Josh Sawyer is the Creative Director at Obsidian, and for about ten years now I’ve been calling him “the most cursed man in the videogames industry”. This is because Josh Sawyer came to Obsidian through Black Isle, and so has his name attached to things like the cancelled Van Buren prototype of Fallout 3 — no, not the soulless Bethesda one from 2008, the one where all we ever saw of it was a main menu mockup — and Icewind Dale 2, which was mostly notable for sinking without a trace thanks to coming out two months after Neverwinter Nights. His bad luck streak continued at Obsidian: designer on Alpha Protocol, one of the most criminally overlooked games of the last twenty years; director and lead designer on Fallout New Vegas, which was most definitely not overlooked but which infamously led to Obsidian getting screwed out of a bonus payment it would have received had it achieved an overall Metacritic score of 85 (it ended up with 84); and then director on Pillars of Eternity and Pillars of Eternity 2, the latter of which is a genuinely great CRPG but if you want to know how it did commercially you just have to look for Pillars of Eternity 3. Or the lack of it, anyway.
This is why Josh Sawyer is cursed: nearly every single game he has been involved with has been an absolute banger of an RPG, and nearly every single one of them has been considered a commercial failure (or got cancelled). After Pillars 2 flopped I think I would have forgiven him for just stepping back into his general Creative Director role for all of Obsidian1 in between posting reviews of shower UX design on Twitter. But Josh Sawyer is made of sterner stuff than I am, and has instead taken the other road: if every game he makes is doomed to be a commercial failure, then he might as well just make the games he wants to make, commercial viability be damned2. And this is how we’ve ended up with Pentiment, a game with extremely limited commercial appeal for something published by Microsoft, but which is one of the most interesting and engaging games I’ve played this year precisely because of that fact.
What is Pentiment? It looks like a point and click adventure game, and it is, technically, in that it’s 2D and you point and click on the screen to get your character to walk there and interact with things. But there are no puzzles in Pentiment — at least, not the classic style of point-and-click puzzle where you have to OPEN DOOR and then USE MONKEY ON PUMP3. You don’t even have an inventory in Pentiment; 90% of your activity is just walking around talking to people, and the bits that aren’t are either scripted interludes that are essentially barely-interactive cutscenes, or else simple one-off minigames where you spin wool or put a broken pot back together. Pentiment is almost entirely driven by its narrative, and figuring out what you have to do to progress that narrative is not difficult. Figuring out how you’re going to progress it — deciding which of the many strands of investigation that the game presents you with you’re going to spend your limited time to follow up — that is the hard part,
So, what is Pentiment’s narrative about? The game casts you as Andreas Maler, a journeyman artist in 16th century Bavaria. Andreas is staying in the small town of Tassing while working on a commission for the monks of Tassing abbey, and befriends the Baron Rothvogel one morning on his way to work, who is also travelling to the abbey to discuss his own commission with the abbot there. Well, I say “Rothvogel” but this guy might as well be called Baron Deadmeat because it’s quickly established that basically everyone in Tassing hates his guts (including the monks) and so it’s no surprise when he turns up dead in the abbey chapter house. Unfortunately for Andreas his monk mentor at the abbey is found standing over the corpse and is the prime suspect for the killing, and so in order to clear his mentor’s name Andreas sets about investigating the murder to try and identify the true culprit.
There’s a number of very easy comparisons I could draw here, nearly all of which would have some truth to them. Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, for one, and Ellis Peters’ Cadfael series, for another; from videogames the way Pentiment handles choice and consequences (not to mention its focus on superb art) reminds me a lot of the better bits of the Banner Saga series4. The elephant in the room, though, and the comparison that most people are going to reach for first, is another heavily narrative-focused game based around solving a murder: 2019’s Disco Elysium. And there are some striking similarities between the two, although the murder part is the least interesting one. Both Disco Elysium and Pentiment are fascinated with communities — the people in them, and the stories behind them — to a degree not often seen in videogames, which usually only care about people to the extent that they need a vaguely person-shaped thing to crouch behind cover so that the player can shoot them in the head. But where Disco Elysium’s study of communities was intended to back some whip-smart commentary about politics and social systems, Pentiment’s focus is a little different: as you’d expect, this historical adventure game is all about the history of a community — how it is made, how it is remembered, and how it is recorded.
To achieve this Pentiment splits itself into three acts, with lengthy, years-long intervals between each one. The murder of the Baron takes up the first act as Andreas familiarises himself with Tassing and its inhabitants in the course of his investigation. The options you are given to shape a conversation are not as broad as in Disco Elysium, with fewer choices available (it’s extremely rare that you’ll have more than three to choose from), no skill checks, and just a few passive background abilities like “being good at sums” that occasionally provide special options — and which often don’t give you a positive outcome if you pick them. However the conversations themselves are much lengthier, and often take place over some communal activity; eating meals with the various families in Tassing is a big deal during the first two acts of the game, and Pentiment cuts to a close-up of the foodstuffs on offer while the participants chat in a more conversational manner than we usually see in adventure games. This serves two purposes, both allowing Andreas (and the player) to get to know the people and their place in the community in a much more natural way than the usual approach of working your way down a list of bullet points, while also providing a little bit of an insight into what people ate during the 16th century and the disparity between the haves and have-nots. If it’s not conversations that take place over shared meals then it’s neat little minigames like spinning wool, or cutting Christmas cookies. Pentiment is very big on showing as well as telling like this, giving you lots of little contextual details about the period at the same time as the information required to “solve” the murder. And not only that, but by participating in these communal activities in the course of his information-gathering Andreas becomes accepted by Tassing’s community in a way that perpetual outsider Harry du Bois never was in Disco Elysium.
And that community connection is something that lends the transition between acts even more weight. Andreas is presented with several major suspects for the Baron’s murder and has only a few days to investigate; he can’t possibly run down all of his leads in the time available, and so you have to pick which ones you think are the most promising/likely and prioritise those. When the time is up you’ll have to make a choice as to who to point the finger at, and if you have what looks like a reasonably good case justice will be meted out swiftly — and as befits the 16th century, it is harsh, with a brutal depiction that’s quite at odds with the relatively friendly town life you’ve been experiencing up until that point. It’s the sort of thing that makes you question if you really made the right decision, in fact; one thing Pentiment does that I’m sure will rub some people up the wrong way is purposely not tell the player who actually killed the Baron, and instead leave it up to them to decide what the truth was. It did bug me somewhat that I didn’t get the catharsis of knowing one way or the other, but the game does successfully make the point that ultimately it doesn’t matter who did it, only that you understand enough about Tassing’s history (as well as a lot of the background detail of 16th century European culture) to understand why they might have been driven to it. The case is closed, if not solved, and Andreas moves on with his life.
…only to return several years later to a Tassing that’s substantially different, both because of his actions in the first act, and because of the simple passage of time. Some of the children he encountered on his first visit have grown into young teenagers, but there are notable absences thanks to the infant mortality rate in early modern Europe and the families that he met before are scarred by those losses. They’re happy to see Andreas again, but this time the connection between himself and the villagers is strained as his affluence stands in stark contrast to their worsening fortunes; the underlying tensions between the community of Tassing and the monks of the abbey, always visible in the first act, are in danger of turning violent. But most interesting of all are their perceptions of the events of seven years ago — Andreas may have been able to piece together some of the backstory and whichever suspect he fingered has largely been accepted as the culprit, but the villagers haven’t had the benefit of experiencing his investigation and so everyone remembers the Baron’s murder slightly differently, and always through the lens of how it affected their own lives.
This is the question that Pentiment keeps returning to again and again: the consequences of Andreas’s actions have long since passed into history and are talked about quite naturally as part of that history – but whose version is the “true” one? Andreas’s is true to him, but that doesn’t invalidate anyone else’s experience, and a big part of history is taking these disparate accounts of the same event and deciding how to represent them — what your version of the truth is. That truth — that history — is ultimately mutable and lies somewhat in the eye of the beholder is the core theme of Pentiment, reflected in several different strands of the narrative. You’ve got the surface level of the murder investigation, where you’re not told the truth about the Baron’s murder and have to make your own mind up; you’ve got the differing recollections and opinions of Tassing’s inhabitants years after the event; and then Pentiment also delves into Tassing’s much more ancient history, with the legends around the saint whose relics are stored at the abbey having been told and retold so many times by successive settlements and cultures that figuring out where they all started, and what the true story of the saint is, is an exercise in futility.
This is one half of why Pentiment has resonated so deeply with me. If it were just a historical murder mystery with well-written and well-realised characters then it’d still be a good game, but it’d be one that I just played and enjoyed and then moved on from, instead of still thinking about it two weeks after I played it. But that’s not enough for Pentiment; it wants to explore the nature of history itself, and while it hasn’t quite reached the same level of rewiring my brain as Disco Elysium did, it has succeeded in making me think about its narrative on a much deeper level than I did for other contemporaries such as Citizen Sleeper.
Ah, but even if you find yourself disengaged from these overarching themes that Pentiment presents you with, then there are still some very good reasons to stick around. It’s worth playing through just to see all of the visual flourishes, as Pentiment is an astonishingly pretty game. The style is based on medieval illustrations of the sort that Andreas is working on in the abbey scriptorium, except with concessions made to consistency and legibility. It’s not so much that the game looks like one of these illustrations come to life, since it’s not afraid to depart from that style in places (mostly in the landscapes), but that there’s little details from them that constantly jump out at you as you’re playing, like the way the women hold their hands or the curve on the abbot’s cassock or the pigs and sheep, which are of that particular “artist had a pig described to them once but has never actually seen one” style of the time. The relationship is made explicit in several places, such as the fantastic interlude where Andreas appears as a living character inside some of the books that he’s using for reference material for his commission. And there’s other flourishes too, like the clock that tracks time being a dial with some great visual representations of the monastic hours of Matins, Vespers and Compline.
One visual flourish that didn’t land quite so well with me, though, are the fonts. Even here it’s not so much a problem with the concept as it is the execution; the idea is that different classes of character have their dialogue written in fonts specific to that class. (There is no voice acting in Pentiment.) The peasants and townsfolk speak in flowing handwriting, written by a pen, while the monks of the abbey do so in illustrated gothic font of the sort that you’d see in a monastery-produced book of the time, and the printer and his family speak in blocks of printing type which are set inside the dialogue box and then removed to reveal the printed words. It’s very cute, and there’s even a couple of neat tricks like the handwritten stuff having occasional spelling errors in it that gets removed and corrected, and ink splotches appearing around the words when a character is angry or upset, like they’re writing with such emphasis that they’re leaking ink everywhere. I really like the concept and it’s a big part of what makes Pentiment such a joy to look at — unfortunately it also makes it something of a pain in the ass to play, since my reading speed is much much faster than the fastest speed at which I can make all of these fancy writing animations play, and so once the novelty had worn off I mostly just felt frustrated as I had to wait around time and again for dialogue to appear.
That’s just a bump, though, and Pentiment is far from the worst offender for wasting my time with slow dialogue speeds this year. At least Pentiment is trying to do something with it, providing context for the class and status of the people you’re talking to and immersing you a little more deeply into its 16th century world. The general level of historical detail is really quite something; it’s impossible to play Pentiment and not come away from it having learned something new about the period, even for somebody like me who has already done a fair amount of reading around it5. Pentiment isn’t concerned with emperors or battles, but in how everyday people lived during this time; the closest it comes to real politics are some conversational mentions of Martin Luther’s tracts and the Swabian peasants’ revolt, and it’s otherwise entirely focused on Tassing. Religion is a huge part of the townsfolk’s lives, but so is tradition, and there are times when Christianity takes a back seat to lightly-rebranded pagan festivals that feel like they’re straight out of The Wicker Man. (Although nobody gets sacrificed.) The religious life of the monks and nuns at the abbey is explored thoroughly, as is the feudal relationship between the abbey and the town, and even small details about the town can be revealing — Andreas observes that the miller is rich enough to have glass windows installed in his house, which is (again) both a good piece of historical context (that glass windows are extremely rare outside of the cities) and a potentially important clue for his investigation. And the really cool thing about Pentiment is that it never feels like you’re sitting through a lecture about life in the Holy Roman Empire; all of this information is relayed to you quite naturally through exploration, and through conversations. Playing the game, in other words. I’ve not seen a game do stealth history lessons this well since Microprose died off6.
If Pentiment does have one non-trivial flaw, it lies in its replayability. That Pentiment is a game designed to be replayed is unarguable, as the first act of the game has five possible outcomes and the second act has three, and you can’t see all of them (and their consequences for subsequent acts) on one playthrough. I will probably replay Pentiment at some point, as I did very much enjoy its narrative and its rich world. However, I was put off from the idea of an immediate replay by two things. One is the dialogue animation time, which I was already struggling with at the end of my first playthrough but which was rendered 100x more obnoxious when I already knew what people were going to say; the game needs a little time to breathe, and for me to forget some of the details, before I can deal with that again. The other problem is a structural change in the way the third act of Pentiment is put together, as it removes the time limit that’s been forcing you to make difficult decisions up until that point, and in fact there’s barely any decisions to make at all; instead you just run down all of the hanging investigation threads one after another, and then when they’re all finished the game is over. While that’s still reasonably engaging as a narrative it’s much less interesting to me as a game, and I feel like it would be difficult for me to get through that again on a replay no matter how long I left it.
Even if I do only ever get the one full playthrough out of Pentiment, though, I think it was still an incredibly worthwhile experience. It helps that it’s a game that overlaps solidly with some of my core interests, but balanced against that is a mechanical structure that would feel alarmingly light if it weren’t backed up by such excellent writing and presentation. The team that worked on Pentiment appears to be tiny even by the AA standards of Obsidian, but every single one of them hit it out of the park here; this weird adventure game about an artist solving murders in the Holy Roman Empire comes across as a labour of love for everyone involved, not just Josh Sawyer. Pentiment is a tremendous achievement that I was briefly convinced would be the best game I played this year. It might still be, after I’ve had a little more time to digest it. For now, though, it’s at least top three, and a game I’ll remember for a long, long time no matter where it ends up.
- Although he was quick to disavow having much involvement with The Outer Worlds in that role, which you can charitably view as him not wanting to take the credit for another team’s success, but which I see as his attempt to flee the crime scene. ↩
- He still had to get it greenlit, but Game Pass has apparently changed the calculus there for the time being. ↩
- Yes, I’m still very upset about this puzzle from my Monkey Island 2 replay. ↩
- I could also pull out some Telltale games as a comparison here, but I won’t on the basis that I hate most of them and Pentiment’s too good to be sat next to any of them. ↩
- Mostly thanks to Darklands sparking my interest. ↩
- In fact the only thing that’s missing from Pentiment is a bibliography. ↩