InsightOut: A video game for book historians, media scholars, and mediaevalists 

Dr. Felan Parker is an Associate Professor, Teaching Stream in the Book & Media Studies program specializing in digital media, video games, and media industries. His current research explores the production, distribution, and reception of independent or “indie” games, and the role of fan conventions like San Diego Comic-Con in contemporary popular media cultures.

When I first saw promotional videos for Pentiment (Obsidian Entertainment, 2022) it caught my eye immediately. A monastery-set murder mystery video game inspired by Umberto Eco’s In the Name of the Rose and Ellis Peters’ The Cadfael Chronicles, presented in the style of mediaeval manuscripts and early modern woodcuts? This was intriguing. 

Video games are a rich, diverse medium, but they are still primarily known for violent spectacle and craftily monetized mobile apps (and, increasingly, the convergence of the two in craftily monetized violent spectacles). It’s like if people thought the medium of film was reducible to superhero blockbusters – I like superhero blockbusters, but there’s a whole universe of movies beyond that, and likewise for video games. It can be difficult to advocate for games as a legitimate cultural form and object of study in this context, so titles like Pentiment that challenge those assumptions are valuable. Moreover, this game has particular relevance to the St. Mike’s sponsored undergraduate programs in Mediaeval Studies (MST) and Book & Media Studies (BMS).  

Pentiment is a narrative-focused game set in a small 16th-century Bavarian town during the transitional period between the late mediaeval and early modern eras. The story begins in 1518 and unfolds in three acts spanning 25 years, with the player first taking on the role of Andreas Mahler, a journeyman illuminator apprenticing in the local abbey’s scriptorium, and later the town printer’s daughter Magdalene Druckeryn, a talented artist in her own right. As BMS and MST students know, at this point in history the print revolution and the Protestant Reformation are already under way, and the scriptorium is in the process of being consigned to history – indeed, over the course of the game, the abbey falls to ruin while the print shop thrives.  

My Mediaeval Studies colleague Dr. Alison More was impressed with the game’s representation of the scriptorium after seeing the game in action at an event we organized in December with Ariana Ellis, a U of T Ph.D. candidate in History who has taught courses on the Middle Ages in video games. “I was amazed by how detailed (and accurate!) it was,” Dr. More said, noting the inclusion of slanted desks, “a necessary detail for writing that is often missed in popular medievalisms” and the stages of the writing process, with “black letters first, rubrication later.” Of course, no historical representation is perfectly accurate: according to Dr. More, “they had lovely illustrated manuscripts prepared for writing, but it was usually the other way around.”  

The game also uses its setting as the basis for a compelling exploration of the nature of historical truth and the media through which it is communicated, an apt theme for this period of epochal shifts. In each act, our protagonists (and the player) are unexpectedly drawn into investigating a murder: first a brash and divisive visiting Baron, then the leader of a peasant uprising, and finally Magdalene’s father the printer. With only a limited amount of time (measured by the canonical hours, and then by the town’s first mechanical clock) to explore the area, converse with locals, and search for clues, the player must assess the evidence themselves and decide whodunnit. In each case, none of the suspects are wholly convincing, and rather than bringing a comforting resolution, each new discovery exposes deeper mysteries. Nevertheless, whether they are guided by reason, faith, pettiness, or wild speculation, the player must choose who will be punished for these crimes and sit with the consequences – which only become apparent years later. In the final act, a sinister plot linking the murders together is revealed, but even then, it is not clear how best to act on this revelation. The player is left to decide how much to disclose to the community in a historical mural she is tasked with painting in the town’s new Rathaus. 

The title of the game perfectly captures this sense of ambivalence about our relationship to history; pentiment or pentimento is an art historical term that refers to “a part of a picture that has been overpainted by the artist but which has become visible again” (Oxford Reference), with its root in the word repentance. The game is deeply concerned with how history is obscured and illuminated, not only in the detective plot, but in the lingering traces of pre-Christian Pagan and Roman history literally and figuratively undergirding the town, the battles over reason and revelation playing out in the Reformation via the new medium of print, and the experiences of people of colour, religious minorities, and women, which are often omitted from contemporary accounts of the period. 

The audiovisual style of the game likewise reinforce these themes beautifully. As noted above, the world of the game is depicted as if it were an illuminated manuscript come to life (including turning pages, ornate Lombardic capitals, and comical marginalia with plenty of cats). Similarly, the haunting score is performed by mediaeval music ensemble Alkemie on period-accurate instruments. Of particular interest to BMS and MST students is the use of a number of different scripts and typefaces in banderoles, the comic strip-like speech bubbles found in mediaeval manuscripts. The lines of each letter and word are animated as if being written by hand or printed in real time, right down to occasional errors that are scratched out and corrected. Rather than rendering all text the same way, each character’s dialogue is displayed in a style that conveys their social status, occupation, and education. As Dr. More points out, the monks in the abbey speak in a modern approximation of Gothic script, strongly associated with scriptoria and Latin, while the ill-fated Baron’s words appear in a clear, classically educated style that suggests the Renaissance. The printers’ words, by contrast, appear first as metal type laid out on the page and then as printed text, in keeping with their modern profession. 

Ellis sees this as an effective way to “communicate historical details experientially, like with the monastic font that would take longer to process and read” compared to more colloquial speech. A particularly beautiful script in purple ink even proves to be a crucial piece of evidence that points the way to the killer’s true identity, cleverly linking the game’s aesthetics to its narrative and themes. Although “far from exact,” Dr. More agrees that the use of different scripts and typefaces is an interesting creative choice that could be useful in discussions of paleography, and many other aspects of the game could similarly help illuminate concepts in the classroom. Regardless of accuracy, Pentiment’s layering of history and fiction – like layers of ink and paint in an illuminated manuscript – has much to offer students and scholars interested in book history, media studies, and the middle ages alike.  

To learn more about St. Michael’s sponsored undergraduate programs, please visit our programs pages.

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