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Exploring the Protestant Reformation and History in Pentiment

Published: January 9, 2023 12:30 PM

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One of the strongest games of 2022 also happens to have some of the greatest writing: Pentiment, the recipient of TechRaptor's Award for Best Writing in 2022. For history fans such as myself, it's even more of a treat when you take into account the many historical aspects of Pentiment. It takes place within a fictional town and features imaginary characters, but from the writing to the art style, this is a game with serious educational value. After all, the plot takes place during the pivotal Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, which affected not just Bavaria (where Pentiment takes place), but much of Europe as well.

The ideas Pentiment explores is a salient topic, and we're seeing such games utilized in classrooms across the nation. Indeed, another Microsoft Studios-published title, Age of Empires IV, has entire college courses based on the materials within. We wanted to explore the arduous process of creating a game with so many historical threads and talk about the possible future application of games such as Pentiment in the classroom and beyond. TechRaptor sat down with Game and Narrative Director Josh Sawyer of Obsidian Entertainment to learn more.

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Diving Into the Past With Pentiment

With other games under his belt such as Icewind Dale, Alpha Protocol, and Fallout: New Vegas, Pentiment may be the most relevant to Sawyer's field of study in college: European history. It's no wonder, then, that Pentiment is a game Sawyer's always wanted to make. As a historical-based title, the choice of exploring the times during the Protestant Restoration is one that a lot of players may not be the most familiar with, but it was certainly relevant to Sawyer's interests and something he wanted to explore further in video game form.

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"I think because it's a time of transition. It's specifically a time when there's a lot of upheaval," said Sawyer.

Sawyer notes the printing press played an important part in this period of history and allowed for Martin Luther's 95 Theses to proliferate with the efficiency this invention provided. Sawyer adds the printing press helped facilitate the German Peasant's War within the Holy Roman Empire, as well. Luther and the plight of the peasants, combined with the up-and-coming printing press, are all mentioned or play a direct part in Pentiment's story, and while the town of Tassing and the many characters in-game may be fictional, the effects of real-world, historical people and events reverberate around.

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"But yeah, because of this greater sense of community and awareness of what was happening throughout Europe, especially in the Holy Roman Empire," said Sawyer, "I just think it's a very interesting time to explore what was happening within society and communities during that time period."

The credits of Pentiment is proof of Obsidian Entertainment's dedication to historical accuracy. Interestingly, the credits feature a bibliography, which isn't something you see very often in modern video games. Sawyer says bibliographies in video games exist, but were used more often in game manuals -- a product of a bygone era in this digital-focused period. Sawyer said that because Pentiment is a historical game, research is an important part of development.

"And actually one of the big points of inspiration for this game, even though it might not seem like it was a historical role-playing game from 1992, called Darklands," said Sawyer, "and it had a really extensive bibliography in the manual. I have some of the books from that bibliography on my shelf, and I referenced them during making this game."

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Darklands, a 1992 adventure game by MPS Labs, also takes place within the Holy Roman Empire and roughly 100 years or so before when Pentiment takes place. Sawyer made use of other materials such as history books and JSTOR articles, among other things. He is also quick to credit the many experts such as Christopher de Hamel (who Sawyer credits as being one of the world's leading experts in European manuscript production), as well as college history professors Dr. Edmund Kern for general information on society during Pentiment's time period and Dr. Winston Black for medical-related topics.

"My art director, Hannah Kennedy also did a ton of research on manuscripts and art in the period to sort of capture the unique art style that we have," said Sawyer.

With notable and highly educated consultants and a robust amount of research, Pentiment is ripe for usage in an academic environment. The art style emulates that of old medieval manuscripts and the creation of said art plays a pivotal role throughout the story. Of course, being a video game, some artistic liberties are taken, but there was still a huge emphasis on accuracy.

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"But no, we tried to make it as accurate as possible," said Sawyer, "while also understanding we are making making a fictional story to kind of illuminate the truth of the of the time period."

Sawyer's approach to the setting, characters, and events taking place makes the educational value of Pentiment particularly useful not due to portrayal of real events, per se, but because it shows what could happen within this time period given the historical situation at the time. Kiersau Abbey (not to be confused with the real-life Hirsau Abbey) and the town of Tassing are fictional, but they certainly feel as though they could exist during this period of the Holy Roman Empire.

"And this was all this combination of things which were possible but not probable. There's not a physical place that actually had all of this stuff. So rather than try to force something, let's make a fictional place, because we're going to tell a story that's shaped by the history that surrounds it, but it's not bound by a very specific place and the lives of very specific people." --Josh Sawyer

Pentiment also highlights terms and words mentioned in dialogue that may be unfamiliar to players. When "Martin Luther" is mentioned, his name is highlighted, and players can pause and learn more. The monks of the Abbey get angry when Martin Luther is brought up, which can lead to a rather uncomfortable dinner party, but without historical context, some players may not know why. There's landsknecht in Pentiment, and Sawyer acts out the thought process of the player. Likely, you'll question why he wears such strange clothing and he took part in the Battle of Pavia against the French -- which was, Sawyer playfully points out, for some reason, in Italy.

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"And so things like that I just hope intrigue people," said Sawyer. "And people are going to drift towards looking up certain things or other other things. And yeah, hopefully they'll get interested in learning more about history because they they found those things intriguing when they played the game."

With the evergrowing presence of video games in the classroom, the usage of Pentiment as an educational tool is a realistic thought to ponder. Sawyer said he knows some professors are already using Pentiment in the classroom in some form; although, being a game that may last over 15 hours, it can be a significant ask on the students to play through the entire experience. Pondering what classes or topics would benefit from using Pentiment as a tool for education, Sawyer said:

"So if you want to do something that's kind of like an overview of social history and proto-class dynamics, because class consciousness didn't really exist at this time, but like, the foundations kind of that later would go into that. There's a lot of stuff that you can look at and pick out like, religion or religious life or how, yeah, gender relations like there's just-- I tried to put all sorts of things in here because I wanted that to be very rich."

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Rest assured, Pentiment doesn't feel like you're playing a class assignment. Sawyer admitted it wasn't his intent to "turn a history lesson into a game" but is happy to see how well Pentiment has resonated with players. Both regular gamers and history fans will find plenty to enjoy in Pentiment, and those who want to dive deeper into the lore can. The choice is up to you.

"It's not a flashback to your social studies teacher, lecturing you and like boring you out of your mind," Sawyer said.

To wrap up the talk, Sawyer left with a very impressionable statement. He speaks to the versatility of narrative adventure games and encourages those from different backgrounds to pursue stories that we are different. Taking a leap of faith can result in wonderful outcomes. Just as how Pentiment directly (or indirectly) teaches players about medieval life in Bavaria, there are so many other topics that can do just the same and help enrich our minds with intriguing stories and culture. And who knows? Maybe one day, it'll end up in classrooms as a teaching tool, too.

"One of the things I like about narrative adventure games," said Sawyer, "is that we do have the opportunity for smaller teams who are from backgrounds that are not as well-represented in gaming that can make very unique art styles and unique stories, and we can hear perspectives and see perspectives that, you know, like, we haven't seen before.

"I'm coming at it from a perspective of guy who's been in the industry for this many years and there's a ton of middle-aged white guys that are telling stories about European stuff. So I would love to see, and I would encourage, other especially indie developers, who I take a lot of inspiration from, honestly, to tell those stories, because there's there's a lot of cool stuff out there that we are not exposed to and I'd love to see that stuff."

austin
Author: | Staff Writer
Austin cut his teeth writing various -- albeit shoddy -- fan-fiction stories on the RuneScape forums when he was in elementary school. Later on, he developed a deep love for flash games and wrote… Read More
More Info About This Game

In This Article

Developer
Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher
Microsoft Game Studios
Platforms
Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC
Release Date
November 15,2022
Genre
Adventure
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