In Pentiment, you play as Andreas Marler, a journeyman artist in the scriptorium of a sixteenth-century Bavarian monastery. From his lodgings in a peasant’s hovel, Marler spends his days working on his masterpiece and his nights disturbed by dreams of Socrates and Saint Grobian. That is until the visiting Baron Baron Lorenz Rothvogel is stabbed dead in the Chapter House, and our friend, the infirm Brother Piero, is found ‘in flagrante delicto’ (definition: ‘in the very act of wrongdoing, especially in an act of sexual misconduct).
I appeal to the archdeacon’s enquiry in aid of Piero – and cast blame for the killing on the widow Ottilia. On my word, she is dragged before the town and garrotted to death. Billed as a “narrative game most unexpected”, Pentiment has plenty more surprises in store.
Pentiment is a narrative adventure game developed by Obsidian Entertainment. They are responsible for some of the best role-playing games of the 2000s and some of the least memorable since. The old guard has left the company, and new recruits have joined. It has become a ship of Theseus – if the planks are replaced over time, will it remain the same ship? If Pentiment is Obsidian’s answer to that question, it is an unequivocal yes.
Josh Sawyer, of Icewind Dale and Fallout fame, is the gangplank that stretches out between the old and the new. The grizzled veteran is one of Obsidian’s last surviving, and his talent drips from each of Pentiment’s frames. He served as the game’s director – but that’s understating it – he first pitched the concept that would become Pentiment while working at Black Isle, Obsidian’s ancestor, and has been refining it ever since.
The game is deeply personal, bordering on autobiographical. It’s hard to shake the feeling that we are not playing as Andreas but as Josh. The masterpiece he is straining to finish is not the work at the monastery but the game we are playing. That Andreas’ disillusionment about the style of his commissions is Sawyer’s. Nothing in the game is what it seems, and the murder mystery plot is the least of it.
Pentiment is set at a time of social upheaval. That turbulent priest, Martin Luther, the Reformation, the printing press and revolt are the thing of dinner table conversations. The vast cast of characters embody different archetypes and clash against each other in a fierce dialectical struggle. Tradition fights as a bulwark against progress, peasants rise against the power of church and state, and women stir about their patriarchs.
The game is delicate in its critique – when a nun gets all sophomoric about feminism in the Aeneid, it’s jarring because it’s the exception. As a rule, revolutions can go too far, the masses aren’t perfect, religion can be corrupted, and the religious can corrupt.
Sawyer’s love of the setting is literally scrawled across the screen. He aims to sell it, not sell it out. As players, we are vested with the power to take sides, make enemies and forge alliances. And though ultimately, we cannot halt the march of time – the printing press is coming – we can do enough to make our mark and, hopefully, finish our masterpiece in time.
There are no high-octane action sequences in this game. You won’t be clearing goblins out of dungeons and levelling up your sword. Instead, the moment-to-moment gameplay is dialogue, punctuated by first-person puzzles, eating food, and examining the world around you. That’s to its credit – no attention has been diverted from its mission to engage your mind and make you think.
The title, Pentiment, refers to a part of a painting concealed by revisions that are later exposed. After one playthrough of Pentiment, I’m sure I have barely scratched at the first layer of twenty years of texture.