Pentiment: An Interview with Josh Sawyer

Opening screen of Pentiment, showing the name against an open blank book
The Main character of Pentiment, Andreas Maler, sits at an angled desk as he works on an illumination. The style of the image mimics a woodcut.

Pentiment (Obsidian 2022, $19.99, Xbox and Steam), the new narrative game from Obsidian, is a piece of media that gets a rare trio of things right: it’s beautiful to look at, its plot is engrossing and heartstring-tugging, and it’s extremely thoroughly researched. In Pentiment, set in 16th century Bavaria, you play as Andreas Maler, a young professional artist from Nuremberg who takes a commission in the scriptorium of Kiersau Abbey in the tiny town of Tassing. Tassing and the Abbey have fallen behind the social and technological developments going on in more metropolitan areas, but history is catching up with them: Act 1 of the game takes place in 1518, when the hubs of manuscript production had long shifted from scriptoria, and the Abbey’s own scriptorium is only hanging on thanks to a few wealthy commissioners and shear stubbornness. Meanwhile, Tassing’s residents suffer as the Abbey extracts ever-increasing taxes in the interest of maintaining the status quo. When one of the scriptorium’s wealthy patrons visits the Abbey to see how his manuscript is coming along, he winds up dead in the Chapter House, with Andreas’s elderly artistic mentor, Brother Piero, caught holding a bloody knife. Andreas is tasked with saving his friend from the executioner’s blade by investigating the Abbey and the town for the “real” killer. The player must manage Andreas’s limited time to come to a conclusion – time filled with conversations, spying on suspects, dining with possible leads, and sneaking around the Abbey’s library in the dead of night. The stakes are significantly higher in Pentiment’s Act 2, which takes place seven years later with another murder in Tassing and change approaching much more destructively; Act 3 finds the town coming to terms with that change eighteen years later.

How fitting, then, that Pentiment’s director, Josh Sawyer, set the game during the period where the transition from manuscript to print was underway in earnest. This is no accident: manuscripts and early printed books play large, central roles in the game, and Sawyer’s background in early modern history provides the ideal context for this bibliographically-informed project. 

A screenshot of a moment in the game, showing the main action of the game as a smaller illumination within a large illuminated manuscript with decorated margins, and a long-fingered manicule pointing to a speech bubble. Information about Burgundy is recorded at the end of the manicule.

Books are objects to be interacted with, plot points, even a structure – the story takes place entirely within the pages of a large illuminated manuscript, complete with delightful border grotesques and helpful manicules. As you play, you are “zoomed in” on an illumination in which the action is taking place, but when a scene changes or you check your journal for information, you “zoom out” and see the surrounding page as it turns. As a book historian with an interest in this period of book history specifically, I was wowed by the small details Sawyer, art director Hannah Kennedy, and animation director Cathy Nichols had included; from the physics of how the books moved when they were opened, to the different textures of parchment and paper, to the contrast between the woodblock-inspired design of the younger characters and the illuminated elders, it’s evident that books are in the lifeblood of Pentiment.

I spoke with Sawyer about his inspirations for the game, the bibliographic resources he and his team used for research, and the art of balancing historical accuracy with artistic license to create a compelling story.

Allie Alvis: A lot of Pentiment’s development took place during a period of the pandemic when many special collections libraries were still closed to researchers. What sort of digital resources did you use to inspire the setting?

Josh Sawyer: I used different resources than my art director Hannah Kennedy, I know she was looking at a lot of online manuscript collections that had been digitized. We also had collected a number of offline books – for example, Christopher de Hamel’s books – and some digital resources that we got from the Bodleian. For my own sake, I was looking at a lot of articles on JStor; I wasn’t looking at as much manuscript stuff directly.

We did have the opportunity to go to the Getty eventually, and they had two different exhibitions that we saw, one of which was on Bestiaries. It was very informative to the team as a whole. I was already pretty aware of the collection (I go to the Getty a few times a year), and they’re always rotating the displays. A lot of the team were surprised by how small and how fine some of the books were, and how varied; it was nice for them to be able to go and see a book from the 12th century in France, and another book from the 14th century in Germany, and to see different hands at use and how artistic styles changed, as well as how annotations and language changed, moving away from just Latin. It was nice, especially when we started looking at the beginning of the professional era of manuscript production where it wasn’t so much about monasteries and scriptoria. You’d be looking at Flemish or French master artisans and scribes who would be writing in French, and no longer in Latin so much.

Hannah and I also went to the Huntington, which is very interesting because it has beautiful gardens and also a library and an art gallery. The library has a number of very early printed works, and many of them are surprising in how large they are. In many cases they’re printed on paper, so the size concerns of parchment were not the concerns of paper. One of the ones that struck me was a book open to the display of a Wound Man, which is one of my favorite early woodcuts, and it’s quite large – it’s much larger than I would’ve expected, even compared to books now. It’s almost like a large coffee table book.

Digital collections were very useful for finding specific things. For example, I went to the Munich Staatsbibliothek digital library (their collection is unbelievably enormous) to look specifically for a reference for the Munich necromancer’s manual. We essentially recreated the manual – spoilers – we say it’s used in Act II of the game by one of the characters. Being able to directly reference the images was valuable, but the physicality of the books, the paper, how they animate, the way that ink works, was very important to us. Being able to actually see these things in person is extremely helpful.

A screenshot of a journal containing an illustrated map of the town of Tassing sits on top of a larger illuminated manuscript. The Journal has tabs along the top and side, giving information about the player character, their relationships with the people of the town and abbey, and objectives.

I wanted the whole thing to be as completely simulative as possible.”

AA: I really appreciate the attention you all paid to the physics of the book, even showing the different page weights between paper and parchment.

JS: The journal and the book – the chronicle of everything that happens in the game – were both very large time investments for modeling and animation and rigging. Because the thing is – it’s kind of hard to explain without getting into super small details – that everything that’s animated is essentially a bone that has a connection to all the vertices of what surrounds it. So I know that it looks like a very smooth thing, but these are all 3D objects with very complex geometric meshes. So getting these things rigged to open, so it really looks like a book opening – not just kind of, but really looks like it – was extremely important.

For the journal [that contains the character attributes, maps, glossary, and objectives], I took a personal journal I had that I wasn’t using very much and I did a bunch of modifications to it to physically simulate how I saw things, like the table of contents and the tabs opening and closing. I wanted the whole thing to be as completely simulative as possible. All of the little tabs and sections are all individually rigged and modeled.

The journal wound up being rigged three different times because each time there was something fundamentally wrong, or there was something that animation director Cathy Nichols would run into some limitation where she just realized “I can’t do the movement in the way that we need it to.” So we’d go back and tweak something or re-rig something. It was very important.

AA: How did the overall narrative and artistic design mesh together? Did you send Hannah Kennedy and the art team specific books to work from? Did they turn up any digitized books you weren’t familiar with?

JS: [It was] a back and forth, because Hannah is extremely knowledgeable but I think I had a little more of a foundation in this specific area both, because of my historical background and because my father is a sculptor. I grew up reading a lot of art history. He had art history books in our hallway I remember; when I was like 10 years old I was reading a lot of books about this stuff!

There were things from both my historical and art backgrounds where I had items to show Hannah for reference, but also Hannah did so much research and reference on her own that she would bring things to my attention that I wasn’t aware of. I was reasonably familiar with the Nuremberg Chronicle, but Hannah really dug into it: she actually had a facsimile of it, and dug real deep to get a ton of reference for how perspective and cities were represented, but also characters and how they were rendered in woodcut.

A screenshot of gameplay showing Andreas visiting with five women and a young girl spinning wool in an early modern home, while a village man looks on. The style of the image mimics a woodcut.

There’s lots of reference to Durer’s prints; we looked a lot at Hans Holbein’s portraiture, but also some of his dance of death illustrations. There were other things I was aware of, like the Basel Totentanz, a beautiful dance of death from Basel. There’s an Estonian church that has a very distinctive dance of death that’s quite elaborate: we referenced that for our big one that we put into the chapter house.

We looked at the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. That was very foundational especially for Andreas’s book of hours. At times, we looked for more striking examples [of books], like the black book of hours; some of those unusual ones where all the parchment has been dyed and there’s really extraordinary metal-based inks that were used.

A screenshot of a bifolium of an illuminated manuscript inspired by the Tres Riches Heures de Duc du Berry, the project Andreas is working on throughout the first part of the game.

We looked at so much stuff! In many cases it was for art, in other cases it was for bookhand reference, or annotation reference, or marginalia reference. In some cases it was literally getting the Latin out so we could OCR it and put it in. There’s a homily of Origen that I could find plenty of English translations for, but the only Latin reference I could find was like a 19th century book that was not digitized well. It looked like a photocopy scanned in; it was bad. But I ran it through an online free OCR program, and it was like 95% accurate! It couldn’t get the ae ligatures and it made a small number of other errors, but I was shocked at how well it did. I was able to take that, edit it, give it to Hannah, and then she put it into a two-page spread so we could have our Origen homily on the Song of Songs.

We looked at books for all sorts of different reference either to get text or get reference or replicate art or layout, margins, things like that.

AA: Did you ever consider registering as a reader in any special collections?

JS: No we didn’t. I think we talked about it briefly, but we weren’t sure we would’ve been allowed! I figured if we really needed a question answered, we could talk to Christopher de Hamel. Usually just having the ability to look at the books without handling them was enough; for everything else we used video reference. I just figured unless we were academics or art historians with some sort of clout that it wouldn’t be possible.

One thing we talked about but was technologically kind of low on the list of priorities for the game was doing more in the 3D scenes with things like translucency. We considered using a lighting style for this called sub-surface scattering – the kind of light you see when, for example, someone shines a flashlight through the web of their hand, or is being silly and puts the flashlight in their mouth and the light shines out their cheeks – the light diffuses through the skin in a very interesting way that’s hard to simulate. On so much of the finer parchment, you can see things through them on the other side of the page, and you can see light coming through them. This was kind of a high, distant goal, and our 3d programmers were kind of like “Ok, look, there’s a big list of other stuff to do…”

There were other things we tried to do like that. For example, looking at a flat scan of gold leaf is not the same as seeing gold leaf in person, particularly because in many cases the gold doesn’t lie perfectly flat; if gum arabic or something else has been used, there is a shape to that. That shape isn’t necessarily visible when you’re viewing it from a flat, oblique way, but as it turns through the light, it becomes more visible. Seeing books with gold leaf in the Getty, even being able to shift your perspective was helpful, but those are the places where I think that, if we could’ve been able to handle the books more (and if we had more time), I would’ve loved that.

That’s kind of the point of the story – the inability to move on, the struggle to move on.”

AA: At what point in the development did you bring in Christopher de Hamel to consult? Was it largely for the scriptoria scenes, or did he have broader input?

JS: I was kind of bold in contacting him at first – which usually works out for the best – in that I read about him and saw a few of his talks online, and I found his email on the Corpus Christi faculty website. He was skeptical at first, if I recall, because he isn’t a video game guy really. But I was in London for an event and we met up in my hotel in the lobby and we talked for a while, just so he could understand kind of what the premise of the game was and so he could make sure that I wasn’t just some rando. But then he was on board with it!

We actually talked to him first; he was very instrumental very early on. As the project went on, because a lot of his work was very foundational to the basic concepts [of the game], we worked more with Dr. [Winston] Black and Dr. [Edmund] Kern about medicine and social things respectively. I contacted Dr. de Hamel because I wanted to know about the feasibility of certain relations between secular artists and monastic scriptoria. In many cases, his answer was “This is not likely, but it is possible.” For example, I thought it was very important that your character, Andreas, have a university education with different levels of focus on different things, and he said “That would not probably happen, but it’s possible if his father had some connections and pulled in a favor that could get Andreas involved in university education. It’s possible, even if it’s highly improbable.” Because our setting is fictional, there were certain things where we intentionally bled the boundaries of the transition between eras, because that’s kind of the point of the story – the inability to move on, the struggle to move on.

A screenshot of Andreas sitting at an angled desk within the Abbey scriptorium, working on his masterpiece. The style of the image mimics a woodcut.

We also showed de Hamel examples of how we were rendering and portraying certain types of manuscripts, and he gave feedback on the viability of them and how they looked. His input was foundational for the premise of a scriptorium in the 15th century. He said “Only deluxe manuscripts were still being made at this time, so they would have to have really wealthy patrons and the production has almost all moved to cities with guilds and secular artists. So the abbey would have to have some long-standing patrons that are really making it possible for the scriptorium to stay open, but even then, it’s got to be on its way out.” Hopefully when people see the setup and go “Eh,” at first, it’s contextualized enough that they say “Okay, yeah, it was almost dead anyway.” The scriptorium is really just on life support when you first get there.

AA: How did you balance historical accuracy and artistic license?

JS: That’s always a challenge. I took some inspiration – more than a little inspiration – from Name of the Rose. Eco was a medievalist, and he did something which I think is very important: he said “This takes place at an unknown, unnamed, fictional abbey.” And other than Bernardo Gui, who was maybe unfairly not like he actually was historically, there aren’t really any other historical figures in the book (except for one of the Franciscans, but that’s up for debate). Most everyone else was a fictional character in a fictional place in a historical context. Apostalic poverty? Yeah. The Avignon Papacy? Yep. Franciscans kind of getting crowded by the church? Yep, that was a thing. So those are all events that were used in the story, but the aedificium [the fictional library tower in Name of the Rose]? Come on. Eco says it’s the largest library in Christendom, with an unbelievable number of books, and the layout of it is wild. But I was like, look, if Eco can do this, and people still give him the thumbs up and follow along, then I can create my fictional town and fictional abbey, and it can have a number of unlikely combinations of features that would be impossible to find in one place, and I can tell a very specific story about a very specific set of conflicts that feel like they could happen even though they never did.

There are other things that I did that are, strictly speaking, not quite accurate, particularly with the fonts. You have to be able to read the fonts, but, for example, it is unlikely that a native German-speaking printer would be using type that was not Fraktur-based. Their displayed speech would be Blackletter. But then, you would just be reading a slightly different version of the quadrata that you see when the monastic characters speak. And the point there is to communicate like, [the printed text used when the printer characters speak] is easier, it’s faster, it’s more legible. We based it on [15th century French printer Nicolas] Jensen’s typefaces. I find it somewhat incredible that we can look at some of those early typefaces and they’re still essentially, with very little modification, used now, and they’re very readable! I just find that really stunning, and it’s kind of a testament to how much they got right early. And then the script hands for the cursive – that’s almost impossible to read. It’s marginally easier to read than Sütterlinschrift (which is not saying much), so we had to exaggerate there to make it work for the purpose of the game. But in almost all other areas, we tried to be faithful to at the very least the spirit of the era and not violate the timeline or anything like that.

We went through a lot of iteration of the fonts with Riley Cran and his company Lettermatic, and there was a lot of disambiguation talk. We were like, “Look, man. These Bs and Us and Ns and Ws in Quadrata… we have to disambiguate this, because even though it is more accurate, people have got to be able to read this.” And that’s a difficult balancing act, but there’s always the fallback of the “easy read” type option in the game menu. I hope that players play with the more historically-inspired typefaces because I think that just gives the richest experience and communicates the most about Andreas’s perspective on a person’s education and things like that.

A screenshot of one of the setup screens for Pentiment, offering the option to have characters’ speech appear in “stylized” fonts or “easy read” fonts.

AA: What drew you to books as a vehicle for storytelling?

JS: I just like ‘em! I think maybe because of my father’s artistic background and my artistic background growing up, and in plenty of role-playing games there’s kind of a shallow but widespread sense of old books, and spellbooks, and grimoires. I enjoy looking at things that are primary sources, both from a point of view of these things as vehicles of historical perspectives on events however biased they might be, and also as works of art, and the combination of those things. All that stuff together is very fascinating. I think the specific confluence of books and history works with that Hilary Mantel quote, that “It’s the record of what’s left on the record.” It’s so delicate, and it’s so fragile, and in some cases we have no sources or one source or multiple sources but we don’t know how those sources were derived. Is this a person writing after the fact? Or is this a person copying an account from a contemporary source? If it’s a contemporary source, what biases are the writers bringing into the account of this thing? 

Looking again at Eco, not Name of the Rose but at Baudolino, he has some very interesting things to say about the fabrication of history. The title character and his university friends compose a false story about the three wise men coming to Cologne so that they can legitimize the coronation of Frederick I. And when you think about it, yeah, someone could just make this stuff up. And through the story, Baudolino is the narrator talking to an Orthodox priest during the fall of Constantinople, and the whole time the priest wonders “Is this guy making all of this up? Is he even telling me a true recollection, or is he fabricating all of this as he goes?” The idea of books being this very tenuous link between people and events and our understanding of them, it’s all so intrinsically connected. So making a story where a book was entirely encapsulating the whole plot just felt right to me.

AA: It’s such a tasty irony that certain books have a reputation of being containers of truth, particularly in the Christian tradition, but then introducing this idea of it being subjective like anything else.

JS: There are also some interesting historical arguments over the centuries about bad books, or the question of are there bad books? Or the scholastic ideas of all of these things that are not necessarily Christian but ultimately revealing the higher truth and the necessity of allowing for the existence and recognition of these other ideas. Because the real truth is incorruptible, and it’s important to get there through whatever route possible. Brother Piero [Andreas’s mentor in the scriptorium] gets at that when he says “These are illustrations, fictions that point to truth.” And even in a strict historical context, those are the personal interpretations of a person that is trying to communicate what they understand truth to be… or how they want you to think of it. These are vehicles that are supposed to guide us towards something higher, which can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how much faith we put into those sources.

AA: What do you think of the public’s reaction to the game so far? I’ve seen some really great fanworks?

JS: I’m happy! I mean, I always knew that the game was very niche, and that it wasn’t meant for a mass market audience. There’s a big chunk of people who just dismiss it out of hand, because they look at it and say “This isn’t a AAA game.” Some people just want to play hyper-realistic AAA games, and that’s fine! Then there are people that look at it and know that it doesn’t have voice acting and they really don’t like that aspect of it, which is also fine and fair. Some people really really want voicing with it; I think in our case, that kind of would’ve worked against a lot of the stuff in the game (and also would’ve been prohibitively expensive). But for the people that are kind of into and open to the idea of the game, I’ve been very happy with how people have responded to it, especially to the central storyline, which is a much more personal and human story than I think I’ve ever been involved in writing. And to a certain extent, I didn’t know how well I would do with that! So seeing people responding very warmly has been great. And also seeing people who are approaching it tentatively and saying “I don’t know anything about this period of history, but I’m willing to give it a try!” In most cases, I’m not seeing people saying “I feel lost, I feel confused,” they’re feeling buoyed by the glossary that defines a number of people, places, and concepts as you play. They’re given the context they need to keep moving. Really, it’s the central story, not the history, that is the important thing. But they’re picking up the history as they go along, and even if they’re only getting about 15%, I’m seeing a lot of people coming out the other side saying “Yeah, I think I actually did gain a greater understanding of what life was like and what was happening at this time,” when before they would’ve said “I don’t know anything about the 16th century.”

There was someone that did a great vertical fanart piece where it shows Andreas contemplating, and behind him are Beatrice and Grobian and Socrates, which is a really cool piece of art. I know some of the people on their team immediately made it their phone background! There’s also that Knives Out screenshot redraw where they put Andreas in the place of Benoit Blanc and instead of a pen he’s holding a brush. And then the art of Andreas sweating and all the women of the town are in the background! I love all that stuff, I love fanart.

AA: Do you collect any books yourself? Other than the amazing reference books you used on Pentiment!

JS: I actually don’t collect historical books, I think in part because I’m kind of afraid! I have books in my bookshelves and lying all over the place, and I don’t think I take particularly good care of books, unfortunately. Usually when I get books, I will buy them used and kind of beat up because I know that *I* am going to leave them used and beat up more. However, I was in Berlin like four years ago and I went by an antique store that specialized in prints and books. It had a large number of prints of maps of German cities, but I looked and I found this beautiful bifolium from an 18th century book about the history of Kempten in Latin – Kempten is the town where my grandmother was born. The map is hand-colored, and it’s great because when you turn it over, it has text about Campedonus, the original Roman settlement Kempten was founded on. I had that mounted and I had it framed such that instead of a backing piece, there’s a second piece of glass so you can actually see the book’s text. That’s probably the only “old book” type thing that I have, but I have it in my hallway and I get to look at it every day!

AA: Is there anything you want to tell SHARP and book historians in general?

JS: I’m not an expert in the subject matter, I’m simply an enthusiast, so I’m glad if the way we handled this stuff is nice to see! If it’s educational to people, I hope that as well. If there are places where we made errors, please don’t hesitate to let us know, because we’re still patching the game! For instance, someone right away found some Lorem Ipsum placeholder text that needed to be replaced with the text from Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica. I hope that it can serve as an example to other people of how you can approach historical texts and representing books and type and writing in games!

The startup screen of Pentiment, showing a leather-bound book with silver clasps sitting on an angled desk, with menu options on the left.