizened monks with their ink-spattered robes and arthritic joints shuffle and crab across the illustrations that Andreas can strut about at will. As his mentor Piero explains finer points of his vanishing art to Andreas, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Andreas will be the hero of a great story to come and that the future that is leaving the abbey behind will belong to him.
In a way it does, but Pentiment is a game about cycles of life that are as predictable and constraining as the wheel in a book of hours that marks off the game’s scenes. We meet Andreas in the flush of youthful confidence; we will meet him later in the throes of adult disappointment and regret. Likewise, we will see the cozy small-town life of Tassing turn vicious, where all the easy intimacy and fellowship of the earlier parts of the game curdle into bitterness and lingering resentment. You might think your task will be to fix some of all of this but again and again people will remind you that much in this world is not fixable and it is the most people’s lot to figure out how they can best endure and reconcile themselves with what is coming.
Ironically, I’m not really talking about the historical upheavals that hang over parts of this story like the sword of Damocles. I mean the ever-present danger and sadness of life in this era. There is no political drama that unfolded that was anywhere near as devastating as revisiting some characters I’d loved in the early chapters of the game to find the family devastated by sickness and death. A cheery, bustling household is replaced by the haunted solitude of a widower and a child playing alone. Another family suffers from malnutrition and the early stages of starvation under crippling taxation by the abbey.
All these threads are tied together. Personal triumphs and tragedies are tied up in the politics of the 1500s Bavaria and the shifting religious climate. The gorgeous abbey, its cast of oddball monks and nuns, and its treasured library are supported by taxes that eventually starve your friends in town. Many of the people in town are aware of that, and yet are also devout in their faith and their devotion to the town’s priest, drawing comfort from the fact that much of what they are going through is just part of the soul’s long passage through the Vale of Tears to the Kingdom of Heaven. But even here, Pentiment does not paint with too broad a brush, neither condescending to nor flattening its subjects. We see not just those for whom the Church is a tedious obligation, but also those for whom it presents a mortal threat. A tinker in the woods appears midway through the game to offer some thoughts he’s put together from reading and reasoning over the years, presenting a faith that is deeply felt and entirely heretical, and one that is recognizably slightly mystical forerunner of Enlightenment Deism.
This is the more mature and interesting version of “historical accuracy” than we so often get, complicating an image many of us have of the past but without resorting to facile winks at modern sensibilities. Pentiment is clearly informed by feminist history and theory, for instance, but that means it takes seriously the obstacles to a single woman inheriting property or taking up a trade in this era. Non-conformity of all sorts exists but it is perilous, and the game is very clear about why. Likewise, Pentiment does not present a vision of medieval Bavaria as hermetically sealed off from the wider world, but it does not deny the distance and isolation of many of these communities. Early on we meet an Ethiopian Catholic monk who is treated with warm, but slightly uncomfortable curiosity as the townsfolk. But Pentiment does not reduce this topic down to the presence of absence of non-white people in the medieval European countryside. A point that it makes repeatedly is that Europe is not really even a concept that exists for most of the people you meet, for whom Venice or Tours seem as far away as the moon and Mars. How people define themselves is a political question, one that takes center stage as the game goes on and draws attention to they ways that concepts of modern nationhood were themselves a fiction drawn over histories of colonialism and cultural destruction.
These topics are handled well through a lot of good writing and dialogues but they also lie close to the heart of the different mysteries you investigate as the game goes on. As the crimes and bodies pile up across the years, all orchestrated by someone Andreas starts thinking of as the “Thread-Puller”, it’s clear that whoever is doing all this is a secret historian. Someone who knows not just the forgotten mysteries around Tassing’s original settlement and founding, but also the personal crimes and abuses that have gone hidden within the community.
It is in this final, unifying mystery that Pentiment becomes a great horror story. Characters age, die, and otherwise depart Tassing and so the list of eligible suspects dwindles until you are left with the inescapable conclusion that it must be a character you have known a long time. And yet also, from clues about the Thread-Puller you accumulate throughout the game, it is someone you do not know at all, and whose secrets you have never imagined. Someone who knows all the things from the past that history won’t admit.