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  • Andreas Inderwildi

The Layered Worlds of Pentiment

This is the 4th article in the Video Game Cosmology series. Read the intro here. If you like my work, consider supporting me on Patreon! Spoiler warning for Pentiment.


Pentiment’s ambition keeps spilling over the margins of its seemingly humble frame. The entirety of the game’s narrative takes place in the fictional Bavarian town of Tassing and nearby Kiersau Abbey, at the dawn of the early modern period in the first half of the 16th century. Much of the early game is spent immersed in the daily routines of peasants and town folk, nuns and monks, abbots and barons. As such, the game presents itself as a kind of historical drill core sample, a quasi-encyclopedic microcosm of the late medieval and early modern world as revealed through the glimpses we catch of a small stage.


Unlike so many games with a similar historical setting, Pentiment avoids the cliche of a barbaric past defined almost exclusively by chaos and arbitrary cruelty. Its world is a strained but structured one whose routines are from time to time punctuated by upheaval and uncertainty. But the game is less interested in these moments of rupture than it is in what leads up to them and what comes after; structures have a way of reestablishing themselves and adapting to new circumstances and fac(e)ts of life.


The structure of the world


One striking aspect of the game is its dedication to present the (late) medieval order of the world. At the most fundamental level, this is reflected in the structuring of daily routines: How time is measured and partitioned into the beats that make up the rhythm of daily life, and how one’s allotted place in the social order defines one’s activities and behaviour.


Pentiment’s days don’t follow our modern methods, but use the so-called canonical hours. Our protagonist Andreas Maler gets up at Lauds, start work at Prime, eats at Sext and so forth. During the middle ages, the canonical hours also marked fixed prayer times throughout the day. The passage and measurement of time – from hours and seasons to years and even world ages – was central to medieval society and its view of a divinely ordered world.



Speaking of hours: On the first day of the game, our protagonist Andreas Maler joins the monks at the scriptorium of Kiersau Abbey to illuminate (that is, adding decorations or illustrations to a text) a luxurious manuscript commissioned by the baron Lorenz Rothvogel. This manuscript happens to be a book of hours; a collection of devotional texts, prayers and psalms that was one of the most popular types of manuscripts during the middle ages. While some real-life books of hours were created as luxury objects, others were intended for daily use, accompanying their owners not only throughout the daily prayer times, but also through the seasons of the year.


At the start of the game, Andreas is shown working on the illumination for one of the book’s calendar pages. The upper part of the illumination is crowned by the zodiac signs of the scorpion and the archer in a dome-like calendar. Beneath it there is a scene that depicts peasants leading their pigs to forage for acorns in the forest. As Brother Piero points out, Andreas’ miniature is competent but drawn by the numbers. Despite its veneer of authentic daily life, it’s a highly artificial motif that closely follows the established conventions of a typical book of hours: For each month of the year, there’s a calendar page that shows the corresponding zodiac signs and an activity or scene associated with that month. The feeding of the pigs happens to be the generic motif for the month of November. One famous example are The Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, which, at the time of the game’s events, would have already been a century old.


From the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

These miniatures reveal something about the way at least some medieval people perceived the world they inhabited, or at least an idealised version of it. Even though the calendar miniatures are not explicitly religious or devotional in nature, they do portray a neatly ordered cosmos where every created thing – from the peasant in the field to the stars in the sky – is aligned and attuned to a universal heartbeat. Everything and everyone has their time and its place, their allotted spot in the world’s hierarchy. This is an idealised picture of the cosmos that is as harmonic as it is homogenous and that has little room either for historical change or any revolution besides the revolutions of the planets.


The word and the world; the place of the medieval manuscript


The book of hours is far from the only manuscript we explore in Pentiment. We encounter an Ethiopian bible, a copy of Virgil’s Aeneid, chivalric romances like Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, books of medicinal plant lore and many more. These examples of actual manuscripts appear alongside a cornucopia of allusions to medieval culture, literature and art – from Prester John, to the Narrenschiff, to the Totentanz or Danse Macabre, Pentiment’s encyclopaedic grasp captures many aspects of medieval culture.



Pentiment’s manuscripts are granted a special place within this cultural landscape. Not only do they play a central part in the game’s story and intrigues, as they do in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose; as the book of hours already demonstrated, they’re also used to give the player an understanding of the medieval world, and how medieval people made sense of the world around them.


While medieval manuscripts and texts are the main source of our knowledge of the era, there are a few important caveats we need to keep in mind. First, not all perspectives are represented equally in extant texts. For the most part, they express the opinions, beliefs and interests of only a tiny subsection of the privileged few. This was a world where few people could read, fewer write, and yet fewer afford to commission or buy a manuscript. Books were rare and expensive, and for many centuries, the monastery scriptoria were virtually the only places with the necessary resources to produce manuscripts. This means that throughout the majority of the middle ages, books tended to reproduce and reinforce the world view either of educated churchmen or those knights and nobles with either enough means to commission literature and/or the education to compose texts themselves.


As a result of this exclusivity, medieval manuscripts were often created as prestige objects: unique pieces of art that juxtaposed and melded various visual languages. The most artful examples featured not just text in highly refined scripts, but also scenes illustrating parts of the text, playful initials and intricate ornamentation. The margins were often alive with so-called marginalia; one type of marginalia, called drolleries, were fanciful, cartoony and often vulgar pictures of warring animals and exposed humans which had little to do with the actual (and often religious) content of the text. These manuscripts played with the borders between the word and the image, the abstract and the figurative, the material and the ideal. In a time when we have become used to seeing books as mass-produced, commercial objects that don’t even have to be defined by a physical form anymore, medieval manuscripts offer a view on a very different understanding of what a book is or isn’t.


Drolleries from BL Yates Thompson 8 f. 294r
Inhabited initial from BL Royal 12 G XIV, f. 6

With their margins and initials inhabited by strange creatures, medieval books were also microcosms in their own right. Pentiment reflects this fact in its treatment of manuscripts and the written word. Nothing highlights this as much as the game’s ‘manuscript screen’, a kind of pause screen which can be accessed at any time and on which the frozen game appears as a miniature on a manuscript page. Next to this miniature and written in Gothic script, there’s also an ongoing summary of recent events in the game – in Latin. The rest of the page shows a changing host of weird creatures inspired by actual examples of medieval drolleries. Rubricated words (from Latin ‘rubus’ meaning red, i.e. written in red ink) within a paused screen’s speech bubbles are annotated in the manuscript screen, with little hands pointing to the annotation in the margins. These pointing hands are called manicula and can be found in actual medieval manuscripts.



There’s something self-contained and harmonious about the relationship between manuscript screen and game screen: The book contains the game world, but the game world also contains that same book. Despite this apparent harmony, there’s also an implied and clear hierarchy: The manuscript which frames the events of the game is presented in highly detailed and realistically textured, three-dimensional space, while the ‘actual’ events within the game are presented in the style of late medieval or early modern woodcut prints. Within the logic of this narrative framing device, the events of the game are not experienced directly, but are exclusively mediated through the manuscript. Without this book – and without someone having written down the story – the events in the game would be lost to time. The written word and representative art are shown as one of the few effective tools against human forgetfulness. And the book, whether created from parchment or paper, was one of the most durable and reliable keepers of memories for many hundreds of years.


Who gets to shape the past?


And yet, books are far from perfect containers that deliver an objective and complete picture of the world to us. Even if we trusted every writer to write nothing but the truth as they saw it, there’s no way to circumvent bias; what to include and what to exclude in a ‘transmission into the future’ necessarily reflects the values of the individual and the culture they are a part of.


On a societal level, there’s another kind of bias which favours the perspectives of those toward the very top of the social hierarchy. Who gets to write something down? Who gets to decide which texts are worthy of preservation, duplication or distribution? Whose tastes and interests shape the canon of literature that will be read by subsequent generations? The lives of countless people have been made largely invisible simply because they were invisible to those with the capacity to write about them. Whether they were taken for granted or deemed unworthy of attention: prying whatever information one can about these marginalised groups from texts whose authors show either very little interest or only hostility or contempt towards them can be a very difficult task.



But despite these biases, steep hierarchies and the dominance of the Catholic church, the extant manuscripts make abundantly clear that the medieval world wasn’t the social monolith it’s often portrayed as; it was neither a homogeneous vision of societal unity nor a totalitarian dystopia where every kind of ‘aberration’ was immediately stamped out by the church. Reality was much more complex and varied.


Unlike many games and movies, Pentiment refuses to simply reproduce the accumulated biases handed down to us not only by medieval elites, but several hundred years worth of popular fantasies and outdated research. Tassing may be a small and inconsequential town, but it is anything but homogenous. Pentiment presents a vibrant cross-section of society, including peasants, carpenters, millers, monks, nuns, judges, abbots, mercenaries, artists, traders, lords, and many more. The game’s dialogue system uses various scripts or fonts to express the social status as well as the backgrounds and temperaments of its characters. The game distinguishes between the rustic Peasant Script, the artful cursive Scribe Script, the clean Humanist Script, the Gothic Monastic Script, and the “modern” Printer Type. Among the monks and nuns of Tassing, for example, all of these scripts can be found, reflecting their different backgrounds. Sometimes, there are several scripts for one and the same character: Brother Florian of Poznań’s script, for example, changes to Print Type once he reveals that he has become well versed in medical literature and printed texts.


Printer Type animation

Pentiment also goes out of its way to include the voices and perspectives of those who have often been pushed to the margins of society and consciousness, whether it’s people of a marginalised gender or sexual orientation, adherents of so-called heresies or non-Christian faiths, people of other cultural and ethnic backgrounds like the Romani, or simply the poor. The list includes the monks Mathieu and Rüdeger, a gay couple forced to hide their relationship; the wilful printer’s daughter and 2nd protagonist Magdalene Drucker; the Sommerfelds, a Jewish family visiting from distant Prague; skeptics and unbelievers like Doctor Werner Stolz or the old woman Ottila "Widow" Kemperyn, the old peasant "Ill Peter" Gertner refusing to let go of old folk beliefs, the Romani Vácslav living in the woods and espousing Gnostic beliefs, the Ethiopian priest Brother Sebhat of Sadai, the thief and vagabond Martin Bauer, and subversive malcontents like Otto Zimmermann.


Vácslav

Through these voices, Pentiment presents a large amount of diversity of attitudes, beliefs, values and customs in a condensed and contained space. The differing views and interpretations of the world these characters share are sometimes complementary, but often conflicting. Despite their close proximity, there are vast gulfs between these perspectives: The anchoress’ confined and delirious existence, the peasants’ folklore and their celebration of the Perchtenlauf, the cosmopolitan world of the university-educated artist are worlds in uneasy cohabitation.


The anchoress

Worlds in conflict


These differing perspectives on the world are rarely on an even footing, since they are inextricably tied to the social status of those who hold them. The consequences of espousing a marginalised or fringe world view relied on many factors, not least of which was who was doing the espousing. Throughout most of the middle ages, folk beliefs and peasant traditions may have been viewed with derision by the educated and suspicion by the clergy, but by and large, they were tolerated as long as they didn’t threaten or subvert the authority of the powers that be.


Spreading ‘dangerous’ ideas, such as ones promising to free the peasants from their obligations to their lords, was of course another matter. Despite its central murder mystery, Pentiment’s true focal point is the eruption of a peasant revolt at the end of the 2nd chapter; while the 1st chapter shows the slow buildup of social tensions that eventually escalate into violence, the final chapter deals with the aftermath. We start with a world where the dominant centre – i.e. all the beliefs that prop up the status quo – is able to successfully integrate, placate or suppress ideas that might subvert or challenge it. We end with a social order briefly shaken to its core with peasants occupying Kiersau abbey, the seat of their ecclesiastical lord, the abbot – before being violently beaten down by the duke’s army.



But even in their transgressions, the peasant’s don’t really break from the fundamental beliefs on which the social order has been built. The revolting peasants are still Christians who accept that their god created the world with a specific vision of what human society is supposed to look like. Like the church, they believe that this vision is knowable and that any society that deviates from it is by definition immoral. In fact, their revolt is based on and justified by this shared belief; the twist, of course, being that the peasants have their own interpretation of god’s will. In their view, it was the abbey that had turned from god’s vision of society by neglecting its spiritual duties and abusing its position to further its own worldly interests.


From this perspective, the aim of the revolt is not revolution, but restoration; to align the world with an ideal, divinely ordained image of itself, the way it was thought to have existed at some point in the distant past. It’s a dynamic that’s typical of actual peasant revolts of the middle ages. Even the most radical movements tended to justify their goals using the same logic and the same appeal to authority as their enemies.



Despite the centrality of Tassing’s peasant revolt, Pentiment’s main interest lies not in the event itself, but in the ways it is remembered, how these memories are interpreted, expressed and transmitted into the future. This reveals another struggle between world views, one less obvious and dramatic than a revolt, but just as important. Was the revolt an illegitimate riot that deserved the violent retaliation it was met with? Was it a foolish and irresponsible attempt to right actual wrongs? Or maybe a heroic, but ultimately tragic sacrifice? Did it achieve anything? If yes, was it worth it? Who deserves to be praised or blamed, to be remembered or forgotten?


The last part of the game revolves around Magdalene Drucker’s struggle not only to remember, but to ensure that the memories are preserved for future generations. Her solution is to paint a mural in the Rathaus depicting Tassing’s history from pre-Christian times to the revolt. Talking to the town’s inhabitants, Magdalene finds that many of those involved in the revolt are reluctant to remember it, and even those who show themselves sympathetic urge Magdalene to depict the revolt in a way that doesn’t reopen old wounds or ignite new political unrest.


The layers of the world


It is not just the confrontation with recent history that threatens to rock the boat. In the course of her investigations, Magdalene explores Tassing’s ancient Roman ruins and uncovers suppressed knowledge concerning Tassing’s pre-Christian and even pre-Roman past that contradicts the official narrative and might. If revealed, this knowledge might endanger the faith of Tassing’s inhabitants: The shrines of Tassing’s patron saints Satia and Moritz are revealed to have originally been dedicated to the Roman gods Diana and Mars, respectively.



Again and again, Pentiment makes us aware of the continuous transformation of the world by the passage of time, how the past keeps being overwritten, forgotten and newly interpreted by each generation. The late medieval and early modern world happens to be an especially fruitful playground for exploring these processes, since it witnessed transformations and tribulations that had a profound impact on Europe and much of the world. The dawn of the colonial age, the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans, Copernican heliocentrism, and the rise of Protestantism are just some of the events that mark the end of the middle ages and the start of the modern age.


One of the most impactful events was the printing press, which completely transformed the status of the book. With a new capacity for mass-production, the book and the written word began losing their rarefied, almost magical aura. Cheap Flugblätter or leaflets could now be used to spread news or be enlisted as propaganda in wars of ideologies. By the time of the events shown in Pentiment at the beginning of the 16th century, the richly illuminated manuscripts celebrated by the game are – like the monks of Kiersau’s scriptorium – already something of a relic.


The time and place chosen by Pentiment as its setting allows it to explore the liminal spaces of history, epochs bleeding into each other in messy and complicating ways. Its cast of characters seems at least partly aware of the fact that they have crossed the boundary from one age to another. Andreas Maler still has one foot in the middle ages while realising that the art of manuscript illumination is dying a slow but certain death. It’s no coincidence that he is a liminal figure, belonging neither to town nor abbey, neither to the past nor modernity. He exists both out of place and in-between places. Magdalene on the other hand is one of the first children of the modern era. The new and mechanical Rathaus clock constructed towards the end of the game acts as a powerful symbol of profound change. At this point in the game, even the time display in the pause menu ditches the old-fashioned canonical hours in favour of a more modern display reminiscent of a mechanical clock, elegantly making the point that the way we measure and understand time is itself subject to time.


Prague astronomical clock, 1410

At the beginning of this article, I described Pentiment as a microcosm of the late medieval and early modern world, but the game’s name itself points to a deeper ambition. The Italian word pentimento derives from the same root as the word “repent” in the sense of changing one’s mind and refers to making changes to a painting by adding new layers of paint. A somewhat analogous practice in the realm of manuscripts is the palimpsest (Greek for “scraped again”), where an old layer of text is scraped off the parchment and overwritten with new text. It is no coincidence that Pentiment starts off with tasking us to do exactly that, using a stone to efface older text and creating a blank slate for the game’s events. Except, both in the case of the pentimento and the palimpsest, those earlier layers aren’t really gone and can be recovered by various means.



If a pentimento can be described as the process of layers accumulating over time, each fresh layer influenced by the previous one but also obscuring it, it’s easy to see how it can be used as a fitting metaphor for historical change. And that is exactly what Pentiment does. It acts as a reminder and illustration of these historical processes, of the countless worlds that lie half-obscured beneath our feet, and the future worlds that will rest on top of ours.

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