Pop culture doesn’t have the best track record of depicting the past. While there are certainly exceptions, stereotypes define many historical portrayals as entire eras are reduced to a handful of cartoonish symbols. Renditions of the Middle Ages are a perfect example, conjuring images of religious zealotry, uncleanliness, and general ignorance. In videogames, series like Assassin’s Creed best embody the medium’s treatment of history, and although there is an admittedly campy charm to somehow bumping into every important Renaissance figure in Assassin’s Creed 2 while fumbling through incoherent ancient alien nonsense, much can be gained from a more grounded approach.
Pentiment, the latest from Obsidian Entertainment, not only delivers this approach, but engages with the reasons why it’s beneficial to remember the complexities of the past at all. Through its setting, emphasis on the passage of time, and main conflicts, Pentiment constantly draws attention to how history shapes what we believe and who we think we are. It is about the struggle over these narratives and how their nuances are paved over, sometimes accidentally but frequently intentionally. By constructing such a meticulous portrayal of its time period, it allows us to reckon with our conceptions of what came before, underscoring the wrinkles and contradictions that exist in any era. Set in 16th century Bavaria, nearly every layer of this experience ruminates on the past, including its setting. Pentiment’ s central locations, Kiersau Abbey and the nearby town of Tassing, are built on Roman ruins, with aqueducts and shattered alabaster statues from the height of the Eastern Roman Empire lining the landscape. As local peasants till the land, they find trinkets from long ago buried in their soil, such as pottery and tools from antiquity. This town is a reminder that even those from a former age contended with distant history.
Despite being a remote alpine village, Tassing is also a center of cultural changes. As a community under the rule of a Benedictine abbey during the Roman Catholic church’s declining power, we see firsthand as the Protestant Reformation begins to rip through Christendom, causing debates over Lutheranism and the church’s authority. Additionally, the abbey’s scriptorium, where Pentiment’s protagonist Andreas Maler works, is also on its way out as the proliferation of the printing press leaves its style of book production obsolete. The promise of major socio-economic upheavals looms as peasant uprisings throughout the region challenge the feudal system. These details liven what we may mistake for static history and add a great deal of texture to Pentiment’s portrayal of this era. Furthermore, the game references the past in its aesthetic framing, as the art style emulates the look of late Middle Ages manuscripts and early modern woodcuts. When the scene changes, the camera zooms out, revealing that we’re viewing a series of illustrations in a book. Similarly, dialogue is presented via text boxes that are either handwritten or printed press, positioning this tale as a primary source document.
And on top of how Pentiment’s setting, premise, and visual framing contribute to its historicity, its characters and their struggles also reiterate the many nuances of the past. We witness as children grow up, family members die, and the makeup of the village shifts. Traumatic events scar the town across generations, and even children who weren’t alive to see them are pulled along by currents of collective pain.Pentiment’s cast also displays the diversity of viewpoints and identities that existed in early modern Bavaria. Many of the women in this story, including the nun Sister Illuminata, show they are keenly aware they live within a patriarchal system and criticize the discrimination they face. Multiple people of color, including an Ethiopian monk visiting the abbey and a Romani man who challenges the church’s teachings, convey that even in this remote village, there were more than just lily-white faces. There are also several queer characters, highlighting that despite the religious conservatism of the time, there were obviously still people of many sexual orientations. These depictions erode a vision of Europe that prevails in stereotypes, reinforcing instead that it has never been an entirely homogeneous block and that ideological and identity-based diversity existed even at the height of the Christian church’s power.
Taken as a whole, Pentiment intends to expose the complexities of a traditionally oversimplified era. It shows how people living in the early modern period were not some indistinguishable blob of ignorance but had their own personalities, convictions, and beliefs. For history lovers, discovering these details is a reward in itself, but Pentiment’s narrative makes clear that documenting the past isn’t just for hobbyists and academics. Our understanding of what came before is essential for how we process the present. The notion that these stories directly impact elements of our daily lives becomes the driving force of its denouement.
Warning: From here on out, there are heavy spoilers about the game’s plot and ending. You’ve been warned!
In the third act, decades after a murder that kicks off the game’s events, we follow Magdalene Druckeryn, an artist and daughter of the town’s printing press operator. She was still a child when Tassing’s peasant uprising resulted in the deaths of many and the subsequent burning of the Kiersau Abbey. Claus, her father, resolves to memorialize the uprising and document their past by painting a mural in the newly constructed town hall. But before he can start, he is attacked in the night by a mysterious figure and left with a severe brain injury, leaving Magdalene to carry on in his place. In search of references for the mural to represent their past accurately, she winds up digging up centuries of often contradictory community history. However, she experiences pushback from the town council, who are worried that representation of the revolt, as well as non-Christian reproductions of the town’s founding, could offend their local lord. Far more immediately concerning though are the threatening notes, seemingly left by the person who attacked her dad, demanding her to quit. From here, she interviews various townspeople and explores nearby ruins, ultimately deciding what will be depicted in the painting and thus remembered.
With this mural, Pentiment’s musings on history come to a head, showing how the past is documented, debated, and politicized. While some on the town council want to downplay the revolt to appease the powers that be or to limit portrayals of Tassing’s non-Christian traditions, even those who desire the “truth” reflected have different perspectives on what that would entail. Regardless, it’s clear that which renditions end up being canonical is influenced by those with political power, which in this case is either the church or feudal lords.
It is eventually revealed that the very murders at the center of the plot were prompted by a desire to manipulate history by more insidious means. We discover that the local priest, Father Thomas, has been behind the decades-long mystery in a misguided attempt at preserving the village’s beliefs. While tales passed down through the generations claimed that the Christian saints Moritz and Satia founded Tassing, and nearby statues seemed to confirm this, Thomas discovered that these monuments and stories were previously dedicated to the Roman gods Mars and Diana. Worried that the truth would shatter the townspeople’s faith and ruin this place’s mythos, he killed those close to this discovery.
While Thomas’ actions are extreme, his behavior underscores the lengths people will go to perpetuate their worldviews, often altering events to play into a specific narrative. To step into the present for a moment, one contemporary example of the past being misrepresented can be observed in how schools are being pushed to sanitize how they teach America’s history of slavery and colonialism. Certain right-wing groups claim that contending with the brutal truths of what came before is an example of the insidious boogeyman known as “critical race theory,” which according to them, is being used to instruct kids in K-12 to hate white people or something. In reality, critical race theory is a several decades-old academic framework, primarily taught in college classes, that studies how racism is embedded structurally in American society. Thanks to conservative grifters this phrase has been intentionally crafted into a catch-all for any attempts at discussing racial wrongdoings that make some groups uncomfortable. If these people have their way, the truths of American slavery and racial discrimination may be further downplayed by the education system. While this is an egregiously stupid and obvious case of prior events being politicized, it’s just one example among countless.
For as long as there has been recorded history, accounts have been intentionally simplified or hidden for political motivations, such as the age-old tradition of rulers embellishing their triumphs in stone. In a more modern context, conservative movements have constructed idealized versions of national pasts, using nostalgia for something that never really existed to stymy change.
Pentiment highlights the contention that comes with depicting the past, and through representing the many nuances of its historical setting and why bad actors aim to manipulate these stories, it conveys the importance of fully grappling with these complexities. With its multi-layered characters who embody myriad viewpoints and personal experiences, evocative art style, and willingness to engage in minutiae, it draws attention to the paved-over intricacies that exist in any period, emphasizing how these contours and bumps frequently become smoothed through retellings. And most striking of all, its climax highlights how fragile history can be and why it’s essential for us to be critical of those who aim to weaponize it.
Elijah Gonzalez is the games intern for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing the latest indies and AAAs, he also loves film, anime, lit, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.