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The RPG Files: Building Obsidian's Pentiment: Interview With Game Director Josh Sawyer

Joseph Bradford Posted:
Interviews The RPG Files 0

Pentiment is a unique RPG from heralded studio Obisidian. An artistic, narrative-focused RPG by the makers of Pillars of EternityThe Outer Worlds and more, Pentiment puts players in the role of Andreas Maler, a journeyman artist from the German city of Nuremburg. Set during the height of the Holy Roman Empire that is starting to see the winds of Reformation, Pentiment aims to tell a moving story about the people living through this time of upheaval.

Through Andreas, the story becomes one of mystery, as Mahler becomes a quasi-detective of sorts, taking it upon himself to acquit a good friend accused of murder. This set up allows Andreas (and by extension, the player) to explore the lives of those living in the 16th Century invented village of Tassing, wrapped up with their very human concerns, such as peasants wondering how they will pay both the church's taxes and the miller's fee, or an overworked carpenter and stonemason providing upgrades to the nearby Abbey instead of being able to focus on ensuring the town itself was better protected from storms. It's a setting you don't see much in games, and it's made all the more compelling thanks to the fact that it's rooted in our shared human story, rather in a far, flung fantasy or sci-fi universe.

"The focus is on a real world, not a fantastical situation," Josh Sawyer, the game director on Pentiment told me in an interview earlier this week. "The stakes, in some ways, are very small scale because it's ordinary people. You have a few nobles that get involved in the discussion, but really it's about the peasantry and middle class people, and monks and nuns and their small community. You never leave that community, so making the drama really be on the scale of that community, and the families and their relationships was a big focus."

Sawyer mentions that it helps too that Andreas, the main character of Pentiment isn't the "blank slate" most Obsidian player characters are generally. Instead, he's a character with a pre-established backstory, though you still have the RPG flairs of choosing certain background focuses for Andres to mold him into your own version. For instance, Andreas was university educated, but what was he specializing in? You could choose Latinist, and as a result, some very interesting dialogue choices become available to you as a result (including one scene where you carry an entire conversation in the Roman tongue). Or maybe you studied Theology and can converse on a more spiritual level with the Monks in and out of your time in Tassing. 

The style of game Pentiment turned into is influenced heavily by other indie titles the last few years, such as Night in the WoodsDisco ElysiumOxenfree and more. Yet it feels unique compared to those other great titles, and much of it is down to the look and feel of Pentiment

One of the defining features of Pentiment isn't just the RPG elements that Obsidian is known for, but rather its art style and presentation. The RPG is beautifully drawn to look like an old Medieval manuscript, which is fitting seeing you start your adventure working on a manuscript of your own in an Abbey Scriptorium. Each character and setting is beautifully detailed and animated, giving a very unique, stylized look at every moment.

But it doesn't stop there. How the characters themselves are presented makes a difference based on their background, skill set, and more. Claus, the Block Printer in Tassing sees his dialogue bubble fill with printing press blocks before resolving to a modern-style print text that is readable. Monks are represented by Gothic-style letters, highlighting their literacy and vocation. Peasants, meanwhile, are more mundane scribble, as most are not literate or learned thanks to their station in life. These decisions were conscious choices according to Sawyer, as a way to highlight how Andreas sees the world around him.

"We knew we weren't going to do [voice overs] from the beginning because I've worked on plenty of games that they're either VO heavy or completely VOed. Not only is it very expensive but it's logistically extremely challenging. So I know that we were going to have a small team, I knew we were not going to have a huge budget. So we're not doing voice over. And then, I really like all the changes in script and handwriting, the rise of literacy and the increasing use of type and printed books, I was like, 'Let's use that.'

"Let's really do a ton with how things are rendered and how they're presented to really lean in the physicality of writing, and then use that to distinguish characters by social station, education, reading habits and things like that. And over time have that reflect on Andreas' perception, because over time the more you talk to people the more you get to know them, and sometimes your perspective change."


Andreas himself is an interesting character in his own right, but one that is still largely malleable. Dialogue choices are neutral, but carry a lot of color, allowing you the chance to really roleplay Andreas in a way that fits your own personal view as Pentiment goes on. Some responses see Andreas side with nobility and clergy over the peasants and townsfolk, while others have him firmly on the side of the populace. Others can see Andreas trying to skirt the line, sympathizing with the plight of those around him while also understanding the "order" of things.

Dialogue checks are a major part of the narrative at points, especially when you're trying to convince someone to do something for you, or sway them to your side of thinking. One early check sees Andreas attempt to get more information out of the Mother Superior of the Abbey while helping to return books to the library. Responses made in the dialogue play a role in getting more information from her, but Sawyer says players shouldn't fret over failing those dialogue checks in the end.

"I think that, maybe for a while at our studio we kind of got hung up on making sure the player gets to use the [background] with frequency and always try to find an opportunity to use the background, or the this or the that. And that is important, but you start to lose sight of the reason why it's fun to do that is because you get an enjoyable, entertaining interaction. I've seen a number of people come into this and they're kind of fretting over failing dialog checks, and it's not really the point. 

At its core, Pentiment is a character-driven story. The townsfolk, the peasants, the clergy, and of course Andreas himself play a central role in everything you do. There's no combat or huge puzzles to solve like a Zelda-style dungeon crawler. Instead, the RPG elements play out through the conversations you have with each character, with some responses being recorded to influence major points later on in the story. Since you're investigating a murder mystery, there is a timer on when you need to present your findings and evidence, leading to a conviction. This pressure reminded me of the timing system in Persona 5, though on a much faster scale. 

This was by design, and it means that while there are quite a few avenues to pursue with each and every scenario that Pentiment throws your way across each act, it also means you won't ever get to everything before time runs out. 

"It's absolutely by design," Sawyer told me with a chuckle. "The amount to which we planned out and sort of obsessed about: 'When are things available? what can a player do? What can the player not do? What is the maximum number of things that a player can do? How do we ensure that a player always has one viable person to accuse? Also meals, because meals occupied time?' 

"[W]e wanted the player to feel pressure. Most people when they reach the end of the first act are like, 'I feel like I just screwed everything up. I feel like I got half the information I needed on half of the people. And maybe there's some other people that I don't even know where to start with them.' And that is by design. You're not a detective, [and] you're operating on someone else's timetable. you just do the best you can and then live with the consequences. And that was a big part of the design."

When the narrative can branch out based not just on who you accuse, but also some of the decisions you've made before as well, it makes for some interesting scenarios, such as whether you call for calm during a fight later in the game, or try to get in a sucker punch yourself. It can also affect your relationship with the very townsfolk you're surrounded by all the time, especially as time moves on, but the townsfolk stay static in their roles and lot in life.


It also reflects the time period that Pentiment is set within. The Reformation was a fast-paced time of change and upheaval in Europe, sped along by new ideas, egalitarian (by Medieval standards) of thinking, as well as new inventions like the printing press. This is reflected beautifully in the second act, where you're rushed not just because of the Townsfolk seeking an answer to the mystery, but also the threat of the weight of the Holy Roman Empire falling on Tassing thanks to some of the intellectual contagions (as the Empire would likely see it) that have spread from places like Salzburg thanks to the Peasant's War.

Pentiment, being a story centered on its characters and their motivations, you would think that it's meant to have replayability in mind thanks to the varying paths you can take with who to accuse, how to gather evidence and so on. However, it was less built with replayability at the forefront, but rather to give each user a unique experience in the end. And as a result of that experience, Sawyer hopes that it makes people think.

"I know that some people are going to play it again. I wouldn't say it's designed for that necessarily, as much as for the unique feeling that you get. But I do think that it is also designed to make people think. The thing is, when you make a choice, you kind of should feel bad no matter what because it's really not clear. Some people feel fairly confident about the people they condemn. But most players I've seen who talked about it say that they're very uncertain and do not feel good about the decision."

Pentiment makes you live with those choices too, especially when you remember that in this medieval society, the punishment is usually a lot more gruesome than we might imagine. Thankfully Pentiment spares some of the gorier ways that states meted out punishment, but it's still jarring to see an execution, especially knowing you might just have condemned the wrong person.

But that was also the time period, which Pentiment does a stellar job of representing in a way I don't think really has been seen in games. Most historical-themed period games feature more nobility, more of those who filter through the pages of history rather than the every day people. But Pentiment is very much set in a way that it highlights those people who were affected by the world around them and the decisions made by the mighty. The time period is rife with strife, from the Peasant's War to the other various revolts going on in Europe as the Reformation took hold.

Pentiment tells a very human story, one that doesn't shy away from the struggles of real people. It can convey real emotions people are dealing with today, from struggling finding their way in the world, being thrust into a role they didn't plan for themselves, food uncertainty and feeling stuck in bad situations. It's definitely a journey that gets emotional at times, and it's one every RPG fan should have on their shortlist to play.


Joseph Bradford

Joseph has been writing or podcasting about games in some form since about 2012. Having written for multiple major outlets such as IGN, Playboy, and more, Joseph started writing for MMORPG in 2015. When he's not writing or talking about games, you can typically find him hanging out with his 10-year old or playing Magic: The Gathering with his family. Also, don't get him started on why Balrogs *don't* have wings. You can find him on Twitter @LotrLore