Pentiment begins by asking to erase the text of an illuminated book with a pumice stone, a symbolic gesture from many points of view that foreshadows the many reading plans of this video game, available for PC and Xbox Game Pass and developed by Obsidian by a team of only 13 people.
On the one hand there is the typically medieval custom of deleting texts deemed obsolete or inconvenient to use the precious paper to copy other volumes, a practice that today we could consider sacrilegious given the historical value of the documents, but which at the time was the equivalent of freeing up space on a hard disk. Deleting something from history and memory to make room for something new, something else, another story to tell.
On the other there is the decline of a way of conceiving the bookthat is, as a rare, often unique object, handwritten with elaborate characters and miniatures, which will be supplanted by movable type printing in a changing world.
The game is set in the sixteenth century: Martin Luther has recently affixed his theses to the church of the castle of Wittenberg, the peasants of all Europe are a little tired of being vexed and science reveals every day portents and questions the truths of the Church. In short, we will live a moment that in some ways recalls today’s, characterized by great social, civil and scientific upheavals.
In this context, our alter ego, the artist, illuminator and aspiring master Andreas Maler, will find himself enmeshed in the midst of a years-long intrigue that revolves around the small town of Tasssing and the overhanging Kiersau Abbey in Bavaria. His (and therefore ours) will be the task of solve a series of mysterious murderskeeping the various city personalities at bay, from the abbot to the people’s leaders passing through rich merchants and visionary nuns, trying to do the right thing and meanwhile managing one’s inner world and the tribulations of an artist’s life.
Her choices maybe they won’t change the course of history, the one that eats everything and remains fixed in stone and in the chronicles, but they will definitely change the stories of Tassing’s characters, their future, their interactions over the 25 years we will visit it. Also because we won’t be able to do everything, the hours of the day will mark our decisions and talking to someone often means you can’t gather evidence elsewhere.
Pentiment is the classic video game that an industry connoisseur slams in the face those who believe the medium is still tied to childish logic and titles that are violent or require particular hand-eye coordination. In fact it has never been like this, but Pentiment reiterates it once again and does it with one rare class: if you are thinking about The Name of The rose or The Pillars of the Earthyou are absolutely on the right track.
On the surface we are faced with the classic point and click adventure in which we read many dialogues and try to find the right clues, moving around the city and its surroundings. Sometimes the clues and the threads of the narration they can get us confused, especially when we have to remember all the faces and names, but luckily Andreas’ notebook is always ready to remind us who is who and what to do.
What makes Pentiment one of the best games of the year is the ability to mix text and images and the literary level with the scientific one, perfectly in line with the teaching of the liberal arts based on the Trivium and Quadrivium. One of the strengths of the game is obviously the idea of showing everything with a graphic design that recalls illuminated texts. Indeed, the inside of one of them. All characters are two dimensional, taken in profile or at most three quarters. The younger ones are drawn with a lively, almost childish stroke, while the older people are vaguely discolored, as if they were consumed by time.
When historical notes appear, just click on them to enlarge the field and show footnotes explaining (for example) what was meant by Diet, what Compline is or who St. Maurice was. But the real masterpiece is represented by Obsidian’s use of fonts, used to show how Andreas considers the people in front of him: if a farmer is speaking, his words will be written by hand, with rough outlines and typos that are corrected immediately afterwards; when he speaks an ecclesiastical figure, here comes the gothic type, while the local printer obviously uses movable type and so on. The medium literally becomes the messageas McLuhan famously said.
In the midst of all this we are, who we will decide not only the evolution of historybut also the narrative past of Andreas, choosing whether to play a licentious globetrotter who has passed through Florence and relies on his esoteric knowledge or a lover of logic and rhetoric.
Beyond the excellent writing and ingenious aesthetic solutions, what makes Pentiment an example to show is that its ability to place us on the threshold of the modern era and treat the history of Europe as if it were the narrative and background of a fantasy role-playing game (what, using an English term, is called lore), allows us to acquire notions about a crucial historical period in a natural way. And indeed it will not be strange if, once you finish playing it, you will suddenly find yourself putting books on the subject in your Amazon cart.
Pentiment should be played in schools and we would need it for every historical period, also to remind us how much history is something alive, changeable and made not only by great characters, but by everyday people, those who are often not mentioned and who at most we find in the documents that leave us by pure chance: it is a living history, which we can inhabit and make our own.
Perhaps most of all, Pentiment it talks about memories, texts, how much the spaces we inhabit are the stage for something bigger that moves around us, even when we don’t realize it. It reminds us that what we know is not everything, that there is always another point of view, there is always someone who manipulates the truth, there is always a struggle to overcome social and economic inequalities hidden behind alleged rights and religions. And in the midst of all this we can often alone try to float through lifedeluding ourselves that we have control, which is often nothing else than that moment of peace between the various impulses that populate our soul.