Years ago, I frequented a website called The Toast that offered, alongside wonderful reviews and reviews, various nerd literary gags, including a recurring track called “Two Monks.” Two Monks was written as a dialogue between the titular religious duo who, in most episodes, tried to figure out the best practices of medieval art by joking about the “correct” way to portray various animals, people, and objects shown in true. – works of art from life. If you have any experience with medieval art, you know the field is absolutely bizarre when taken out of context, so most conversations were about how many eyes a dog should have (seven), what the fight is (confused hugs) and if the birds have meetings (yes, with a meeting hat).
But the best thing about Two Monks was how its attention to weird detail made the real people of that era look more, you know, real people. Not the intangible, noble figures that often seem to populate the dominant gaze on history. Which brings me to Pentiment: a far more serious game than Two Monks, but one that reminds me of the column in its passionate embrace of the odd details that don’t often emerge in traditional depictions of medieval Europe, and the way these details erode the humanity of an era that we will never personally be able to experience.
I jumped into Pentiment in media res, following the murder of nobleman Lorenz Rothvogel and the understandable accusation of a monk who was found holding a bloody dagger close to his body. Andreas Maler, however, is friends with the monk, who claims he did not commit the crime – which leaves Maler to investigate and ultimately frame another culprit. I had the choice between three different paths of investigation for my demo. Rather than examine the body or interview another man who might know something, I chose to interview a cantankerous widow who had been seen cursing the nobleman before he died.
The gameplay of Pentiment is quite simple. It’s largely conversational and choice-based, though I did play some simple point-and-click mini-games as I did chores for the widow, like breaking sticks and hanging things on the wall. But like a real manuscript, Pentiment revels in the details. Words scroll across the page in distinct, flowing fonts (which you can turn off if you wish) as if a hand were writing them as the story unfolds. I liked the occasional little spelling mistakes that popped up, but corrected themselves after a few moments, emphasizing the storyteller’s human presence behind the words. Highlighted words can be unrolled into much larger manuscript pages that offer detailed insights into real medieval history or the background of fictional characters, illustrated sometimes with precise numbers and at other times inexplicably with images of cats carrying flaming jars on their backs.
And the choices themselves have never been simple. My goal was to convince the widow to tell me why she had cursed the nobleman, but gaining his trust proved difficult – chores alone weren’t enough. As we spoke, I learned of his deep and understandable distrust of the very church Maler served, putting him in an uncomfortable position between remaining faithful but losing the widow’s favor, or making a series of petty betrayals that could jeopardize his investigation and his career to get the information he needed. There were no easy answers, but oddly enough, there didn’t seem to be any right or wrong answers either. Maler’s investigation continues regardless of how much context and clues he gleans, and in the widow’s case, I’m pleasantly unsure whether the entire interaction was a true success story or of failure. I might have known more if I had compromised more. In this unique interaction, it was easy to see Pentiment’s initial promise that we may never actually know who the killer is in the end, but we will certainly have some idea of who should be punished for the crime.
All of this was sometimes punctuated by the influence of Maler’s background, which I selected at the start of the session. I was able to choose what he studied in school at different times and levels, with options like logic, Latin, astronomy and oratory forming the basis of his education and theology, law or medicine as options for his further studies. I noticed that my choice to give Maler oratorical skills passively enhanced his ability to persuade the widow to work with him, while his theology “degree” allowed him to make thoughtful arguments supporting the church by giving him new schools of thought that don’t exist. Otherwise. That said, with the Widow actively opposed to church things, this specific skill seemed to be actively hindering my interaction with her – there are probably plenty of other conversations she would have been better suited for, whereas a different skill in my repertoire could have made her more docile.
At the end of my demo session, I was able to play a brief round of a mini card game that involves betting on whether a randomly drawn card will match yours or not. The rules were simple, but the real excitement was in the conversation at the card table. Between rounds, the characters I was playing with seemed to be discussing the latest village gossip, commenting on people I hadn’t met at all during my demo session. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how useful this will be in solving the nobleman’s murder, but the flavor it added to the village I had so far only had a glimpse made me want round after round (it didn’t hurt that I was getting filthy rich from them too).
Repentance is catnip for history and literature nerds like me, and I expect the final product will live and die by its writing and story, because actual game interactions are otherwise quite simple. But so far, said writing and story has proven intriguing in its illumination of complicated, weird, yet grounded human beings — no surprise given director Josh Sawyer’s resume, which includes Fallout New Vegas, among others. The handful of characters I encountered were raw, troubled people with serious problems and flawed solutions, but it didn’t take too much digging into their misfortunes to find plenty to empathize with. I’m particularly drawn to how Pentiment illuminates the role of a narrator or storyteller in characterizing the meaning of interactions, both by how Maler’s background influences his view of a situation and, more subtly, through visual storytelling in written dialogue and detailed handwritten backgrounds. Just 30 minutes left me with plenty of opinions on the circumstances leading up to the nobleman’s murder – I look forward to spending hours with these sinister and eccentric villagers and finding out what other secret crimes they, and I, might be committing cleverly.