In the charming game Pentiment, Renaissance history becomes a means of questioning the role of the artist. By Jini Maxwell.


An image from the game Pentiment.
An image from the game Pentiment.
Credit: Obsidian Entertainment

When the artist Andreas Maler visits Keirsau Abbey in the 16th-century Bavarian town of Tassing, he is given the opportunity to intervene in the burning of a book. Sister Illuminata, the abbey librarian, says that the text is heretical. Andreas can either hand the book over for destruction or argue for its protection on the grounds that it expands the sum of knowledge. This sets the tone for Pentiment’s obsessive consideration of lived histories and of which histories are allowed to survive.

Pentiment’s story spans three decades. It begins as Andreas, a late bloomer and aspiring master artist, arrives to be a visiting illuminator at Keirsau’s scriptorium. Soon afterwards, a visiting baron is murdered in the abbey, setting off a chain of events that affects the lives of the people in Tassing for decades to come.

The game is structured as a detective mystery in which the player guides the protagonist through solving a series of interlinked murders that reveal a much larger underlying secret. But unlike a typical mystery game, Pentiment is not particularly interested in providing a player with the tools to solve a particular crime. Instead, it uses the mystery as a narrative vehicle through which it explores the lives of Tassing’s residents and the personal and political forces that shape them. Andreas’s work as an artist, and as an amateur detective, is in learning about people, especially those who will inevitably be left out of the historical record.

Visually, the game is styled after the illuminated manuscripts that Andreas is working on, with each landscape, church and home rendered in expressive inky lines and muted colours. The characters’ dialogue is rendered in era-appropriate scripts that reflect their cultural background and educational level. The monks in the scriptorium speak in flowery Gothic typeface that is first etched into the dialogue panel as an outline before being filled in with ink, while the peasants’ words are a rougher cursive.

This system is peppered with charmingly tactile detail that effectively communicates tone in a game that is largely without voice acting. Characters “misprint” words, leaving errors and misspellings in their dialogue that are erased and corrected, leaving a grey mark underneath the newly printed ink lettering. In moments of distress, ink speckles the dialogue, almost obscuring it in some cases.

The player has some impact on the make-up of Andreas’s character. At the beginning of each act you choose particular proficiencies and backgrounds, including personal traits and historical details such as where they have lived and travelled, which dictate the languages and customs with which Andreas will be most familiar. These decisions unlock extra information, history and dialogue options, which mostly function to add extra detail and depth to the world of Tassing, rather than advancing the narrative or providing further clues.

They also reveal the limits of the protagonist’s world view. Far from being a vessel through which a perfect account of the Renaissance passes to the player, Andreas is just one man. His understanding of the broader context and movements that influence the political and personal struggles in Tassing is necessarily incomplete. At every turn, the imperfection of his knowledge is underscored: each day of investigation offers more leads than Andreas has time to follow up, and as the time allotted to each investigation grows briefer and murkier, his panic at his own fallibilities is palpable.

Structured by Andreas’s detective work, Pentiment is split between exploring Tassing and speaking to its residents to understand their lives, relationships and motivations. These conversations are occasionally interspersed with simple mini-games that revolve around domestic tasks – cutting cookies or spinning wool. The day is segmented by meals that the player can choose to share with different townsfolk. Like the marginalia in an illuminated manuscript, these moments are deeply humanising. Over meals, the characters relay anecdotes about their lives that are sympathetic and relatable, such as the loss of a parent, or professional disputes or financial difficulty. Without trying to conflate these 16th-century struggles with contemporary life, Pentiment keenly establishes that history is not a static research object but a process that is lived by people.

Pentiment isn’t shy about the depth of its research, nor does it baulk at immersing its players in the specifics of its time period. Rather than translating them directly into modern vernacular, the game provides a hefty glossary for cultural and religious phrases specific to the era that can be accessed by clicking unfamiliar words as they appear on-screen. Between acts, even the game’s method of telling time changes from monastic time of work periods, vespers and rest to a Roman-numeral clock that demarcates the day through contemporary hours. Passages of expository dialogue about pagan traditions, liturgical disputes and international politics are frequent and lengthy, and it isn’t always clear when a conversation is necessary to advance the plot or is simply providing further texture. To pose this as a criticism, however, would be to misunderstand Pentiment; this game’s greatest appeal is its own indulgence, and the impossibly rich detail of the world is a reward in itself.

If Pentiment is invested in history as it is lived, it is equally invested in how history is recorded and who dictates what is recorded. It is deeply interested in the function of narrative as a buttress to power. While the central mystery resolves in the game’s final act, the larger focus is on the act of writing history itself.

Over the game’s decades, events that the player watched unfold are misremembered, recontextualised or erased entirely, as different people adopt versions of history that absolve their institutions, causes or friends of culpability. The wider dissemination of particular narratives about Tassing, whether false or true, shapes the lives of the town’s residents in turn – a burden that Andreas increasingly struggles to bear as he realises that his work revolves around illuminating written histories that serve the wealthy and powerful.

As the course of his life becomes inextricable from the personal struggles and political disenfranchisement of Tassing’s townsfolk, Andreas finds this mode of working increasingly irreconcilable with his ethics. As with so many of the moral quandaries that Pentiment presents to the player, this resounds in a contemporary artistic landscape of paltry funding, prize culture and culturally conservative publishers and audiences. Can the ambition of an artwork be decoupled from the material forces that dictate its development? How can art made in this context feel meaningful?

Over the course of its three acts, Pentiment refuses to offer absolute answers. Its mysteries feel half-solved, as the political dimensions of its world are too big for either the player or protagonist to fully grasp. But its embrace of uncertainty is its greatest strength. As a work of historical fiction it does more than just adopt an illuminated aesthetic or indulge in the curios of its setting. It’s a complex, humanistic story that reflects on the conditions of its own creation as well as the creation of the manuscripts it draws on, bringing not just Tassing but the moral dimensions of narrative-making to life. 

Pentiment is available for Xbox and Windows.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 28, 2023 as "Illuminating play".

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