Playable Tapestry Pentiment Has One Foot in the Past and the Other in the Future

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Playable Tapestry Pentiment Has One Foot in the Past and the Other in the Future

Pentiment borrows its name from the phenomenon of pentimento, in which the strokes or forms of a painting that has since been painted over can still be seen in the new work. The word comes from the Italian pentirsi, meaning “to repent.” All these meanings echo resonance into each other. Sincere repentance can make up for a sin, but it cannot totally erase its impact. History too works this way. We are accumulations of past deeds. Their fragments shine in the movements of our hands, in the sheen of our eyes. These moments seem brilliant now, but will one day be painted over. Others may even repent of us.

As you can see, the name itself has weight and history. It reveals Pentiment’s fundamental ambitions towards something that feels simultaneously present and ghostly, one foot in the past and the other in the future. I attended a hands-off preview alongside other members of the press, followed by a Q&A session with game director Josh Sawyer and art director Hannah Kennedy. A hands-off preview can only really reveal intentions. Until it is an object I can hold in my hands completely, I can’t really know what Pentiment will be. However, Pentiment has many intentions that I thoroughly admire. More than just a unique art style or unusual (for games, anyway) setting, Pentiment has an interest in the particular ways a ludic language can make meaning, in both obvious and surprising ways.

So, what the hell is this game about? Pentiment follows artist Andreas Maler through the beginning of the Reformation, the peasant revolution of 1525, and the publication of Copernicus’s heliocentric model. This is a period of around 25 years. The game is set in upper Bavaria, which is now in Germany, but was then part of the Holy Roman Empire. Maler works in an abbey neighboring the town of Tassing. With this put together, Pentiment is about being one small person in an only slightly bigger community in a time when culture completely changed. Also, people keep. getting. murdered.

Aesthetically, Pentiment attempts to visualize that scale, presenting an historical style that individuals nevertheless mark. In a broad sense, it borrows a visual style from woodcuts and illuminated manuscripts from the period. Characters have inked elbows and hard woodcut eyes, albeit with a digital sheen—Kennedy specifically shouted out the animated film Wolfwalkers as something that helped them unlock marrying digital and physical mediums. When characters speak, their words appear in the florid script of old books. The words appear to have been drawn onto the screen, one stroke at a time.


However, each of the characters approaches this a bit differently. The text mimics real ink; it starts shiny, dulls, and even bleeds into the virtual parchment. The script will make errors and scratch them out. Characters will inscribe their speech in a variety of fonts, representing class position or a relationship to the abbey. Characters with stronger connections to the printing press, or the new world the technology is creating, will speak by having their words “pressed” onto the screen. In short, the medium is the message. The way in which text is written illustrates something about the characters speaking. It’s a very thoughtful extension of how text boxes have worked in prior games, from Final Fantasy to Disco Elysium.

If you are worried about this being hard to read, you are not alone. The game will ship with easier-to-read fonts as part of the game’s accessibility options. Thanks to Microsoft’s ownership, Obsidian has access to Xbox Game Studios’ quality assurance teams. While unconfirmed, it’s likely that the game will also allow for font size changes and potentially other accessibility measures.

The game is also approachable. It’s a narrative adventure game, without numbers or hard systems. There are minigames, but they act more as a means of fleshing out the setting than a test of skill or reflexes. To appeal to as wide an audience as possible, everything in the game will be easy to do, leaving your mind room to consider decisions and narrative. And there will be decisions! Though Pentiment is not an RPG in the strictest sense, you can help flesh out Maler’s background and he will make choices that affect future narrative beats. In that way, it is still recognizably an Obsidian title.

The game also strives for period accuracy in its overall outlook, encompassing aesthetic and thematic ambitions. The music is written and performed by medieval music group Alkemie, and there’s a team of consulting academics and historians lending their expertise to the project. Furthermore, the plot itself, in which individuals chart themselves through and around moments in history, intends to take the subjectivity of those historical actors seriously. These are real events that occur to real people and not just the names we remember from history class. In answering a question about whether the game would take a secular approach to its religious themes Sawyer said, “I don’t think we can be in 16th century Bavaria in a secular way.” I appreciated this, a sign that the game seeks to take the perspectives of people at the time with seriousness and without condescension, as well as understanding that a religious world is one full of contradictions and nuances.

There is, of course, no easy road to accuracy. Every historian is grasping at fragments, and what the incomplete textual and physical record reveals. Still, though, we see echoes of that world in the way we live now. The words and deeds and drawings of long dead religious foreigners still affect every part of our secular world. Pentiment at least intends to draw out those ghosts, to show how the flitter of our hands resembles theirs.


Grace Benfell is a queer woman, critic, and aspiring fan fiction author. She writes on her blog Grace in the Machine and can be found @grace_machine on Twitter.