Pentiment - Art is illusion.
Updated: Dec 5, 2022
I love sometimes playing games that occupy different ends of the intellectual spectrum of video games. I've had a lot of fun doing exactly that over the last week or so - enjoying the entertaining (but absolutely stump-dumb) Modern Warfare 2 multiplayer in one session, and the breathtakingly smart Pentiment in the next. I think the jarring juxtaposition of the two experiences has helped me to enjoy more of them both - but of the two, it's Pentiment that I'll look back on years from now as the one that made me feel and made me think. Games like this one don't come along very often.
Pentiment is more visual novel than game - the emphasis here is very much more on the story and the characters than it is on the interactivity of the experience. The thing that keeps coming to the forefront though, tying it all together, is its creators' obvious love of history.
The tale that Pentiment tells is one of many facets. It's a murder mystery that spans 20-odd years, set in the small Bavarian town of Tassing in the early 1500's. It's also the tale of that town - its founding and its more recent past and the varied lives of its inhabitants. It's also about history and the way in which events are remembered and layer upon one another - gradually transforming into a tapestry that combines fact and fiction with the inherently fickle nature of human memory. Finally - it's about who writes history down, and their motivations for doing so. By the time it wraps up, it leaves you with a palpable sense of how history happens, transforms, and shapes our shared futures.
The love of and dedication to history that's present here goes beyond the setting of the game and seeps into how it's presented. The is most apparent in a couple of ways - the first of which is the use of a variety of handwritten fonts. The font that used to display a character's dialogue serves to do more than simply tell us what he/she is saying - it gives us insight into their social standing and education. Peasants 'speak' using a hastily scrawled script, while religious types communicate in a gothic script. Accessibility options offer the ability to disable this - as trying to read some of them can occasionally be challenging - but to do so would mean missing out on one of the core messages of the era the game is set in; that of a social divide based on the control and limitation of information and the ability of a person to consume it.
This text appears as though handwritten (or printed, depending on the character) onto parchment - complete with and effect of the ink soaking into it, and the occasional spelling mistake. A character's anger is demonstrated by more fierce scribbling sounds as the words appear, along with more spelling mistakes and a spattering of ink. The effect is wonderful.
Even the characters themselves are portrayed in such a way that their time playing a role is reflected in how they're presented. Younger characters are bold lines and bright colours, while older characters appear faded and worn, as if the result of pages rubbing together or prolonged exposure to sunlight. It adds to the sense of hand-crafted age that persists across the game, and feels all the more appropriate in the context of its subject matter.
This game has a glossary. I don't think I've ever played a game with a glossary before; every so often, a phrase will appear that's underlined in red and a ping of the menu button takes you to a page that explains what the term means - whether a location or a phrase. It'll also give you some of the historical context for the term. It's a small touch, but if you're someone like me - who knows almost nothing about the historical events shaping that time period - it's a nice optional way of easily gaining yet more context for what's going on in the world surrounding our little town and our people.
By the time I reached the end of Pentiment, I felt like I'd not only enjoyed a really good story but also learned something - about our shared past, and about human nature. As I said earlier - games like this don't come along very often. I can't imagine what the process of pitching this must have been like - as it's probably got the least commercial premise of any game I've ever played - but the gaming world is better for having an experience like the one offered here nestled within it.