It begins with a word: Pentiment.
It comes from pentimento, an overpainted image that is becoming visible. This is itself derived from the Italian, pentirsi, to repent or change one’s mind. It’s a rare occasion in which the game’s title tells you exactly what’s coming. This is emblematic of the confidence with which Pentiment handles its themes.
In modern games, it’s easy to become distracted exploring a vast world and lose sight of the story – as I did in Horizon Zero Dawn. Or, like South of the Circle, a game might focus so much on telling a passable narrative that gameplay all but disappears. In the delicate and complex balancing act between length, interactivity, and storytelling, video game stories are too often uneven. Or worse: written by Hideo Kojima.
Pentiment, however, is a rare game in which balance is achieved. Less goal-oriented than character-driven, it asks you, as Andreas Maler, to solve a set of ambiguous murders against the backdrop of the German Peasant’s War of 1524-1525. A common gaming task, yet here it’s less about solving a mystery than witnessing the consequences of your actions.
It’s through this that Pentiment, as its name suggests, breaches the surface-level standards of the industry to hide its truth strengths below the waterline, fostering connections between players and characters that are disappointingly rare in other games.
This is driven by the most fundamental of narrative concepts, one that is too often mishandled in gaming stories: conflict. The conflict between peasants and nobility; between inertia and change; between desire and duty. All of this focussed on the eternally conflicted Andreas.
Andreas finds himself in Tassing, a landscape constantly at odds with itself. For some it’s a haven of idyllic spirituality under the watchful eye of Saint Moritz, and for others it’s a tumultuous epicentre of cultural and folkloric upheaval.
Throughout three playthroughs, the minutiae of these conflicts engrossed me. In burly Endris’ yearning for love. In the mysterious Martin Bauer. In the surprising divisions between peasant women and their monastic counterparts like Sister Illuminata.
If, at first, you see only an historical whodunnit, Pentiment reveals throughout its runtime that it is ultimately not one but many stories. The narrative is driven by the idea that to uncover the truth beneath the ostensible painting of Tassing, one must wash away a protective surface that can never be retrieved. An ethical quandary of truth versus the potential to drive Tassing’s people to ruin – illustrated by the fact that characters fade as they age.
Thanks to all that, I truly considered the consequences of every action. I was desperate to keep characters colourful and vibrant, to save them from the calamity this period of history renders inevitable.
But then, that’s what makes Pentiment an unusually strong story. Regret. From the name down to the gameplay, the story is laced with it. Regret for poor decisions, for lost things and lost chances, for the ruining of some to aggrandise others. Themes so relatable and so pointed from the game’s beginning.
A beginning that aptly has us rubbing away the surface of the Gospel of John. Whose first line reads, “In principio era Verbum.” In the beginning was the Word.
Because, instructive as the game’s name is, it is also only the beginning. And much of Pentiment’s story is about rubbing away that impression, the regret inherent in the word, to make good. The beginning may be the word, Pentiment says, but ultimately there is so much more.