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Pentiment tested me. When I play multiplayer games, I abhor the utility of minmaxing. It’s my unwavering belief that my strategy of winging it should be just as viable as anyone else’s time, research, and grueling effort. But in single player? I want it all. I want to be able to unlock any door, use any weapon, explore every area. And I want to be able to experience the story like a winner, without fucking up even once. Maybe that doesn’t sound so bad, but we can chalk that up to description, but for me, it’s pathologic. In past lives, I haven’t been above googling critical game decisions to clarify their outcomes in advance. I can’t stand going in blind. And I tell myself I play video games to escape anxiety.
In Pentiment, we fill the shoes and wield the brush of one Andreas Mahler, a traveling artist completing a residency at a Bavarian abbey at the opening of the 16th century. Our host town of Tassing is a beautiful hamlet nestled at the feet of the German alps, its people gracious and accommodating. But the peacefulness of our alpine residency is disrupted when a nobleman visiting the abbey is murdered within its walls. When accusation falls upon a friend, it’s incumbent on Andreas to solve the murder and present the real culprit to the Duke’s men before it’s too late.
In other mystery games, the phrase “before it’s too late” is usually a dramatic device meant to build tension. The character we embody is canonically working with budgeted time, but we’re not. We’ve got all the time in the world to poke around the crime scene, interview suspects, and unspool red yarn. In Pentiment, “too” late is too late. Many of the game’s tasks take up hours of Andreas’s limited time. Clues can be found all over town, but some of the hottest gossip is delivered at the dinner table. With two meals a day and more households than math would like, someone’s getting left out. Someone’s story is going untold.
And in Pentiment, we have to be cool with that. We have to set a plan in front of ourselves, follow through with as much of it as we can, and then realize there’s not enough time for the rest. Or, just as frustratingly, celebrate the fact that this time, everything seemed to have lined up perfectly enough to allow time for everything important, only for one of the characters to reveal another option at the eleventh hour.
This game tore me apart with every unexplored thread and every unanswered question. All I wanted to do was make the right choice, and when it came down to it? I don’t think I did. I wanted to look away during the trial of the person I accused, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t escape the idea that I’d done something horrible.
“Oh well,” I reasoned, “with the mystery brought to an end, I can put this behind me and try the game again from the beginning.” A sigh of relief. Then, the achievement blip: “Complete Act I”. After everything this game had taken me, it couldn’t even offer me solace. The story had more ink to be laid. I was going to have to live with my decision.
That realization was powerful; I think I would’ve accepted and welcomed it as the central message of the game. I expected Act II to be a lesson in growth and penance. I’d learn to become penitent, the word I’d assumed the game’s title was clearly struggling to spell. This is what happens when you replace all the copywriters with ChatGPT.
…but that’s actually not what they’re going for. “Pentiment” is a real word, though not one I’d heard before I played this game. If you’re familiar, congratulations on being a very smart little lexicographer. If you aren’t? Maybe hold off on looking it up. It’s not going to spoil the game (certainly not more than I have—sorry about that), but it will add flavor to your understanding of it.
I promise I won’t spoil any more going forward. This is a great game, and you deserve to experience every moment of it as unimpeded by prior knowledge as possible.
Instead, let me focus on Pentiment‘s presentation. The game reads as a love letter to fans of medieval history, with each scene rendered in the hand-drawn and handwritten style of a Benedictine monk, from the stylistic depiction of its characters and landscapes to the unique choice of rendering each character’s words and thoughts in a script characteristic of their voice, class, and education; wealthier, educated nobles speak in a more refined script than the slapdash scrawl of their peasant peers. The incumbent revolution of the printing press is hard to miss when it squeezes its way into even the verbal communications of the town’s printer.
It’s not just a difference of fonts that makes Pentiment’s visual dialogue system so powerful. People make mistakes and fix them in real time. Angrier or more nervous characters write with less refinement than calmer ones. Upset someone enough, and haste-fueled ink droplets flourish their all-caps responses.
The art is excellent and the visual quirks give Pentiment its charm, but they also serve to cement its setting; the story takes place within the pages of a book, which lends explanation to the handwritten text, but it also provides lore support for one of my favorite features. Being that the game features so many characters (an entire village and abbey’s worth) and weaves them in and out of a story spanning decades, it’s easy to get confused and disoriented. Pentiment eases the memory burden slightly by underlining character names, places, and concepts and turning them into hyperlinks that, when clicked, zoom the page out to show character faces and impertinent background information in the margins of the page.
This wiki-esque method of supplementing the story is helpful for remembering characters we met hours ago, but it also helps us remember things we never knew. Being that Pentiment takes place in 1500s Bavaria, its characters make frequent reference to people, places, and institutions that may have since fallen slightly outside of the cultural canon. To help us embody a character who would understand these references, that same wiki-style navigation allows us to click on words and phrases to have them defined like footnotes in a book. This is one place where I think the game’s presentation really shines. Conversations aren’t cluttered by anachronistic explanations of local politics and forgotten history, and it’s up to the player to decide how much they want to learn about the history that surrounds the game.
Pentiment is the story of people told through the story of a person. The town of Tassing and its adjacent abbey are as much characters as any of the peasants, nobles, and clergy therein. These are settlements staged in the 16th century and filled with 16th century people, but they feel much older, their Roman and pagan pasts bearing just as much weight as their Christian presents. Figuring out what happened in the Tassing of today is only one component of the mystery; perhaps even greater is putting together the pieces to learn about the town’s hidden history, a maze of intertwining paths and stories that link as well with our own understandings of real-world history as they do with each other.
Of course, having a great story to tell and telling that story are two entirely different challenges. The history of Tassing is rich and deep and inviting, but it would have suffered from more omniscient, facts-first storytelling. The developers have been remarkably adroit in weaving together a narrative as complex and misleading as real history often is, with the motivations of present actors clouding the true stories of those who came before.
From title page to conclusion, Pentiment gripped me and kept me thinking. Its art style, setting, and storytelling are wholly unique, a reminder of the creative utility and flexibility of gaming. In the months that have passed since I finished it, it’s stuck with me. In all, I’m happy I played this one, no matter how many times my mistakes come back to haunt my labyrinth-strewn dreams.
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Published by: Xbox Game Studios
Available for: Windows PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X
Tedium: None (though the game hits a bit of a lull in Act III)
Violence: Hand-drawn cartoon violence
Content: Naughty words, adult and sexual themes
- Strong narrative
- Point-and-click gameplay
- Meaningful choices
WHAT I LIKED
- Engrossing world grounded in medieval history – From beginning to end, it’s clear that Pentiment‘s developers really cared about doing their setting justice. Somehow, they manage to nail the competing feelings of being a stranger in a strange land and being intimately familiar with the place and time we’re inhabiting.
- Incredible narrative – Pentiment‘s story is both the viewing of an impressive medieval tapestry and the process of weaving it. Just as we look back on history, we become it for the people who follow us. Once we make the decision to participate, we are no longer observers. Pentiment is a great mystery game, but it’s so much more than that.
- Unique, excellent art and presentation – I’ve never played a game that looks anything like this before. Both characters and text are depicted as though drawn by the expert hands of Benedictine monks. The art and setting breathe beauty to the pages on which the game takes place, but also beyond them, inspiring unique gameplay elements that never stop making Pentiment feel like something special.
- Impactful decisions – Each decision in Pentiment means something, whether it’s sending someone to die (they die) or deciding what you studied in college. Building Andreas’s backstory allows us to better identify with him, but it also simultaneously expands and limits his available array of skills. Choosing to spend time in France means Andreas will be able to understand French but renders Dutch unreadable. Unless you speak Dutch. But that’s cheating. You have to pretend you can’t speak Dutch.
- Late game monotony – The game’s final act is significantly more linear than the two preceding it. I found the ultimate payoff it drives toward to be more than worth it, but getting there can be somewhat tedious for players who have grown accustomed to the more active style of the first and second acts.
- A lot of reading – Everything that Pentiment can’t show you in pictures is delivered in text. That’s hours of reading. Actually, the whole game canonically takes place within the pages of a book. So. If you don’t like books… you probably won’t like Pentiment.
WHO’S IT FOR?
Pentiment is an excellent game for anyone interested in narrative-driven mystery with even a passing interest in medieval European history. If the game’s unique art style intrigues you and you think you can solve this Bavarian whodunnit better than I can, this game is for you.
On the other hand, if you’re not a fan of point-and-click games, not a fan of mysteries, or you’re generally not interested in stepping into the uncomfortable shoes of a struggling 16th century artist tasked with solving a murder, this one might be worth skipping.