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We Talk To Pentiment Director & Art Director About The Game’s Unique Art & Influences
Pentiment is a different kind of beast for developer Obsidian, who are known for rich RPG titles with multiple paths and some form of action and humour laced into its narrative & choices. From the good Fallout games to The Outer Worlds, they are masters of making players forge their own destinies while being engaging with its design restrictions.
This new smaller title they’re making is meant for mass appeal: Pentiment is a historical adventure game set in the 16th century of Upper Bavaria, Holy Roman Empire, where you play an artist named Andreas who is caught up with murders and scandals most foul, solving them while making art. While not a role-playing game, Pentiment has light RPG elements that allow players to build characters and see the world’s reaction to them and their choices. Even the game’s text during conversations is displayed in a unique way; the game’s font rendering tech includes printed text that is pressed into a page as though by an actual press. And if that’s not your jam, Pentiment’s accessibility option will make sure the text is legible, whether it’s via font changes or increased font sizes.
Obsidian is still sticking to its RPG roots with Pentiment, though the adventure game trappings are indeed new for those familiar with the developer’s portfolio. We’re more than curious, so we talked to game director Josh Sawyer(left) and art director Hannah Kennedy(right) about the game in great detail.
Hannah: Oh yeah, it’s much easier to keep track of these threads with a smaller team than The Outer Worlds. It’s easy to keep liquid and be flexible around resourcing and who wants to do/experiment what. It’s been really fun to work with a small group of people who are extremely passionate and comfortable enough to take risks and do a lot of experimentation.
We did start working on Pentiment pre-COVID when we were figuring out how to work remotely, but the transition here was easier since the team was smaller.
Hannah: Art history has had a huge impact on the creation of this game. It is a history and we’re trying to recreate the setting. This is a story about what it’s like being a working artist at the time.
There’s a lot to learn from art history as well as inform the character and how they exist in this world, as well as inform how the game space looks. It was fun to directly reference the art pieces within the story. Our audience will share the same interest in that capacity.
Pentiment’s time period is pre-photography so we don’t have references as to how the historical setting looks like accurately, as well as the social hierarchy at the time; like how artists view themselves. So we referenced different paintings of the time period to give us contextual information on pieces and details of the day-to-day life in that time period.
One example is that Andreas design is influenced by German artist Albrecht Dürer’s self-portrait design, even down to the hair. The Nuremberg Chronicle has so many prints in it, and those really help informed us how to lay out scene backgrounds and the space with the buildings, and sorting out what vistas and large exterior spaces look like.
Hannah: Yes, definitely. Josh is a history buff on the specific region and time.
I came from traditional western art school training, with a large background in European art history. It’s interesting to dive into that chapter of history, learning about the artist’s work and what they were doing, and how they did it.
Josh: My father is a sculptor. Growing up, I remember the mini library outside my bedroom there were books about European art and its history. As a little kid, I loved reading these books. When I went to school, I learned regular history, but there was always an intersection between the two. I’ve always been interested in Dürer and Hans Holbein, along with other artists who are popular at the time.
Josh: My interest in Bavaria and Germany started when I was doing genealogical research. There’s a bit of ambiguity in family as to where my grandparents came from. I just got into learning about my family history; my grandmother was born in Kempten at Southwest Bavaria. When I was studying music and history in college, I just got into the German language and culture. This particular period in time is interesting because it’s a time of social unrest; the German peasant’s lifestyle was rather chaotic and the reformation that preceded it was tangled with that unrest in a lot of interesting ways. I just thought it’ll be interesting to tell a personal story about Andreas and the historical context happening around him and the people he meets.
Hannah: We watched an animated film called Wolfwalkers. If there was one takeaway from that film, it’s that it really cracked open a progression point for me from an art perspective. We had a similar struggle on how to marry the woodcut, illustration, and manuscript styles together. While Wolfwalkers was more modern and appropriate for an animated feature, we went for a more adaptative look to make sure it fits the tone we’re portraying in a context of a game.
Josh: Another inspiration we didn’t talk about is Andrei Rublev which is the life of the monk who is an iconic painter. What’s fascinating about it is that it takes over a long period of time and you can see how he evolved and changed throughout his life. That’s one thing that is cool tell a story about a single central person who is involved in a community over a long period of time.
Josh: I’ve always wanted to make a history game, but I couldn’t pinpoint the moment where I’m like “why don’t I make a historical game where it’s an adventure game that was small”. But it wasn’t until Microsoft was going to acquire Obsidian where I thought “why not do this idea now?”
This is for two reasons. One: Game Pass as a platform is appropriate for this kind of game. Two: I thought Microsoft would be open to the idea for us to try something unusual. If we tried to get Pentiment funded through traditional publishing, it wouldn’t have worked. From a publisher/developer standpoint, it definitely clicked with Microsoft when they acquired us and when they have Game Pass as a platform.
Josh: I’m a secular person, but I don’t think we can be secular in 16th century Bavaria at all. This is a world in which religion is real to everyone in society. From history’s records left behind, they’re Catholic (laughs) at least until 1518.
We’re approaching as though everyone in the world is a believer of some sort. People’s beliefs do vary quite a bit. Some are devout, some are observant, some aren’t. Some have strange beliefs, which is common at this time period and European Christianity. We’re approaching it from a historical perspective; people weren’t monolithic in their beliefs, but this is a time where there’s strife and there’s a change in the religion which is so central to everyone’s lives.
If you’ve noticed the trailer, there’s a time wheel that advances and has the manastic hours on it. Before there were clocks in the middle of town, if you live near a monastery, you hear bells rung by the monks who use it to signify prayer times for divine offers. It’s not an exaggeration that people were marking time by referencing the religious people who used bells to mark time with. It’s central to the game, we take it seriously, and try to explore it in a mature fashion.
Josh: Yes, it does. That’s the Obsidian stuff people are familiar with. One of the things we talked about it is that you have to deal with the suspects. There’s no DNA to take and there’s no forensic science at the time. The justice system here is rather odd. There’s a lot of ambiguity here, so you have to pin the murder on whoever you can, using your best judgment. Maybe there’s someone whom you want to see go, because the punishment for murder at the time is pretty severe. We really want you to see these consequences play out over a long period of time as you play Pentiment.
Having said that, there is a strong connecting narrative that ties in with Andreas. We’re trying to do the classic thing where we interleave the choice and interactivity within a strong storyline.
Josh: Yes. In a lot of the parts of the game, you can’t do everything. There are occasions where you can’t eat meals with everyone in the town, so you have to make choices on who you should eat with. These choices will impact their relationship later. Or there’s a choice you make in public that makes you increase your standing with one person but lower the other. We try not to bog down with visibly tracking these down with a meter or indicators. We’ll let you know when you’re paying attention to the characters and let you know when they’ll come up in conversations again.
Josh: This is the first game I’ve worked on personally where there’s a single central character in the narrative. There’s choice and consequence, but it’s a pre-defined character with their story arc and their thing. Most of the RPGs I’ve worked on starred characters who are clean slates; Pentiment is different in that regard; we’re still writing about a character who is much more defined, but it still feels like you can make a ton of choices with dialogue and attitude. You can choose to be different types of Andreas Maler, and that’s cool.
Personally, I would like to work on more games that are like that. I found it very liberating in very cool ways.
Hannah: Because of the pacing, story, and setting, it’s presented an opportunity to add details we want to make the game as realistic as possible and populate the space without relying on cruxes like combat and a collections system. One example is there are a lot of children in our game, which is a facet of life that is overlooked, even in narrative RPGs. In their inclusion, I stumble across them in gameplay and have a positive reaction to seeing children and adults interacting; these little details are reflective of micro-narratives and smaller story moments.
That’s rewarding to make and to see people experience while playing in a way that I wasn’t expecting. I’ll carry that with me moving forward whenever I’m thinking about what information is important to include and what positive experiences to include in RPGs.
Pentiment will be out on Xbox Series, Xbox One, and PC on 15th November.