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Andreas Maler sits at a table with a quill, right in the middle of the screen. The room is dimly lit. Image: Obsidian Entertainment/Xbox Game Studios

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Pentiment’s defining detail is its fonts

Words have a life of their own in Obsidian Entertainment’s new game

Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Lettermatic makes fonts. Fonts you can buy and use, fonts that cover your Starbucks coffee cup, fonts in apps and on a NASCAR car. You can find their fonts everywhere, on all sorts of things — even in video games, like Psychonauts 2. You’ll find their letters next in Obsidian Entertainment’s Pentiment, the 16th-century narrative role-playing game that looks like it’s been pulled straight out of a medieval manuscript.

Pentiment plays out on the pages of one of those manuscripts. Its murdery mystery story is set in Bavaria, pulling inspiration for the world from handwritten late-medieval manuscripts to early printing processes. Pentiment’s main character, Andreas Maler, is an artist who works on illuminated manuscripts, writing them by hand and adding in period-appropriate flourishes: intricate designs, illustrations, and borders, sometimes with actual silver and gold.

A group of people stand in front of a person. They’re all saying ‘Amen.’ Image: Obsidian Entertainment/Xbox Game Studios

Riley Cran and his small Lettermatic team built six different fonts for Pentiment, each of which has a different purpose in the game. Pentiment is not a voiced video game, so its fonts take the place of voices. “We can use these fonts to make characters exclamatory,” Obsidian producer Alec Frey told Polygon. “We can show [a character’s] education level, personality, and backgrounds through the fonts. It allows us to really give a voice to the characters and bring the world to life.”

Pentiment’s fonts feel like they have a life of their own. They’re dynamic; there are splatters and scribbles, ink bleeding onto parchment pages. The ink dries and sometimes dulls, with words crossed out and rewritten.

With a story so thoroughly embedded in the past, Obsidian wanted to ensure it got that important detail — its fonts — accurate, according to history. That’s where Cran and his team came in: They’re font experts, and they were eager to match Obsidian’s enthusiasm for the era. The goal was not only to perfect the 16th-century European Gothic and flourished script writing, but to also encompass more everyday styles of text, too — after all, not everyone was a master of specialized writing, or could even read or write at all.

“We have an entire shelf of books in our library that we purchased for research on this game,” Cran said. “We started the fonts during the pandemic, when it was harder to get access to physical archives. But we ended up realizing that a huge amount of scanned and photographed assets in institutions are available digitally.”

After studying the documents and other resources, Lettermatic built out a big ol’ family tree of Latin writing, one that spans time and geography, to be able to place Pentiment’s world within a timeline, ensuring its writing styles were ones that people of the time were likely to use or see. (Obsidian Entertainment and Lettermatic read so many books in researching this game that Pentiment has a bibliography in the credits, Frey said.) From there, Lettermatic and Obsidian developers pulled pieces of those fonts together to build Pentiment’s new fonts, which were designed specifically for the video game. When they figured that out, they started drawing the fonts mostly by hand, using writing tools accurate to the time period, Cran said. He estimated there are around 2,700 individual glyphs within Pentiment’s six fonts.

Two people stand in a yard, in front of a barn, talking. There’s a chicken offside. Image: Obsidian Entertainment/Xbox Game Studios

However, Obsidian and Lettermatic still wanted the game’s fonts to be accessible to all players, so they had to consider that while building the type. Not all of the fonts make the cut into the more accessible version with easy-to-read fonts; the player has the option to use all the fonts or just the more easily read ones, right at the start of the game.

“We want to make sure that if people are having a hard time reading [the fonts], we’ve got a way for them to do that,” Frey said. “We also have a text-to-speech feature in the game if you need the game to read itself to you. It’s not voice acting, but it is the automated voice.”

To implement the fonts in Pentiment, Obsidian received what Cran described as a “toolkit” from Lettermatic. These fonts are not like the ones you and I type with every day. After all, this text is supposed to mimic writing, which isn’t as consistent as most digital fonts. It includes considerations for how a person writing two E’s back to back won’t write each of them in the same exact way. There are other “spontaneous” details, too, Cran said — like little flourishes or swishes. “That’s one quality is that authentic feeling of spontaneous writing that’s not provided by a digital asset, and how to figure out how to make a digital asset that realistically captures a very analog type of typography.”

Two pages of a book filled halfway with gothic script. At the bottom of each page, there are illustrations depicting people by and on a lake. Image: Obsidian Entertainment/Xbox Game Studios

These are the sort of details that a player may not notice, and Pentiment has been designed that way. But if the details weren’t right, the game would probably feel different in some way — albeit on a minor scale. A detail as small as a font on the screen is as important as any other asset; they’re all little pieces of a big, big world.

“The work itself, it was kind of overwhelmingly apparent to us that we’re just part of one big story,” Cran said. “The folks at Obsidian working on Pentiment had such a clear vision for when this game is taking place, and where, so it was pretty straightforward to jump into some in-depth research.”

Pentiment is out Nov. 15 on Xbox Series X, Xbox One, and Windows PC.

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