Obsidian Entertainment, Pentiment (2022).
Reviewed by Clint Morrison, Jr
Obsidian Entertainment’s Pentiment is a love letter to medieval manuscripts. From the opening start screen to the sound effects of pen touching parchment (or typeset blocks being pressed), each part of the video game’s presentation shares an admiration and adoration for the materials with the game’s protagonist Andreas and those (more religious) figures around him in an Upper Bavarian Abbey’s scriptorium.
The developers at Obsidian weave an intriguing tale of murder and artistry. The game wears the influence of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980) on its parchment. Part “whodunnit” and part “medieval historical fiction,” Pentiment’s narrative follows the life and career of traveling illuminator Andreas Maler beginning in 1518. Andreas’s love for knowledge and books—both manuscripts and early prints—is intoxicating. Through Andreas’s eyes and words, the player experiences the rich world of Pentiment. And what a world it is to explore as a medievalist! From the trope-y references to Dante to the theological discussions about reformations, heresies, forest management, and Lucifer’s light, there is something here for everyone.
Pentiment is a 2D adventure game with some role-playing elements, some of which are realized in the game’s opening moments, where the player shapes Andreas’s past through what they choose to tell other characters. Picking from pre-selected lists, does the player imagine Andreas to be a hedonist or a bookworm in his free time? To have studied to be a Latinist or an Occultist? These early choices determine how Andreas can interact with the 16th-century world around him. For instance, a past of studying Latin or “Heaven and Earth” opens up different dialogue options when conversing with monks or nobles.
Pentiment’s role-playing elements mostly come into play through the decisions that the player makes throughout the game’s three acts—choices encompassing who you choose to share a meal with or who you speak to. The game forces players to work on its clock: the canon hours. A beautiful turning animation announces each of the day’s transitions. For instance, the turning from “nones”—labeled “work” with an accompanying illustration of laborers—to “vespers”—labeled “eat.” The roles of these labels are twofold: they provide potential tasks for the player to “complete” during this time in-game, and they preview what activities the folks of Tassing and Keirsau Abbey are either partaking in (or interested in participating with the player) during these times. This isn’t the only “time” mechanic working with (or against) the player, however. Each of the game’s acts only consists of a certain number of days leading to the act’s climatic event. This number of days also limits how much time the player has to complete the interactions that they may want to during an initial playthrough.
The game presents a multilingual late Middle Ages on the brink of Early Modernity as Reformation and print arrive—not all at once but through the steady drip of societal expectation, desire, and momentum. The game often presents dialogue in Latin, French, or German before (but not always) translating to the player’s selected language. Some dialogue options are presented in untranslated popular French or Latin proverbs. Two of Pentiment’s most significant interactions involve time with the Ethiopian missionary Sebhat and a Jewish couple traveling through the Bavarian town, sharing stories and meals with our protagonist and the folks in Tassing.
Pentiment’s narrative is best when its writing focuses on the everyday lives of those traveling through, living in, and laboring in Tassing. Every meal is significant not because every meal accompanies some big reveal but because they are written in a way that feels like a meal with real people with real anxieties or ambitions about the world around them. The game director Josh Sawyer released a recommended reading list to the Xbox community—a brief annotated bibliography for those non-medievalist gamers interested. It emphasizes Obsidian’s desire to explore the stories of everyday folks in Tassing. Pentiment is their story—even more than it belongs to the player or Andreas. Here, the player won’t find the heroes or heroines of romance (as is often the case in medieval fantasy video games) or the quiet townsfolk or laborers often serving as little more than background aesthetics for virtual adventures. Every single character living or visiting Tassing speaks, contributes, and writes a portion of the town’s history.
The game’s avoidance of some medievalism tropes often found in medieval fantasy is one of its strengths. Obsidian never presents the game’s preceding “Middle Ages” as something to be memorialized, monumentalized, or demonized as more holy, less intellectual, or simply residing in the shadow of the Romans that came before. The arrival of ideas pertaining to Martin Luther’s theses and the printing press are written as given tools to pre-existing ideas and desires. Obsidian crafts a narrative that comfortably navigates the fluidity of periodization in its imagining of the early sixteenth century. The people of Tassing navigate their continuously transforming world rather than sitting in a static portrayal of premodernity.
Pentiment isn’t a particularly brief experience. It took me between 15 and 20 hours to complete the game’s three acts. While still significantly shorter than the 100s of hours in other medievalism games, the game requires more than a little time. It also invites a replay—I missed opportunities to find clues, have meals with particular town folk, or work on Andreas’s masterpiece during the first act. This time is more than rewarded to discover more about Tassing—its murder mysteries, its pre-Roman and Roman pasts, and the people of its medieval present. Obsidian’s love letter to medieval manuscripts thoughtfully weaves Tassing’s stories into a visually stunning and unforgettable tapestry.
I have tried to avoid spoilers where possible. The best way to experience Pentiment’s Tassing is by playing the game. Pentiment is available for Xbox Series S | X, Xbox One, Windows 10/11 PC, and Steam for $19.99. Players with Xbox Game Pass ($10 per month) or PC Game Pass ($10 per month) can play it with their subscription. Players can also stream the game on nearly any device with the Xbox app and a Game Pass Ultimate subscription ($15 per month).
Clint Morrison, Jr
Ohio State University