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Transforming Playtime into Study Time: The Surprising Depth of "Pentiment"

"Pentiment" poses questions of faith, religion and justice.
"Pentiment" poses questions of faith, religion and justice.

Key points:

  • The narrative of "Pentiment" is short, but quite immersive.
  • The game educates as the story is being revealed, and it's linked to religious events.
  • "Pentiment" is an exploration of religious history.

In my pursuit as a nerd minister to elucidate as much worth out of pop culture as possible for our faith, I’m thankful for games like “Pentiment” that practically ooze inspiration and education. Games like this allow for the art of the medium to speak straight to the heart of the player. By immersing the player in a fictitious version of real-world time periods and then asking hard questions, the player is able to learn more about history and themselves while enjoying time with a video game.

A Masterpiece in the Making

“Pentiment” is a recently released narrative adventure video game from a well-known development studio Obsidian Entertainment and published by Xbox Game Studios. The director and creator of the game is Josh Sawyer, who is known in the game development community for his rich story-telling and character analysis.

The game involves the player taking control of Andreas Maler, a journeyman artist on the cusp of creating his masterpiece. Maler resides in the fictional Bavarian town of Tassing in the 16th century. Over the course of three acts and twenty-five years, Maler develops relationships with the social hierarchy of Tassing - from the peasants to the Baron Lorenz Rothvogel. 

The narrative really begins to churn when Baron Rothvogel is murdered, and one of Maler’s dear friends is accused of the crime. This begins a mystery that spans the entirety of the game–while other heinous crimes from a mysterious perpetrator are introduced, too. It’s an excellent story that can be experienced in around ten hours - I would highly recommend the journey for the narrative alone.

A Work of Art in Every Detail

The art designer of the game, Hannah Kennedy, was very intentional in an attempt to recreate an appropriate aesthetic for the time period. As someone who has studied both historic music and church history, I instantly was drawn back to the images from the books I’ve read and lessons I’ve learned. The characters feel as if they are drawn out of famous icons from 16th century church walls. 

After hearing an excellent interview with Josh Sawyer, the director and creator of “Pentiment,” I learned that his background as a history major in his undergraduate experience at Lawrence University in Wisconsin revealed that design was deeply woven into his education. “Pentiment” was a perfect storm for Sawyer and was his lifelong dream to create. When Obsidian Entertainment was bought out by Microsoft, the funds were finally available for his game to be created, along with his newfound position of authority positioning his passion project to be approved. 

The passion seeps through the design. Not only did the game highlight icons of the era, but even the font plays a role in telling the story: As Maler perceives the vocation and education level of those to whom he speaks, the font adjusts accordingly. For instance, a peasant would have a rough medieval manuscript style, whereas the printer in the town has a font that resembles a woodcut. Even further still, the highly educated members of the power-hungry abbey in town have an ornate artistic script reminiscent of the archaic scriptorium of religious history. 

A Game That Goes Beyond the Surface

Design aside, the game also educates the player through the story being told - or, at least, through the background information being considered. Maler is intimately connected with the abbey in Tassing and often finds himself arguing with the Benedictine monks about the outrageous (or empathetic, depending upon your choices) vagabond Martin Luther. 

During my playthrough, I chose for Maler to have studied theology during his time as a wealthy student in Italy. This allowed for unique dialogue options throughout the story with references not only to scripture but to famous events in church history that hadn’t crossed my mind since I took exams on them. I was remiss that the game didn’t happen a century and a half later so I could have flexed some Wesleyan muscles!

Most shocking of all, perhaps, was the surprise at the conclusion of the game as the credits began to roll and I discovered that the game had a lengthy bibliography! I’ve played well over a thousand video games and I’ve never seen one so thoughtfully educational as to include a bibliography of resources. This game views itself as an exploration of religious history more akin to an engaging dissertation than a comedic mind-numbing jaunt into fantasy. 

A Narrative Adventure That Delves Deep into Social Hierarchy

I dive more into this in my sermon on this game, but it is also worth noting that “Pentiment” also serves an important social education role. The hierarchy presented between the peasants, the townspeople, the abbey, and the landowners is brutal at times. Andreas Maler begins as a starving artist working on his masterpiece at the abbey, but is also living in the attic of one of the peasant families. 

Maler straddles the social strata in a way that makes your choices of how you treat others humbling and educational. One can choose to have Maler live up to social expectations and judge the peasants harshly or empathize with them and humanize the oppressed class of the era.

All in all, there is plenty to be gleaned from this game. Whether you are hankering for some church history or want a deep Agatha Christie-esque mystery, Pentiment is a game you will want to play.

Rev. Nathan Webb of Checkpoint Church

Nathan Webb is a major nerd in just about every way. He loves video games, anime, cartoons, comic books, tech, and his fellow nerds. Hoping to provide a spiritual community for people with similar interests, he founded Checkpoint Church--"the church for nerds, geeks and gamers." Nathan can be found lurking on some visual novel subreddit, reading the latest shōnen entry, or playing the newest Farm Sim. Nathan is an ordained provisional elder in the United Methodist Church in the Western North Carolina Conference. He hosts a weekly newsletter podcast: To The Point.

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