There’s no doubt that Obsidian has a lot on its plates at the moment. After the success of The Outer Worlds, the Early Access launch of Grounded, and the impending release of Avowed and The Outer Worlds 2 no one was expecting them to announce the historic RPG Pentiment last June. We had a chance to sit down and hear from Josh Sawyer, Game Director, and Hannah Kennedy, Art Director, on what it was like putting together this game.
The first thing we were shown was a new trailer showing protagonist Andreas Maler going about his life, making important dialogue choices, and working on his manuscripts. His peaceful life takes a turn as he’s wrapped up in a series of murders. A flash of sequences shows Andreas running from the law, investigating the murder, and an example of some puzzle solving that players will encounter.
What is Obsidian Entertainment’s Pentiment?
Sawyer took some time to break down Pentiment as a game, what we’d just seen, and what to expect. The team working on Pentiment began with just two but has grown to 13 members, and while there will be RPG elements, this game has been very much designed as a narrative adventure filled with unique historical references.
You will take on the role of Andreas Maler, an artist whose life becomes complicated as he gets caught up in a series of murders that take place over 25 years. Pentiment takes place in the fictional village of Tassing where players can explore the town or nearby Kiersau Abbey. The gameplay is going to consist heavily of communication and relationship building for Andreas. Sawyer pointed out that as the game takes place over such a long period of time, you’ll be able to see those relationships grow and be shaped by the decisions that you make.
Historically, "Pentiment" is where a painting has been altered for one reason or another, but the brushstrokes from the original work still show through. It’s in this painting history that Obsidian Entertainment’s game gets its title. The art style for Pentiment has been specifically crafted to mirror that of the late Medieval Illumination and early forms of woodcuts.
How Is Art Used to Represent Character?
The characters that you encounter through the story of Pentiment will all invoke slightly different styles, from the way that they’re illustrated to the font that they use to talk in. An example given was that a nun was illustrated using the earlier traditional style, however, the player character, who is a learned man, is created using the more modern woodcut style.
Each of the fonts used has been specifically chosen to represent a character’s background. You’ll see the different script styles of Peasant, Scribe, Humanist, Monastic, and Printer types. Depending on the character that you’re speaking with, you can understand immediately where they come from in life based on these scripts.
Special care has also been taken to the way that these fonts appear on the screen. Leaning into the idea that a book is being written, as the story progresses each of the stylized fonts will be drawn out as if by hand (or type). Sawyer highlighted that there would even be times when things might be scratched out, which was quite common for the time. Stylized words, like God, might also be highlighted in red as you’d see in this kind of art.
After the presentation, Hannah Kennedy was able to talk about the impact that art history had on the development of Pentiment and its unique art style.
"Art history had a huge impact on the creation of this game in part because it is a history game and we're trying to reference that setting and that time period as accurately as possible, but also because at its core this is a story about the experience of a working artist at the time," Kennedy explained. "It was fun to get to directly reference different art pieces within the story and make little nods to that because we feel that our audience will share a lot of interest with those same things we find interesting."
By both using the art that was present at the time, as well as using the medium to tell the story of an artist of the time it was invaluable to have those references to work off. Kennedy explained that it was also useful to use this art style as it meant they didn’t need to make up what was present in the world without any pictorial evidence. This game served as a perfect meeting point between Kennedy’s interest and training in art history, with Sawyer’s history background specifically in this region.
Where Does Pentiment Take Place?
Pentiment takes place in 16th century Upper Bavaria, what is now known as Germany. To be more specific, the game shares the same period of time as the Reformation, the Revolution of 1525, and the adoption of the heliocentric model of the solar system. It’s also a time when the church and religion were extremely important to everyone, a theme that will come up a lot in Pentiment.
In talking about the historical accuracy of Pentiment, Sawyer explained, "We put a lot of effort into making this as historically accurate as we can without sacrificing the story." To ensure that Pentiment has the correct feel and sound of the time, Obsidian hired Alkemie Music.
"They are a music group, they compose and record as an ensemble," Sayer said. "The music they've contributed to the game is either strictly historical or historically inspired." Sawyer also pointed out that for some that are musically inclined, "you might hear some familiar tunes, but all the music [Alkemie Music] has created has been really really cool."
The team behind Pentiment also got Ph.D. consultants including Dr. Edmund Kern, Dr. Christopher De Hamel, and Dr. Winston E. Black to make sure that the world is as accurate to the time as could be.
"I have a history degree, one of the other writers on the team also has a history degree, but that only goes so far," Sawyer explained when talking about how integral the involvement of these consultants has been to the development of Pentiment.
Sawyer explained that his interest in Bavaria got its start from his own genealogy research. There was ambiguity in his own family, and as he kept investigating, it drew him to learn more about this region.
How Does Andreas Grow as You Play?
Referencing back to the idea of this being a narrative game with light RPG mechanics Sawyer explained that there isn’t any traditional character creation but that players will shape who Andreas is in the decisions that they make, whether that be decisions about the present day or the way he answers when people ask him about his past. An example given is that early in the game, Andreas will be asked what he studied; you could pick Orator, Astronomer, or even that you had studied the Occult. That narrative decision will shape what Andreas might be able to talk about or ask later in the game.
As you answer these kinds of questions and your Andreas grows, you’ll see the information about him on the front of his journal grow and change. It’s not a traditional character sheet, but it’s what’s valid for a game like Pentiment.
The game will have branching narratives as well as multiple endings. The murderer can be ambiguous, and you’ll be put in a situation where you need to decide who it is. Narratively, the game will never be truly clear about who was or wasn’t the murderer. You’ll need to use your best judgment… or choose who you want to suffer the consequences of being a murderer.
What Is the Design Methodology Behind Pentiment?
It was a goal of Obsidian taking into account the genre, subject, and art style that this game should be one that can be enjoyed by players of all skill level. The primary focus is in the story and navigating the life of Andreas. The controls are simple, there aren’t any tense moments of choice that need fast reactions, and the puzzles are all relatively simple. The puzzles included are for the purpose of enhancing the story and how Andreas will interact with the world, and not as a challenge for the player.
In talking about how Pentiment is a scaled-down project than what they’ve previously been working on, Kennedy mentioned that the team was the perfect size for what they were going for. The ability to be fast and flexible around allocating tasks to create what’s such a unique game has been a big benefit. Pentiment had also begun just before covid began, but being such a small team allowed them to remain agile.
Sawyer did mention that while this was a project that he’d been wanting to make for a while, the Microsoft acquisition was the point where he believed he’d have a chance to make it a reality, and part of that was also the benefit of Game Pass. He explained that with the reach they were wanting to get and the flexibility that Microsoft could offer them, now was a perfect time. He mused that there could have been attempts at crowdfunding a project like this in the past, but it wasn’t truly achievable until Game Pass as a platform made sense for it.
Talking about lessons that the team has learned through the development of Pentiment, Sawyer said that what they take away from this experience will really come down to the reaction that those who play the game have. There are a number of things that Sawyer is hoping that fans walk away from the experience enjoying such as focusing on a single central character and their story arc. While you can still make a log of changes with Andreas, it’s been a more focused writing experience for Sawyer which he has enjoyed and wants to make more content around.
When musing on aspects of Pentiment that he enjoyed through development and of ideas he might carry forward to future projects, Sawyer noted, "Some of [what we hope to carry forward to future projects] will come down to how people react to [Pentiment]." before chuckling to himself.
Thinking of the narrative structure of Pentiment, he did also comment, "This is the first game I've worked on personally where there's a single central character in the narrative [...] but it's about a pre-defined character and their [...] story arc." He immediately followed up by reassuring those of us watching that this isn't for him to say that he’ll never want to work on games where an ensemble cast is a focus, but he’s enjoyed this experience. Kennedy added on with her own favored experiences through development and how the pacing has allowed art elements to be added that might not have been able to with a more traditional Obsidian Entertainment title.
Accessibility in Pentiment
Sawyer explained that accessibility for Pentiment isn’t just something important for his team, but it’s also an interest that they share with publishers Microsoft. They understand that the unique art style and fonts do a lot for immersion, but it could make reading the text difficult. To combat this, Obsidian made sure that all of these fancy fonts can be disabled and replaced with one or two fonts to promote legibility.
There will also be a glossary that will include a variety of historical references and definitions. The glossary will be accessible even if you’re in the middle of a dialogue tree, so you can immediately understand what the characters may be discussing. This glossary view will also be reactive to the references on the screen, if a character is talking about meeting their wife and you bring up the glossary, you’ll be met with an image of the wife’s face.
Accessibility testing is being assisted by Microsoft and its Usability Group. This has allowed the development team to hand over a build of the game to a group who is differently abled to play it and advise where improvements could be made. Other accessibility features include a High Contrast mode, verified easy-read fonts, as well as font scaling so that text can be legible on any sized screen.
Pentiment will be released in November 2022 for Xbox and PC via Xbox App and Steam. This game will also be available on day one on Xbox Game Pass as a first-party title and available to stream via the cloud. There will be a playable demo for Pentiment at Gamescom that will showcase three early quest options to show off how the decisions you make will impact the path Andreas takes.