In Pentiment, you’ll spend a lot of time eating at dinner tables. Conversations touch on all sorts of topics, and the discussions help you learn more about the fictional Bavarian town of Tassing and the mysteries you’ll be investigating. Every so often, you’ll get to take a bite of bread or cheese of varying quality depending on who you’re eating with. Occasionally, somebody might ramble on. It honestly felt like a warm-up for Thanksgiving (though at my Thanksgivings, I’m not trying to figure out who committed a murder).
But pay attention, and you’ll notice that Pentiment uses the meals to subtly teach you about the people the game’s protagonist, Andreas Maler, is eating with. Wealthier companions offer nicer food on finer dishware. Poorer ones might give larger portions but barely put anything in front of themselves. Depending on their occupations and status, people will offer different foods, place settings, and topics of conversation that clue you in to how they fit into the society.
What you can observe at the tables is all context the developers use to inform players about Pentiment’s 16th century setting, game director Josh Sawyer said in an interview with The Verge. “I didn’t want to put a history lesson in front of you,” Sawyer said. “I wanted to put everything into a beautiful setting and a cool story in context, and then let players, through osmosis, pick this stuff up.”
Another clever tool is the game’s fonts. All conversations in Pentiment happen in written dialog boxes, but the actual font in each box will vary based on the person you’re talking to. The font for a peasant might be a handwritten scrawl. A baron that rides into town uses a more elaborate style when you first meet him, but that changes when you get to know him better. I’m a big fan of the font for the town’s printer, which appears all at once in clean type, as if it were actually pressed by a printing press.
The font can even differ among people that appear to be in similar positions, Sawyer said. While the monks and nuns are mostly dressed the same, he pointed out that a handful of them “speak” with a very elaborate script as a sign of how educated they are. It’s a clever subconscious trick to tell you more about each character. (Sometimes the fonts can be tough to read, but there’s an “easy read fonts” setting you can flip on that’s quite helpful.)
Pentiment also smartly uses its huge cast to tell a broader societal story. “I didn’t want any singular character to necessarily be representative of everyone within a certain type,” Sawyer said. Not all of the people at the abbey are kind, for example; the abbot is something of a stickler, and one person you work with in the scriptorium is a huge jerk. The combination of the many personalities and attention to detail makes the people in Pentiment feel like they’re part of a real community, and while the setting might be hundreds of years in the past, the broad strokes of what the characters go through are intended to be relatable human issues.
“Man, I ought to look into this history stuff”
“The same kinds of motives and instincts and anxieties and fears that we have manifest themselves in the early 16th century,” Edmund Kern, a college professor of Sawyer’s and a historical consultant on the game, told me. Pentiment takes place in “a very different time, a very different setting, but also not all that different from a certain perspective.”
During our interview, Sawyer told me about his experience playing the 1992 game Darklands, set in the 15th century. “It was really buggy and really weird. But I was like, ‘Wow, this is really cool actually having a game set in this historical context.’” With Pentiment, Sawyer hopes it “does the same thing for me when I played a historical game when I was a teenager and I was like ‘man, I ought to look into this history stuff.’”
Pentiment is available now on Xbox Series X / S, Xbox One, and PC.