“Murder at the abbey” might sound like a detective plot at its tamest and cosiest, but in the hands of the master storytellers at Obsidian Entertainment, historical whodunnit Pentiment makes for one of the year’s most unusual and sophisticated games. This compelling mystery, steeped in loving period detail, is a rich, grown-up tale which probes ideas around history and faith with an intellectual rigour which is more Name of the Rose than Murder, She Wrote.
The year is 1518 and you are Andreas Maler, a journeyman artist staying in the Bavarian village of Tassing while working on an illuminated manuscript in the nearby Kiersau Abbey. If your eyelids are already beginning to droop, then this game might not be for you; history buffs and narrative game fans, read on. When a visiting nobleman is murdered and your closest friend and mentor is accused, you must clear his name by finding the real killer.
So Maler travels around the town talking to people and gathering information to solve the mystery. This is the meat of the game, so be prepared for lots of reading. Tension is supplied by the day cycle, which follows the liturgical hours from Matins to Compline. You have limited time and will not be able to chase every lead, so must choose your actions carefully. Then, just when you think you’ve fingered the suspect and the game is concluding, you realise the game is only finishing its first act as the story dizzyingly skips forward in time. Now Maler has grown melancholic while the townspeople’s resentments have curdled into bitter grudges. As the game grows in scope and seriousness, you notice how the innocuous choices you made in the first section have wide-reaching impacts on beloved characters’ lives.
While there is little conventional gameplay beyond traversing the world and engaging in dialogue with characters, it still feels compelling and enjoyable thanks to the sharp writing and the meaningful player choices which dramatically influence the course of the game’s plot.
The game’s art is a marvel, inspired by medieval illustrations and woodcuts. During scene transitions, the camera swoops in and out of the pages of a book, making you feel like you’re playing not on a screen but instead an illuminated manuscript.
The most loving details are found in how the game makes writing come alive: characters speak in text outlined and filled in by a quill, which you can hear scratching across the vellum. Depending on their social standing, their words might be depicted in simple cursive or imposing black-letter script. When they shout, ink splatters across the page. Of course, a game so in love with the physical act of writing ought to deliver on strong dialogue, and the pedigree of the creators behind The Outer Worlds and Fallout: New Vegas more than delivers, with a smart script that prizes concision and finely drawn characterisation.
Rich historical details immerse players deeply in this evocation of 16th-century Bavaria. Pentiment is set at a time of great social upheaval, as certainties are crumbling and balances of power are shifting. Central to this are questions of belief: Tassing is a town where some still worship old pagan gods in the forest, while Catholic dogma is also losing its grip in the face of Renaissance ideas and the advent of the printing press. It’s certainly the first time a game has asked me to engage in an extended debate on the ideas of Martin Luther.
The title is drawn from “pentimento”, a term in fine art denoting a change that has been made by an artist while painting, which is usually covered over with subsequent layers of paint. Its root is the Italian verb pentirsi, meaning “to repent”. The name reflects the game’s idea that history is malleable, subjective and easily manipulated for the purposes of power. By the end, the whodunnit is no longer really the point. Instead Pentiment is about how broad social changes play out in the microcosm of a small community over a wide swath of time. It is an ambitious and thrilling work of narrative game design.
Bizarrely, Pentiment is not the only new game based on medieval manuscripts. Though its aesthetics are similar, Inkulinati is a different beast entirely. The idea is a strategy game that animates the animals adorning the margins of illuminated texts. You draw figures on the page using “living ink” and manoeuvre them into battle, meeting historical figures such as Dante and nun/composer Hildegard of Bingen. It is zany fun and offers compelling strategic gameplay. In a gaming landscape where it feels like every story is either sci-fi or fantasy, these two titles show that you can conjure something fresh by reaching deep into the past.
‘Pentiment’ is out now on PC and Xbox, and is currently available on Xbox Game Pass. ‘Inkulinati’ is out in Early Access this winter