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Obsidian’s Pentiment is a murder mystery, but it’s the fonts that I’m obsessed with

Josh Sawyer’s new narrative adventure isn’t like other Obsidian RPGs

Artist Andreas Maler leans over a manuscript in a screenshot from Pentiment Image: Obsidian Entertainment/Xbox Game Studios
Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

Obsidian Entertainment is best known for sprawling role-playing games like Fallout: New Vegas and Pillars of Eternity, but the studio’s next adventure is a big swing in the other direction. Pentiment, lead by game designer Josh Sawyer, is small. About 13 people are working on it, Sawyer says, and the historical narrative adventure features only “light RPG” elements. It’s designed to be easily played by anyone, not just those who crave a hundred-hour game with deep and robust role-playing mechanics.

Pentiment is visibly different from Obsidian’s other fantasy and sci-fi video games. It looks like its 16th century inspirations, drawing its unique aesthetic from a blend of late medieval illuminated manuscripts and early modern woodcuts.

That visual design informs an aesthetic element of Pentiment that I can’t stop thinking about: the fonts.

Pentiment’s narrative adventure plays out in dialogue between characters, including the playable center of the story, Andreas Maler, and the residents of the fictional town of Tassing. Maler is described as a journeyman artist who finds himself embroiled in the drama of a murder mystery and associated scandals. Not quite a blank slate, Maler’s background will be decided by players, and the decisions and dialogue players pick from will determine his story over the span of some 25 years.

But back to the fonts. Pentiment’s dialogue and decision-making plays out in word bubbles on screen, scribbled (with attendant scratchy sound effects) by an invisible quill. The wet ink seeps and bleeds into the parchment backgrounds, and dulls as it dries. Sometimes it splatters. Sometimes it is crossed out and corrected, as with real-life manuscripts. The quill will dry out mid-sentence, resulting in uneven application. Black ink is written out first, then red, which is reserved for religious terms (e.g., God, Hell). It is penned in different fonts, which can imply profession, social standing, or religious piety. It is captivatingly dynamic.

An animated GIF displaying how dialogue is written out in Pentiment Image: Obsidian Entertainment/Xbox Game Studios

But if this sort of thing bothers you, or affects your ability to easily read it, you can turn it off. While Obsidian’s art team, lead by art director Hannah Kennedy, have laboriously recreated the style and feel of manuscript writing in video game dialogue, it is completely optional. Pentiment also strives for accessibility, Sawyer said, inline with its broad audience approach. There are two very legible, readable fonts for players who prefer them.

“Our focus has been to make it simple and easy,” Sawyer said in a video presentation attended by Polygon last week. “We want a lot of people to play it. We want it to be approachable to people who have done no gaming at all, and may just like history or the art style.”

As such, Pentiment errs on the side of “minimal and forgiving,” Sawyer said, and beyond investigation and character interactions, there will be minigames designed for “vibes and immersion,” not challenge. There is nothing overly complicated to solve that requires precision and reflex tests, Sawyer said. Everything is designed for furthering the story.

Sawyer showed off one of those minigames and a game-altering decision that went along with it: Andreas is challenged by a widowed mother to rearrange a series of framed artworks, objects, and manuscripts on a wall. Upon completing the request, the widow, newly cynical about her religion due to a tragedy, asks Andreas to remove a cross from the wall. Complying with her wish, or asking her to reconsider, will result in some sort of narrative impact.

One other component of Pentiment that fascinates me is its Wikipedia-like glossary. Dialogue includes the equivalent of hyperlinks that when clicked upon will point to notes in the margin of the manuscript upon which the game plays. If you’ve forgotten the face or role of a certain character, in-dialogue text will offer a helpful reminder.

A page from Pentiment, showing a description of Perchta in the margins of a manuscript Image: Obsidian Entertainment/Xbox Game Studios

Pentiment will find a very large audience when it launches later this year. Obsidian’s new adventure will launch day one on Xbox Game Pass and PC Game Pass, and will be available on Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X on Nov. 15.

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