Does playing an artist in 16th-century Bavaria sound appealing to you? What if I told you the game in question had no voice-over, unfurled its narrative in slowly-rendered text, and that, as the artist, all you had to do was illustrate an abbey's manuscript, would that persuade you? Sounds like a snooze, for sure. But get this: It could be a contender for Game of the Year.
The game is Pentiment, and while it sounds as scintillating as a root canal, it’s actually so quirky and different, it’s a welcome reprieve in the age of loud and bombastic AAA titles. You play as Andreas Maler, an artist employed to illustrate an abbey’s manuscript. In doing so Andreas finds himself trying to solve a brutal murder. Each action you take in his shoes changes the narrative. Who are you going to have a meal with? Which lead are you going to follow? This town has welcomed you so warmly; whose secrets are you going to betray in order to figure this thing out?
Again, this may not sound like your idea of a hoot, but believe me when I tell you that arguing with a prior about Martin Luther and figuring out if removing a crucifix will bring the Inquisition to town is a good time. Especially for history buffs.
Quirky and strange games come out all the time. A quick browse through Steam’s catalog will show you just how many niche titles there are for every kind of buff. But what’s remarkable about Pentiment is that it’s not some small-time game. It’s a product of Obsidian Entertainment, the same studio behind Fallout: New Vegas and The Outer Worlds. A game this rich, varied, and quiet coming from a major studio feels like it shouldn’t be possible. Yet here it is, and it’s wonderful.
Perhaps the best part is that you, as Andreas, don’t get a definitive answer as to what happened with that murder. It’s up to you to put the pieces together and present your best impression, but there’s no telling whether you got it right or not. But the choices you make (and the people you forsake) in the first part of the game affect what happens later, when you revisit the town where you once made such an impression.
The narrative design is also a huge part of why the game is so much fun. The entire thing is structured like a book—you can tell the kind of person you’re talking to—whether scholar, noble, religious person, or farmer—from the type of script their words are rendered in on the screen. (You can also turn this off if the different fonts are hard on your eyes, a very welcome accessibility choice.) It makes the entire thing feel as if you’re contributing to history as you’re playing the game.
And the game itself asks fascinating questions about history, art, and literature. What is Andreas’ role as an artist? Is it to satisfy his client or to make his own unique piece of artwork—his “masterpiece,” as it’s called in the game? Set at a time in Germany right before the Protestant Reformation, when printing presses were making work like Andreas’ obsolete, it makes you think about the entire nature of art (especially as it relates to money) and how that influences our understanding of history.
Pentiment is quite meta in this way—a piece of art about the nature of art itself. It’s a visually beautiful game that makes you think about the modern world, and the one that came before. It’s also an entertaining whodunit that kept me hooked in a way I haven’t been since Horizon Forbidden West at the beginning of 2022.
There. Do you believe me now?