The year is 1518, and as players of the newly released video game "Pentiment," we find ourselves in the role of Andreas Maler, a journeyman painter who is the main character.
The young man lives with a peasant family in the fictional Bavarian town of Tassing and works in the scriptorium of the nearby Kiersau Abbey. It is one of the few monastic scriptoriums where letters are still being written and books copied by hand over half a century after the invention of the printing press.
Andreas devotes every free minute to working on his masterpiece, an illustrated calendar page. When that is finished and he has married, he can finally become a master. But things don't go as planned. A nobleman who was visiting the abbey is found dead in the cloister.
Andreas' friend, Brother Pietro, is accused of murder. Since Andreas is firmly convinced of the old monk's innocence, he sets out to crack the case himself. It soon turns out that the nobleman had many enemies, which doesn't make the search for the murderer in the video game any easier.
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"Pentiment" is an interactive medieval thriller in which players must read lines of text and make decisions that significantly affect the story they experience. The video game's plot spans 25 years. Screenshot from the game showing a man working on a drawing at a desk.Screenshot from the game showing a man working on a drawing at a desk.
Travel back to the 16th century
From the very beginning, it's apparent that there is tension between the clergy, the nobles, the peasants, artisans and the rest of the townspeople. The peasants toil and must pay high taxes to the monastery.
Societal conflicts run through the plot of the interactive game, which was created based on historical peasant uprisings and wars in southern Germany in the early 16th century. As a result, the game is a lovingly designed journey through time that lets the players participate in the everyday life of the townspeople and clergy.
Every decision changes the story
"Pentiment" is not very demanding in terms of gameplay; straining one's hands on the gamepad or mouse and keyboard is virtually impossible. The game concentrates entirely on the conversations between Andreas Maler and the many people he meets.
The typography captioning each character's text reveals information about their social status, level of education and their emotions, which teaches players what life was like during this time period. Josh Sawyer looking into the camera and wearing glasses. Josh Sawyer looking into the camera and wearing glasses.
The fact that there are so many characters makes the virtual world come alive, and gives rise to many subplots for players to discover. Even though the town and monastery are fictional, players can easily feel as if they had been transported to that very time and place, the game's director Josh Sawyer told DW in an interview at Gamescom this summer.
Sawyer, who is from the USA, studied history and has German heritage: Members of his family emigrated to the US in the mid-19th century. The documents found by Andreas Maler in the game are also written in German — or Latin in the international versions, which was customary at the time.
The Christian religion and the great political and economic influence of the church and nobility are also omnipresent. The social constraints restricting men and women of all classes and the ramifications of this — which can sometimes result in anger — is a thread throughout the game's plot.
A screenshot showing Andreas Maler standing outside in front of an aquaduct talking to a man with text overlayed.A screenshot showing Andreas Maler standing outside in front of an aquaduct talking to a man with text overlayed.
'Pentiment' is an interactive thriller
The game has an arc of suspense, but lets the players travel through the world at their own pace without time pressure. It's up to them who they want to talk to and how they want to behave towards the other characters.
The game thus fits in with the long tradition of so-called "cozy mysteries” — a subgenre of crime fiction where typically one murder takes place in a small community, and an amateur detective has many conversations with witnesses and suspects to try to solve the crime. The "Cadfael Chronicles" series was a major inspiration for the development team of Obsidian Entertainment, which was responsible for "Pentiment," according to developer Josh Sawyer.
British mystery writer and linguist Edith Mary Pargeter (1913-1995) penned numerous novels under the pen name Ellis Peters. The stories revolve around the 12th-century Benedictine monk and amateur detective Brother Cadfael and have been translated into many languages. In the mid-1990s they were made into films and helped popularize the historical cozy mystery genre.
Other sources of inspiration for the game included German artist Albrecht Dürer's travel diaries, contemporary biographies of an executioner, a farmer and a miller, and Umberto Eco's novel "The Name of the Rose.”
Deep love of literature
Clearly "Pentiment” could never have been developed without the influence of literature, but the game itself is a declaration of love for the written word. The monastery library and the modern printing process are central to the plot. Visually, the game stays within the tradition of medieval manuscripts and art.
For a game which requires players to only press two buttons,"Pentiment" takes a significant amount of time to play— around 20 hours. Nevertheless, the fact that every dialogue changes the protagonist's relationship with the characters, which can have dramatic consequences, keeps the story interesting. The game portrays a world in flux, challenging players. In it, there are no right or wrong choices. Instead, players must rely on their own moral judgement.
Author Kristina Reymann-Schneider
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