How Obsidian’s Latest Game Draws On A Medieval Theory About God And Worms
Before big games launch, some developers like to share snippets of what inspired their work: for many, it’s other games. For some, it’s tabletop campaigns, film or television. For Obsidian’s Josh Sawyer, who is leading the development of Pentiment, it’s history books. Specifically, history books about weird little guys.
While he’s had a busy career working on hits like Fallout: New Vegas and Pillars of Eternity, Sawyer has ruminated on a historic game for a long, long time. His published playlist for Pentiment lovers looks back on his college days; he tells me that working from this to develop Pentiment is “like going back to the greatest hits from my Modern Europe study tour in college”.
Here’s the short version, but I highly recommend checking out the full blog post for Sawyer’s notes on each title:
- “Dürer’s Travels: Travels of a Renaissance Artist” by Susan Foister and Peter van den Brink
- “The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century” by Joel F. Harrington
- “The Return of Martin Guerre” by Natalie Zemon Davis
- “Peasant Fires: The Drummer of Niklashausen” by Richard Wunderli
- “Cheese and Worms: The Cosmos of a 16th-Century Miller” by Carlo Ginzburg
- “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco
Indeed, Sawyer’s Reading List has the cheerful feel of a curriculum, based on preparing for a lesson in 16th-century European history and life. But after becoming familiar with Pentiment and some of the works included, another theme jumps out: it’s also a playlist of stories about, in Sawyer’s words, “odd little guys.”
Take “Cheese and Worms: The Cosmos of a 16th-Century Miller.” It’s a micro-story of a miller named Menocchio who kept telling all his neighbors about his theological theories, much to their annoyance. Among other things, Menocchio apparently believed that the world was one big lump of cheese, and that God was a worm crawling through it – heretical in a Catholic society, to be sure, but mostly (according to his neighbors) very annoying. Even the Inquisition failed to get Menocchio to stop silencing his neighbors about it. A story in the book tells of a neighbor who, while walking out of a funeral, was accosted by Menocchio and his theories about it. A weird little guy, really!
The others are slices of life with equally unusual angles. “Peasant Fires: The Drummer of Niklashausen” also involves an ordinary guy who experiments with some really weird theological ideas, but in this historical story it’s a farmer who starts a peasant revolt because he claims to have visions of the Virgin Mary. .
“The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century” is a story based on the diary of a medieval executioner – not exactly the perspective from which we usually hear the story.
“Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist” is also based on personal diaries, but by a traveling artist. And “The Return of Martin Guerre” is a bizarre story of a young man who disappeared from his medieval town for eight years, and reappeared a completely changed man to return to life with his wife and son. But without photographs and after such a long time, questions began to arise whether this was in fact the same man who left eight years ago, or some weird little guy who stole the life of a missing man.
These are the tales that inspired Obsidian’s Pentiment, a game that promises to be full of tales as ordinary as they are extraordinary. It follows artist Andreas Maler as he attempts to prove his brother friend Piero’s innocence in the murder of a nobleman. Having now played Pentiment for myself, it’s clear that many of the stories in his playlist aren’t just thematic inspirations. I have already seen many of these stories play out in part among the locals of Tassing and the various monks and nuns of the nearby abbey when I learned about them from Maler.
It’s all tied together by a narrative reminiscent of the playlist’s final title: Umberto Eco’s medieval fiction “The Name of the Rose” – a murder mystery with a Sherlockian protagonist set in the midst of religious conflict. stormy. It’s a tale of illicit love affairs, intense scholarly debates over whether or not God has a sense of humor, and an elusive maze with a dramatic secret at its heart. Pentiment is not an Eco tale, but fans of the book are likely to find many of the same themes and ideas reflected in Pentiment’s own mystery.
What’s fascinating about Pentiment and its inspirations is how they invite audiences to examine history through something other than the lofty lens we’re used to filtering it through. On this point, Sawyer directs me to a quote from the recently deceased historical novelist Hilary Mantel“Facts are not the truth, although they are part of it – information is not knowledge. And history is not the past – it is the method we have developed to organize our ignorance of the past. It is the record of what remains on the record.”
Instead of the usual disc, therefore, Pentiment offers us the disc of weird little guys. Unless you took a bunch of history classes in college, it’s easy to forget the ways that ordinary people hundreds of years ago weren’t so different from us. : they laughed, they argued with their neighbors and they often had complex beliefs about how the world worked.
“Ordinary people, peasants, sometimes had very sophisticated personal conceptions of how the world and the metaphysical world worked, and were quite willing to defend that when pressed even by religious authorities,” Sawyer says. . “…They were like, ‘Look, I believe it. I believe changelings take babies, because it happened, and I saw it.’ And there are cases where the inquisitor will say, ‘Yes, but you understand that the position of the church is this?’ And they were like, ‘I don’t care where the church is, my sister saw it, and are you going to tell me what she saw isn’t real? Sorry, I don’t believe it. .'”
While inspiration for game development can certainly come from anywhere, it’s a bit rare to see a developer posting a playlist – much more common to see them quoting other games or perhaps movies. And while the developers constantly reference their work history, it’s quite another thing to have actually built and shared a bibliography for fans to peruse at their leisure. I ask Sawyer if, in his experience, such intense crossovers between literature and happen behind the scenes more often than the public realizes. Is Pentiment a video game aimed at book nerds, or are all video games really just massive fodder for book nerds?
Turns out it’s mostly the first one. But Sawyer hopes his bibliography will encourage other developers to create similar playlists for curious gamers.
“I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily unique, but I certainly think it’s not a high priority for a lot of people,” he replies. “I go back to Darklands, the game that inspired me to do all of this in 1992. Arnold Hendrick, [the lead designer on Darklands]… included a bibliography in the Darklands manual, and a number of books in his bibliography which I purchased and have on my shelf… I could find where he got his information from, and get this source myself, then use it for my own work.
“I just wanted, if someone at the end of [Pentiment] is like, ‘Wow, I love that, the story sounds great.’ I want them to be able to have the same opportunity that I had where I played Darklands, and I’m like, ‘Oh, where did all this stuff come from?’ It’s from here, here’s all the reference material, just check it out.”
Rebekah Valentine is a reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.