Years ago, I frequented a website called The Toast that Ran, alongside wonderful columns and criticism, various literary nerd gags including a recurring bit called “Two Monks.” Two Monks was written as a dialogue between the titular religious duo who were, in most of the episodes, trying to figure out best practices for medieval art by bantering about the “correct” way to depict various animals, people, and objects shown in real -life artworks. If you’ve had any experience with medieval art, you know the field is absolutely bizarre when taken out of context, so most of the conversations were along the lines of how many eyes a dog should have (seven), what wrestling is (confused hugging) and whether birds have meetings (yes, complete with a Meeting Hat).
But the best thing about Two Monks was how its attention to weird details made the real people of that era seem more like, you know, real people. Not the intangible, lofty figures that often seem to populate mainstream looks at history. Which brings me to Pentiment: a game that is far more serious than Two Monks, but reminds me of the column in its passionate embrace of the weird details that don’t often emerge in mainstream depictions of medieval Europe, and the ways in which those details chip away at the humanity of a time we can never personally 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 near the body. Andreas, however, is friends with the monk, who claims he didn’t commit the crime – which leaves Andreas to investigate and ultimately accuse an alternative culprit. I was given the choice between three different investigative paths for my demo. Rather than examine the body or question another man who might have known something, I opted to interrogate a cantankerous widow who had been observed cursing the nobleman prior to his death.
Peniment’s gameplay is straightforward enough. It’s largely conversational and choice-based, though I did play a handful of simple point and click minigames as I did chores for the widow, like breaking sticks and hanging things on the wall. But like a proper manuscript, Pentiment delights in the details. Words unspool across the page in distinct, flowing fonts (which you can toggle off if you like) as if a hand is writing them as the story unfolds. I loved the small, occasional spelling errors that appeared, but would correct themselves after a few moments, emphasizing the human storyteller presence behind the words. Highlighted words can be unfurled into much larger manuscript pages that offer detailed glimpses into real medieval history or fictional character background, illustrated at times with accurate figures and at other times inexplicably with images of cats wearing flaming jars on their backs.
And the choices themselves were never straightforward. My goal was to convince the widow to tell me why she had cursed the nobleman, but earning her trust proved difficult – the chores alone weren’t enough. As we spoke, I learned about her deep and understandable mistrust of the very church Maler was serving, putting him in an uncomfortable position between remaining loyal but losing the widow’s favor, or making a series of small betrayals that could jeopardize his investigation and career to get the information he needed. There were no easy answers, but more curiously, there appeared to be no right or wrong ones either. Maler’s investigation continues regardless of the amount of context and clues he gleans, and in the widow’s case, I’m left pleasantly uncertain of whether the interaction as a whole was a true pass-or-fail situation. I might have been able to learn more if I had compromised more. In this single interaction it was easy to see Pentiment’s early promise that we may never actually know who the killer is by the end, but will certainly have formed an idea of who should be punished for the crime.
All of this was punctuated occasionally 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 a basis for his education and Theology, Law, or Medicine as options for his later studies. I noticed that my choice to give Maler oratory skills passively improved his ability to persuade the widow to work with him, while his theology “degree” enabled him to make considered arguments supporting the church by giving him new trains of thought that wouldn’t exist otherwise. That said, with the widow actively opposed to churchly things, that specific skill seemed to actively hinder my interaction with her – presumably there are plenty of other conversations it would have been better suited for, while a different skill in my repertoire might have made her more agreeable.
At the end of my demo session, I got to play a brief round of a card minigame that involves betting on whether a randomly drawn card will match yours or not. The rules were simple, but the real excitement lay in the card table conversation. Between rounds, the characters I was playing with seemed to discuss the latest village gossip, making comments on people I hadn’t met in my demo session at all. 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 thus far only had a glimpse of made me crave round after round (it didn’t hurt that I was getting filthy rich off them, too).
Pentiment is catnip for history and literary nerds like me, and I expect that the final product will live and die by its writing and story since the actual gameplay interactions are fairly simple otherwise. But thus far, said writing and story have proven intriguing in their illumination of complicated, weird, but grounded human beings – no surprise given director Josh Sawyer’s resume, which includes Fallout New Vegas, among others. The handful of characters I met were raw, troubled people with dire problems and imperfect solutions, but it didn’t take too much digging through their woes to find plenty to sympathize with. I am drawn in especially by the ways in which Pentiment illuminates the role of a narrator or storyteller in characterizing the meaning of interactions, both through the ways in which Maler’s background impacts his view on a situation and, more subtly, through the visual storytelling in written dialogue and the detailed manuscript backgrounds. Just 30 minutes left me with plenty of opinions on the circumstances that led to the nobleman’s murder – I can’t wait to spend hours with these grim, quirky villagers and find out what other secret crimes they, and I, might artfully commit.