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Pentiment Preview – A Murder Mystery Scratched In Ink

Obsidian is offering choice without the RPG baggage

Appearing out of nowhere at the Xbox and Bethesda Showcase back in June, I wasn’t sure what to make of Pentiment, Obsidian’s stylised historical 2D murder mystery. The visuals were unmistakably a highlight of the showcase, drawing on the illustrative styles pervasive through Western Europe in the middle of the last millennium. Presented as fully animated scenes within a tome, with styles reminiscent of the latter medieval influences of the time, I wasn’t alone in trying to understand whether this game was crafting its own fiction or adapting some long forgotten story of the period. Regardless, Pentiment raised eyebrows.

“Well, what is a pentiment?” Began game director Josh Sawyer in a recent hands-off preview and Q & A for the title. 

He continued, explaining that it was a traditional practice predating the printing press in which artists or scribes might apply an additional layer of work over a pre-existing text. It might be for the purposes of censorship, or to contribute to an artistic lineage. These days one might consider the extreme example of graffiti, where artists might mark their tag by erasing significant traces of the work beneath it. 

Why is this important? Well, for starters, our player character in Pentiment is an educated, working artist named Andreas Maler. He spends his days painting in the monastic Kiersau Abbey of a small town in sixteenth-century Upper Bavaria, during the religious height of the Roman Empire’s influence on the region. At the very beginning, Andreas is alarmed to discover that a close friend in the Abbey has been found next to a murdered monk, with the bloodied blade in his hand. Believing his friend has been framed for this crime, Andreas is given permission by the presiding Baron to investigate this murder by immersing himself among the townsfolk – many of whom have issues with the governing theocracy and thus a motive. 

Meet Andreas Maler, full-time artist and part-time investigator

As somebody who once considered theology as an area of study, and was a preacher for a brief period, this serious examination of the reality and frailty of religion and folklore in pre-modern Western society has got me hooked. 

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Players begin by defining Andreas’ background in a manner similar to Mass Effect. What two subjects did Andreas major in during his studies? If you select theology and the occult, then consider how his knowledge of these important fields of the time might influence his dialogue options with the spiritual locals. He has also travelled abroad, but where? If Italy, perhaps he might glean more information from those who have ventured far north during the Empire’s reign. And in typical Obsidian fashion, players will also select personality characteristics that will alter the behavioural predilections of Andreas during his encounters. 

It is important to note, according to Sawyer, that the dialogue choices that swing the pendulum of the game’s direction will be noted to the player, though there will be no in-game reputation meters or gauges to indicate the player’s standing with the characters and plot. Narrative immersion is thy name. Even more interesting is the fact this game will span a quarter of a century, and players will be designating an accused perpetrator of this murder and seeing the far-reaching consequences of this determination over the years – whether guilty or innocent. 

Hannah Kennedy, Pentiment’s art director, was present during the Q & A to illuminate the aesthetic and gameplay appeal of the title’s vivid art style. Kennedy gives context to the styles involved, describing the team’s love of art history and the implementation of late medieval illumination and early modern woodcuts. 

Without a doubt, this game is going to stand out on a big TV

Kennedy goes on to explain that the game’s lack of voiced dialogue allowed the team to innovate on stylised fonts that bring the written dialogue bubbles to life. Across the various styles, all are hand drawn and reflect the social and educational status of the characters spoken to. To the uninitiated like myself, some of these font types imitate the artistic fashioning of calligraphic text. Alas, this poses an accessibility issue to some readers. In addressing this, Kennedy mentions that upon starting the game, players will be given examples of these fonts and then presented with the choice of a cleaner, simplified alternative which will have less flair and be kinder to modern eyes. 

With the team hand animating all of the impressive fonts to appear in the game, it is worth noting both the stylistic and gameplay benefits found within. From a stylistic point, an act of pentiment is seen to occur with errors made in dialogue bubbles. As characters speak, the letters are initially etched above their heads before being inked (again, this is done manually by the animators). Syntax errors will frequently occur and are scratched over and re-inked with the correct spelling. It creates an effect of inconsistent inking, an aesthetic implementation of realism that had me equally baffled and impressed. Beyond this, some terminology and character names will be underlined in yellow. Players can click on these words, which will have the camera zoom out of the scene to show a page of the book where events are occurring. Below will be some information privy to Andreas’ knowledge. This may be a definition, an illustration of a character, or in some cases, a blank space that will require further investigation from Andreas.

Will the course of this narrative change dramatically based on Andreas’ background?

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Unmistakably, Pentiment is not a title that wishes to be marketed or appeal to the mass gaming audience. It is unapologetically committed to indulging a narrative that explores the context of later medieval Germania. Obsidian is using its new freedoms under Microsoft to commit a team of 18 to a title that will appeal to history buffs and European folklore nerds. Luckily, I am one of these and am keen as a bean to see what the full title offers when it hits Game Pass, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One and PC on November 15. 

Written By Nathan Hennessy

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