⭐Games that receive this star have a score of 95% or above. This is purely from a game design perspective and is not in any way related to our morality evaluation.
Today is (almost) the one-year anniversary of Pentiment’s launch, so to celebrate I wanted to review a game that many Catholic gamers appear to have slept on. Pentiment is a game you might not expect to help you grow spiritually; its trailer tries to sell you on the game by showing many of the bawdy choices you can make. But there’s so much more beneath that surface – it contains hard lessons about reconciling truth and legend, faith and reason, tradition and authority. If you are spiritually mature enough, and can wrestle and pray with its themes, it will help you grow spiritually.
It’s hard to quantify the game essence of an experience like Pentiment. If I had to categorize it, it’s most akin to a visual novel, albeit an illuminated one. As far as the game plays, it’s not some run-of-the-mill button-masher or reflex-tester. It’s a narrative RPG in the traditional sense, where you are playing a role in a story; there is no turn-based combat or skill tree management. The game is talking to people, deducing social links, and about facing the consequences of your actions.
Pentiment takes place in the early 1500’s, in a fictionalized town situated in Bavaria. In the first act of the game, a murder occurs, and your mentor is accused, despite being quite physically unable. Desiring justice, you, Andreas Maler, take up an investigation to clear Brother Piero’s name. It being the 1500’s, you don’t have access to modern forensic analysis, but you did study at university. Some subjects interested you more than others, and the player chooses what those are. These specialties will give you unique dialogue options that help unravel various details in your investigation.
The game writ large is about discovering hidden truths and determining what to do with that information. Should you share gossip with the judge that might be pertinent to the investigation, but will ruin lives? What does the judge, and everyone, have a right to know? The story plays out in this fashion, as the consequences of Act I reverberate throughout various phases of Andreas’ life.
Pentiment is fraught with difficulty, in a certain sense. Anyone can play this game, but it’s near impossible to play Pentiment with your brain turned off. There are more than 100 characters spanning the 3 acts of the game, and, incredibly, they are all fully realized. They have such a depth and uniqueness to each of them that you’ll feel like you’re interacting with people you know. Remembering each person’s likes, dislikes, and personal history informs how you’ll persuade them. That’s a lot to keep track of.
Thankfully, there is an incredibly helpful glossary in-game. Chock full of relevant historical details, it also contains a short bio and sketch of each character you meet. It will record any relevant information to the investigation, and has a handy map for both navigating and placing yourself in the period. Use this feature liberally. You will actually learn something from a video game. (My Mom would be shocked!)
The story reveals itself slowly at first, but surely. Pentiment knows what it is about, and is not afraid to place the groundwork carefully. Eventually it becomes so gripping you won’t be able to put it down, eliciting the same feeling you get from a fantastic book. The less you know about the story the better; the story and its characters receive top marks from me.
Speaking broadly, the story is heavily connected to the Church and its history. Much is depicted of the Church in Kiersau’s double abbey. There are saints and sinners, but more than that, there is the Church Militant – those who fight or fail daily to grow in grace. This portrayal of characters all along the moral spectrum is refreshingly honest in an age where most media writes with an axe to grind. Pentiment doesn’t shy away from the sin, but it makes a point to highlight the holy as well, which is the best depiction I could hope for.
For example, there are some professed religious in game who break their vows of chastity. But there is more to them than their sin. In talking to them you see two religious struggling with their vocations, trying to do what is right by God but afraid of what that demands of them. The next three paragraphs discussing vocation will dive into some character spoilers for the game. If you’d like to avoid this, skip ahead to after the next picture.
By Act III, this monk and sister have chosen to be laicized so they can be married. They don’t get there right away – first, they seek reconciliation with God and attempt to atone for their disobedience. After some time, they finally get married, and discuss their journey with you. In a poignant piece of dialogue, she says: “The Lord forgives more readily than Man…Never think that you must remain in a place that causes you to sin, even if others think it godly.” Their struggle in determining their vocation, sinning along the way but always bringing it to prayer, is one realistic depiction of discernment. I find their trust in God’s mercy as they attempt to atone particularly moving. As they say, God makes straight through crooked paths.
Theirs isn’t the only vocational struggle in game however – Andreas goes through a rough patch in Act II. Having become a Master in his field, he is constantly busy filling wealthy patron’s requests. Andreas is disgusted by their vanity, as they constantly ask for altarpieces depicting the patron’s family as counted among the holy. He has become jaded pursuing what he once felt called to. Through circumstance (or rather, by Providence) he finds himself in Kiersau again, and it provides a much needed time for reflection. Andreas’ apprentice and the townspeople help reframe his calling – they don’t ignore the reality of his vocation, but their reminders about the ideals of his career help Andreas see what he can change.
I’d be remiss if I did not discuss the art design of the game. The dialogue displays differently depending on who you’re conversing with – if they’re educated, their script is illuminated. If they are a printer, their dialogue is blocked in and then stamped out. And if they are a commoner, the text has a handwritten scrawl. The game uses this effectively, and sometimes text styles shift mid-conversation as you learn more about a person. The characters themselves are uniquely designed, fitting in the illuminated style while retaining their own identity. Beautifully illuminated yet in motion, the game truly brings history to life. (Seriously; it has a bibliography in its credits.) The art style is what drew me to this game in the first place.
But what stuck with me were the spiritual truths, the thoughts I was encouraged to wrestle with, and the character’s lived experiences that taught me a new perspective. The peasant’s cause from 500 years ago struck a little too close to home – somehow even now we are still fighting for fairer labor conditions from those in control. In comparison we’ve certainly come a long way, but there is still a long way to go. The monks and sisters reminded me that to those whom much is given, much is expected. The standards of the office are high, and the scandal caused by those not living up to them are severe.
As for the thoughts I was encouraged to wrestle with, many are connected to spoilers. Pentiment has a lot to say, and a lot to ask. What stories are important to tell? What does art have to do with truth and worship? Is it more important for people to believe a lie or be crestfallen when grappling with the truth? The Church has answers to some of these questions, but you cannot come to any conclusion without first tackling the personal in them.
The stories we tell in art connect us to the past; they ought to bring us closer to communion with what is depicted. As such, holy art elevates us in worship. But art without truth will not bring us closer to Christ. I’m reminded of a scene in A Hidden Life, a movie about Bl. Franz Jäggerstätter. Franz discusses his situation with a church artist, who opines on this same subject. He says:
“I paint the tombs of prophets. I help people look up from those pews and dream…I paint all this suffering, and I don’t suffer myself. I make a living of it. What we do is create sympathy. We create admirers, not followers. Christ’s life is a demand. We don’t want to be reminded of it, so we don’t have to see what happens to the Truth…I paint their comfortable Christ, with a halo over his head. How can I show what I haven’t lived?…Someday I might have the courage to venture. Not yet. Someday I’ll paint the true Christ.”
Christ’s life is a demand. At the beginning of Act I, Piero tells Andreas that for him to make a masterpiece, he must put himself in his art. Not in a literal sense or for vainglory; but to make it true. We cannot be content following the comfortable Christ. We must come into intimate contact with the Truth. We too must take up our crosses, our harsh truths we don’t want to acknowledge, and follow Christ to our deaths.
Scoring: 95% ⭐
Story & Writing: 10/10
Despite being a spiritually rich game in my experience, there are still many sinful choices one can make. Try not to be scandalized by the warning and know that there is much good along with the bad. As well, there is much I have not seen due to the choices I made, so I cannot be comprehensive. I’ll start with the bad, but stick around for the good.
Fist fighting, violence, gore (you witness the aftermath of a murder and an execution.) There is the option to seduce a professed sister. Not all the brothers and sisters maintain their vows of celibacy. At one point you have the option to listen in on other’s confessions. There is foul language and taking the Lord’s name in vain. There is blatant heresy, pagan practices, and practicing of magic.
However, the Lord’s name also gets treated respectfully: it is always written in red. Everyone greets you with “God bless you, Andreas.” The old pagan character still puts Christ over all. The heretic is a Manichean, so he’s at least being creative with his heresy! Those who struggle with their vows have honest discussions about their vocations and spiritual lives. Sin is not depicted as without consequence, and the reality of mercy & conversion is clearly shown. Overall, I cannot recommend this for the kids, and I’d recommend those newer to the faith to hold off for a bit. But for those with deeper roots who are ready for the challenge, I highly recommend Pentiment.