How Obsidian’s Latest Game is Inspired By a Medieval Theory About God and Worms
In the lead up to big game launches, some developers like to share tidbits of what inspired their work: for many, it’s other games. For some, it’s tabletop campaigns, or film or TV. For Obsidian’s Josh Sawyer, who is leading the development of Pentiment, it’s history books. Specifically, history books about weird little dudes.
While he’s had a storied career working on hits like Fallout: New Vegas and Pillars of Eternity, Sawyer’s been ruminating on an historical game for a long, long time. His published reading list for Pentiment enthusiasts hearkens back to his college days; he tells me that working from it to develop Pentiment is “like going back to the greatest hits of my tour of studying early modern Europe in college.”
Here’s the short version, but I highly recommend checking the full blog post for Sawyer’s notes on each title:
- “Dürer’s Journeys: 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
- “The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller” by Carlo Ginzburg
- “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco
Indeed, Sawyer’s reading list has the joyous feel of a syllabus, based around preparing for a course on 16th-century European history and life. But after becoming familiar with both Pentiment and a few of the works included, another theme jumps out: it’s also a reading list of stories about, in Sawyer’s words, “weird little dudes.”
Take “The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller.” It’s a micro-history about a miller named Menocchio who would not stop telling all his neighbors about his theological theories, to their great annoyance. Among other things, Menocchio apparently believed that the world was a big mass of cheese, and God was a worm crawling through it — heretical in a Catholic society, sure, but mostly (per his neighbors) very annoying. Even the Inquisition couldn’t get Menocchio to stop talking his neighbors’ ears off about this. One account from the book tells of a neighbor who, while leaving a funeral, was accosted by Menocchio and his theories about this. A weird little dude, truly!
The others are slice-of-life tales with similarly unusual angles. “Peasant Fires: The Drummer of Niklashausen” also involves a regular guy experiencing some truly strange theological ideas, but in this historical story, it’s a farmer starting 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 a diary of a medieval executioner — not exactly the perspective we usually hear history from.
“Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist” is also based on personal journals, but of 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 pick up life with his wife and son. But without photographs and after such a significant passage of time, questions began to arise about whether this was actually the same man who had left eight years ago, or a weird little dude who had stolen a missing man’s life.
These are the tales that inspired Obsidian’s Pentiment, a game that promises to be chock full of such ordinary extraordinary tales. It follows artist Andreas Maler as he tries to prove the innocence of his friend Brother Piero in the murder of a nobleman. Having now played Pentiment for myself, it’s clear that many of the histories from his reading list are not merely thematic inspirations. I’ve already seen many of these histories play out in parts among the townsfolk of Tassing and the various monks and nuns in the nearby abbey as I got to know them through Maler.
It’s all threaded together by a narrative reminiscent of the final title of the reading list: Umberto Eco’s medieval fiction “The Name of the Rose” — a murder mystery with a Sherlockian protagonist that takes place in the midst of a heated religious conflict. It’s a tale featuring illicit love affairs, intense scholarly debates about whether or not God has a sense of humor, and an elusive labyrinth with a dramatic secret at its heart. Pentiment isn’t a retelling of Eco, but fans of the book are liable to find a lot of the same themes and ideas reflected in Pentiment’s own mystery.
Records of the Record
What’s fascinating about Pentiment and its inspirations are the ways in which they invite audiences to examine history through something other than the lofty lens we’re used to it being filtered through. On that point, Sawyer points me toward a quote from recently-deceased historical novelist Hilary Mantel: “Facts are not truth, though they are part of it – information is not knowledge. And history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organizing our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record.”
Instead of the usual record, then, Pentiment offers us the record of the weird little dudes. Unless you did take a bunch of college history courses, it’s easy to forget the ways in which ordinary people hundreds of years ago were not that different from us: they laughed, they had beef with their neighbors, and they had often complex beliefs about how the world worked.
“Ordinary people, peasants, had at times 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 would say, ‘Look, I believe this. I believe in changelings taking babies, because this happened, and I saw it.’ And there are cases where the inquisitor will say, ‘Yeah, but you understand that the church’s position is this?’ And they’d say, ‘I don’t care what the church’s position is, my sister saw it, and are you going to tell me that what she saw is not real? Sorry, I don’t buy it.'”
While game development inspiration certainly can come from anywhere, it’s a bit rare to see a developer post a reading list – far more common to see them citing other games or perhaps films. And while developers certainly reference history for their work constantly, it’s quite another thing to have effectively 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 were going on behind the scenes more often than audiences realize.Is Pentiment a video game laser-targeting book nerds, or are all video games actually just massive book nerd fodder?
Turns out, it’s mostly the former. But Sawyer hopes his bibliography will encourage other developers to create similar reading lists for curious players.
“I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily unique, but I certainly think that it’s not a big focus for a lot of people,” he replies. “I go back to Darklands, the game that inspired me to do all this back in 1992. Arnold Hendrick, [the lead designer on Darklands]…included a bibliography in the manual for Darklands, and a number of the books in his bibliography I bought and have on my shelf…I could find where he got his information, and get that source myself, and then use that for my own work.
“I just wanted, if someone at the end of [Pentiment] is like, ‘Wow, I love this, history sounds great.’ I want them to be able to have the same opportunity I had where I played Darklands, and I’m like, ‘Oh, where did all this stuff come from?’ It came from here, here’s all the reference material, just check it out.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.
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