The simmering wickedness of Pentiment’s dialogue is a delight

“Good writing” is a phrase that gets used quite often, and it can mean a lot of different things. Is good writing a good story? An unguessable twist? Fancy prose or deliberate themes? I’m sure I’ve used it at some point when what I meant to say is really: “lots of long words I don’t completely understand.”

Pentiment
Developer: Obsidian
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Platform: Played on PC
Availability: Out 15th November on PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S
Still, Pentiment has good writing – wonderful writing, actually – and in this case I do know what it means. This game’s writing is witty, it has tempo and timing, it is genuinely, wickedly funny. It is also, above all, natural – something that so often seems impossible in games, things where you’re so often controlling a character impulsively, pulling their puppet strings on a whim. How do you write around that?

Pentiment, Obsidian’s surprise new thing that I am judging from an admittedly quite brief hands-on at Gamescom, seems to manage it remarkably well.

Things begin in Pentiment with you choosing a background, in a fairly typical, tabletop RPG-inspired way but with a nicely in-theme twist, whereby you play as a semi-educated bloke with a choice of studies and interests. I chose to have studied Logic and dropped out halfway through Theology, with an interest in the Occult, a mediaeval gap year to Flanders and a bit of a taste for Hedonism (although I was tempted to be a Rapscallion who liked scampering about picking fights and generally being a peevish little imp, like a kind of Dark Age Bart Simpson. Hedonism ultimately just felt like it suited a dropout Theologian a little better.)

Your job is to solve a local murder, and in my brief time with Pentiment that generally meant walking around the village talking to people. This is, honestly, something I usually find to be a bit of a dirge, but Pentiment knows that if you’re going to spend a many-hours-long game doing not much more than having conversations, those conversations have to be at least quite interesting – and that often the most interesting conversations are the funniest.

For me, this all manifested itself as completing a series of comically mind-numbing chores for an absolutely furious old woman. This lady is livid. She hates people, she hates you, she hates picking up twigs (this is relevant) and above all she hates the church, which is important because the church is quite a significant thing in mediaeval Europe, and not something you’re supposed to tell people you hate.

Conversations with her often come to an abrupt end, her dialogue, scrawled across her speech bubbles in jagged chicken scratch, punctuated with screen-shaking emphasis and frantic typos. (Pentiment does this wonderful thing where the font used seemingly reflects the background of the character speaking, so monks will use a proper print, and yours as a moderately educated guy is quite fancy.)

When you do get talking, especially after collecting twigs for her firewood and subsequently snapping them at just the right length (she was very particular), it’s possible to dig a little. Why does she hate the church? None of your business. Okay. Carry on with some more chores, like framing some important pieces of paper, and you might learn about some land dispute in which she’s been wronged. Or you might opt for some judgy retort about how she shouldn’t talk like that about the church and, presumably, get told where to go – I tried to be sympathetic because, again, Theology dropout.

Clearly there are deeper systems at work, dialogue choices that are more clearly labelled with “this will be remembered” annotations, like whether I chastise her for trying to use a log from the church’s forest (stolen from the village people) or tell her to crack on. And ones that must surely have some subtle impact, like how blatantly I pry into her very angry personal history. Perhaps my love of the occult might come in handy with such a blatant heretic! Or perhaps I’ll put my foot in it one too many times and she will tell me to eff off. Either way there is a vicious, pointed tip to everything this woman says, part of a delicious bleakness and black humour that seems to be laced through each layer of the game.

This is all the stuff you can pick up off the surface of Pentiment, mixed in with the wonderful little dashes of texture – the way misspellings in speech bubbles get scribbled out pointedly, the little mutters under your breath, internal monologues, dodgy persuasion attempts gone wrong. The most obvious reference point must surely be Disco Elysium, another razor sharp, detective RPG talk-em-up, although at a glance Pentiment seems a touch lighter, both in terms of systems and the density of dialogue and thought. This game picks you up and carries you along with ease – much like a bit of good writing.