Pentiment on Steam

I found out about Pentiment in two ways. The first was this piece on the careful work and thought that went into its lettering. The second was hearing that a medieval historian I back on Patreon had done a podcast episode about it – not exactly something that lands for any random game launch.

So I began with the idea that this was going for Credibility in a way that most things wouldn’t. I was furthermore stunned and delighted to find that it didn’t shy away from the role of religion in ordinary life and culture (you know, not “the role of religion in political event X”). And not in a clean 👍/👎 judgement sort of way – depictive, illustrative.

The story… in a crunchy gameplay sort of way – it’s good! I like it!

But you know, this game is such an accomplishment in managing not just to flesh out the cool medieval world and mindset, not just to lob Fun Facts at you, but also to do something sort of literary – it is such an accomplishment in this way that there is something substantive for me to chew over critically.

Vague spoilers below.

One of the thematic preoccupations of the game is the idea of layers: that we live in the now, but that the culture around us is – that the institutions are – built up on different parts of the past. The game’s town of Tassing1 had pagan pasts, a Roman past, a past of the founding of the abbey…

If you think the job of a historian is to assemble and verify facts2, it seems like the result of this continuous living-with-the-past must be annoying as hell. The kinds of archaeological evidence you hear celebrated as lucky finds – walled up rooms found in building excavation, preserved and desiccated cave contents, Pompeii if you want to get dramatic – are explained as useful because they are frozen, snapshotted. They present a “direct” line from us to some particular period. This is a lot simpler to handle than the history that everyone has had our grubby little hands on for centuries. The history that people care enough about to magnify or purge.

So in this context, you can see that it must be really frustrating to this fact-verifying historian that we ordinary people keep picking up the past and messing with it. The layers of meaning that we construct over our past – sometimes misunderstood past, mistaken past, perceived past – strike our hypothetical fact-finder as occlusive, as debris. While Tassing’s inhabitants are written to display the general 🤷 appropriate to the matters discussed, the game’s arc ends up validating this fact-finding view.

But the fundamental syncretism to the way that we inhabit these layers does not admit of this mindset. Umberto Eco said it:

In our past, we have both Venus and the crucifix, the Bible and Nordic mythology, which we remember with Christmas trees, or with the many festivals of St Lucy, St Nicolas and Santa Claus. Europe is a continent that was able to fuse many identities, and yet not confuse them.

Yet the framing of the ending of this game seems to consider the fusing invalid, presenting it as confusion.

There is something flattening to it. Why is non-literal understanding considered a contemporary luxury? Is the medieval person considered to have been so credulous that they did not understand some portion of the beliefs in their day to be important for non-literal reasons3? I don’t buy this: certainly, the things considered reasonable to take literally extended beyond what one takes literally today, but the apocryphal stories layered on top of those were so much more dramatic that – don’t you have to consider the medieval person as facing a mix of what they must discern as literal truth, non-literal truth, and bullshit, just as the modern person does?

I’m touchy about this because I think religious syncretism is both important and good, and the portrayal of it as ignorant commoners having had wool pulled over their eyes in some discrete shift – or deceiving authorities as to the object of their veneration4 – seems overdue for revision5.

  1. Tassing is fictional in a way that is supposed to be representative as well as artistically useful. 

  2. No I am not saying that This Is What Historians Are, just that it’s… relevant to the game’s whole thing 

  3. Medieval historian Eleanor Janega noted within the heresy miniseries on We’re Not So Different that one of the reasons the Church was against vernacular language was because the doctrines are more non-literal than uneducated context-less interpretations tend to be. I think of that apocryphal story of a guy interpreting Proverbs 21:9 to mean he was allowed to separate from his wife if he went to live in the attic. 

  4. There certainly are real instances of this, e.g. Santería. 

  5. I mean, there are probably a lot of historians who’ve done a ton on this from all kinds of perspectives; just talking about the popular portrayals that I come across