They create worlds: Pentiment

One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.

In the early years of video games, their aesthetics were limited mainly by technology: by the resolution of the graphics or the number of colours that a system could produce and display on the screen at the same time, or by CPU speed. The best programmers and artists could do wonderful things within those limitations, and you can enjoy great pixel art even today, when computers can produce real-time visuals that are vastly more complex.

These days, video game graphics are much less limited by the tech the games run on, so a lot of games – especially in the so-called AAA segment, i.e. the games with the biggest budgets and the largest teams of developers – aim for photorealism. At the same time, smaller developers who don’t necessarily have the resources to create virtual worlds that visually are getting less and less distinguishable from reality, have a vast range of possibilities to work with those very different limitations: they might create games that use different kinds of stylisation, that look like vintage animation or paper cutouts or jagged fever dreams. In modern games, we may find aesthetics that don’t harken back to the ’70s and ’80s, with their blocky pixels and four-frame animations, but to times when video games were entirely inconceivable.

One such game is Pentiment, developed by Obsidian Entertainment and directed by Josh Sawyer. Sawyer’s family originally came from Germany and he majored in history – and Pentiment shows it. This is a game that takes its inspiration from late medieval manuscripts and early print, and from the art that was produced in Europe during the transition from the Middle Ages to early modern times – though not so much the art of the Renaissance as what you would find in books of the time.

And Pentiment loves its books. Its main character, Andreas Maler, is an artist creating illuminations, the illustrations in manuscripts. He works at the scriptorium of Kiersau Abbey in Upper Bavaria, and the abbey’s library and its books play a fundamental part in Pentiment‘s plot. While the game may be set centuries after Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Sawyer has said that he was inspired by Eco in general and by his monastic thriller-cum-semiotics primer, and it shows. The fact that the game’s plot is set in motion after a murder at the abbey is almost secondary in this respect: it is the game’s, and Andreas’, love for books and writing that is at least as central.

Pentiment is a prime example of how modern games are no longer as bound by technology as they used to be, but also how a small team can use its limitations to great effect. The game looks like an illustrated manuscript from the era it depicts. The characters seem familiar to anyone who’s seen medieval illuminations – and they vary to adapt to the characters, so that a townsperson in Tassing may look distinctly different from the Mother Superior at the convent or the Ethiopian missionary, whose look is inspired by East African icon art. The epic realism of something like Red Dead Redemption 2 would simply not be feasible – but neither would it have been as fitting for a game set at a certain point in history, in a culture where people didn’t have the entire world at their disposal on hand-held devices that would have seemed like witchcraft. The inhabitants of Tassing, the town near Kiersau Abbey, live in a world very different from ours – and Pentiment honours those differences, but at the same time it finds the common humanity that we share with these people. The past is a foreign country, yet like a foreign country its differences cannot hide the fact that their concerns and hopes are fundamentally similar to ours. The writing of Pentiment bridges that seeming contradiction by means of nuance: even when we learn about the ways in which the people of Tassing and the monks at the abbey think about the world and about themselves in ways that are alien to us, we still see ourselves in characters who are hemmed in by their environment, who want to break free from the limitations imposed on them, who quarrel with their families and wish for something bigger, who fear the new and cling to the old, or who dream of a world they won’t live to see.

For a game that is as much about the written word in all its different forms, it is not surprising that the world and characters of Pentiment is communicated to the player in no small part through typography and calligraphy. Differently from many games made nowadays, Pentiment doesn’t use voice acting. Instead, it uses a range of fonts that would have been in use at the time, and each font says something different about the speaker. Kiersau’s abbot may speak in Fraktur (though a simplified version made by Obsidian and Lettermatic, the company they partnered with to create the fonts for the game), as do most of the monks, but one monk that was formerly a mercenary will mostly speak in a font that looks less formal, more colloquial, and the local printer uses a font that is inspired by early printing presses. Some characters, such as Andreas, may even ‘code-switch’ between different ways of speaking, depending on how familiar they are with others or how formal they’d want to seem. And the writing in the characters’ speech bubbles don’t just appear all at once: the individual letters are written much as they would have been in a manuscript, errors are made and erased as we read along, when a character is agitated the writing is surrounded by erratic ink splatters, and words such as God or Christ tend to be scripted in red.

Video games have used different types of letters to communicate different things since the early days. Even on machines as archaic as the C-64, people would create fonts that would look futuristic or flowery or handwritten – well, as much as a font made up of letters consisting of 8×8 pixels could communicate these things. But none have made such intricate use of the written language as Pentiment: what the writing looks like, how it is produced, what it says about a character or a conversation. Pentiment creates its world through aesthetics as much as through writing, and its aesthetic is one that is exceedingly rare in games. Finding another game that uses typography and calligraphy and the act of writing to evoke a very specific world and the people that inhabit it? I don’t think there is a single other game that does this – let alone a game that does it as beautifully as Pentiment.

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