In her essay on vellum, the material made from animal skin that forms the pages of medieval manuscripts, Sarah Kay begins with the following observation: “As skin, it becomes in fantasy a double of the reader’s own skin—for example, as an envelope, or as an opposing face.” Pentiment begins with you returning a manuscript to its blank, animal-skin state, dragging a stone across ink to erase it. Not as simple or trite as “writing your own story,” it’s an act of will that sets you up to make the choices you’ll be presented with throughout the game, choices that will not be marked as true or false. This is a theme that carries through into the rest of the game with incredible consistency, leaking into its art, narrative design, and structure: people are like books, and books are like people.
Pentiment is set in the town of Tassing in Bavaria, just after the turn of the 16th century. You play as master artist Andreas Maler, who as part of his Wanderjahre (wandering years) is working on a commissioned manuscript at Kiersau Abbey, just above the town. He is almost immediately drawn into preexisting tensions between the abbey and the townspeople whose taxes finance it, and then into a murder which he takes responsibility for investigating. This is the first place Pentiment stakes its story-shaping ethos: no matter who you choose to convict, the game moves forward without giving you a “right answer.” (Maybe it goes without saying that you are best served going in knowing as little as possible about Pentiment’s structure, or the specifics of the story.)
You spend most of your time speaking with others to find information about the murder and the town, conversations that look like they’re out of a book themselves. Individuals speak how they write: Maler’s dialogue comes out in Gothic script, the kind you’d see filling a 14th century illuminated manuscript, while the printmaker lays out his speech in black blocks. The educated use the same script as Maler, those who read a little use a Carolingian cursive, and kids use chicken scratch with lots of errors. This and the illustration style make the characters really feel like they are living in a manuscript, and they also remind us of the different levels of education in a town where almost everyone reads a little. Throughout the game, various characters tell stories from within the pages of a book: Sebhat, an Ethiopian monk stationed in Rome, tells the story of Lazarus out of an Ethiopian Bible, while the sister in charge of the library floats with you through a dialogue between Love and Reason.
All this characterization pays off as time passes and you get to know the townspeople and monks. The growth you see is especially important given that Pentiment is set in one of the most fascinating transitional periods in medieval European history, between the invention of the printing press and its eventual replacement of handwritten manuscripts. When Maler arrives in Tassing, the abbey scriptorium he works for is on the edge of shutting down, the printmaker in town has been perfecting his woodcuts, and the visiting baron has some questions about the newly-circulating ideas of Martin Luther. Invariably the two eras the town is stuck between come out through the many, many books and works of art you encounter, from popular manuscripts like the Golden Legend to contemporaneous herbals and the Swabian Twelve Articles.
Pentiment uses all these texts to ask questions about what the purpose of an artist’s work is. Is it to copy the style of others? Is it to record history exactly as it happened? Or is it to advance an individual style and maybe grasp at the divine? These are all questions that suit a time when a culture of anonymous authorship was giving way, thanks to the printing press and pamphleting, to an industry where an author’s (or artist’s) identity outside the text was more important. They’re also questions that many people you speak to find irrelevant. They’re worried about personal legacy, sure, but they also need to make sure the crops come in.
One thing I love about Pentiment is that it provides context without overexplaining. It is not pedantic, overbearing or snobby. If you want more information about De Animalibus or the theological foundations of transubstantiation, you can look at the marginal glosses or ask someone extra questions in a conversation. If you don’t care, you don’t need to see it. It feels like going to a museum with your friend who majored in art history: if you have questions, you can ask, but the art speaks for itself.
Although I liked Pentiment’s pacing in individual conversations, it’s less balanced when it comes to the story. The first 10 hours or so are a good mix of intrigue and down time, but the last third of the game drags a little. It’s hard to knock out the pathos of the game’s middle, which brings political intrigue and tensions between the town and the monastery to an explosive head, and then return to the third act’s much calmer investigation. Similarly, I felt less enchanted with the story as it went on. The game’s you-decide approach to its mysteries has to resolve somehow, and the place it landed, at least on my playthrough, was less satisfying than the murder-solving that came before.
Everything I’ve said here leaves out the essential joy I felt while playing Pentiment. So many of the little things—the oyster marginalia! The Gregorian chants in the church!—-are so pleasing and surprising, and in my opinion they’ll hold up for an enthusiast of medieval history, a specialist, or a stranger. It’s very encouraging to see a project like this get the funding and attention of a large studio like Obsidian. It is clearly a labor of love, and one that incorporated work from a variety of experts on its way to getting made, research which has only made it stronger.
On every level, Pentiment’s illustrations, storytelling choices, and most clearly people are a mirror for the manuscripts that shape its characters’ lives. Whether they read or not, everyone is a repository of history, with their own verbal handwriting, quirks, and opinions on what Tassing’s legacy should be. These human texts open up genuinely insightful questions about authenticity in art and what it will come to mean centuries later, as well as what to do when your history has been lost to you. It is a beautiful portrait of history that doesn’t limit itself from commenting on labor inequity, parental loss, or artistic hopelessness, all things the medieval and early modern art it draws from portrays so vividly. In bringing some of those stories to us today, Pentiment accomplishes the remarkable goal of being both clear-eyed about the period’s faults, and sincere about its masterpieces.
Pentiment was developed by Obsidian Entertainment and published by Xbox Game Studios. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One.
Emily Price is a former intern at Paste and a columnist at Unwinnable Magazine. She is also a PhD Candidate in literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. She can be found on Twitter @the_emilyap.