a brilliant game about being a terrible detective
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[This article contains spoilers for the first act of Pentiment.]
I see the executioner’s blade fall. It doesn’t cut cleanly; the condemned monk falls forward in obvious agony, beautifully outlined blood pouring from the wound in his neck. Another hacking cut, then a third, and finally the convicted murderer’s head rolls free, his face frozen in an artfully rendered expression of pain. I had the opportunity to ignore the carnage moments earlier, but I didn’t. After all, I was the reason this innocent man died like a murderer.
Penitentiary snuck up on me. After two straight games (the decidedly lackluster Outer worldsand then just-not-for-me Grounded) which suggested that studio Obsidian was drifting further and further away from the sort of nerd games (Fallout: New Vegasthe broken and glorious Knights Of The Old Republic 2and most recently in 2016 Tyranny) that had made me fall in love with it, I was hesitant to trust again. The art style – modeled, with incredible ingenuity, on the look of the illustrated manuscripts from the game’s 16th century setting – certainly appealed. The conversations I’d seen people have about the game’s gorgeous fonts intrigued me. But it wasn’t until I learned that the core of the game was a murder mystery, set in a medieval Bavarian monastery, that I realized I needed to play it.
I was hooked from the jump, as the game immersed me in the small world of Tassing, a village built around the fading Kiersau Abbey, where my character, journeyman Andreas Painter, temporarily worked as an artist. I happily hummed the game’s character creation, picking whatever traits—a logical mind, some medical knowledge, a grounding in rhetoric, French and Italian—I thought would help me in the investigation I knew would inevitably erupt. And in the meantime, I just enjoyed the game’s art, and also its writing, which talked about sometimes obscure subjects in relatable ways that let warmth and character shine through. And then of course: The murder!
But something happened when I used the standard tools to the detective game toolkit—autopsy, questioning, investigation, subversion, deduction and more. The ticking clock that hung over the death of a local nobleman began to put more and more pressure on me, and on Andreas. Once I chose a likely suspect, I began to devote more of my limited resources to investigating this man, burning entire precious afternoons to pursue my hunch. The digging (sometimes literally) paid off: The day before the judge was due to arrive in Tassing, ready to pass instant sentence on the most likely culprit, I had a motive, a murder weapon and an opportunity lined up.
And then, during a random meal with some of Tassing’s less privileged townspeople – these meals are a recurring feature of the game’s plotting, enabling information gathering and beautifully rendered versions of period cuisine – a traveler casually mentioned seeing something that blew my whole theory out of the water. I suddenly knew that my prime suspect was almost certainly innocent… and that I had at most an afternoon to try to piece together an alternative hypothesis, with evidence to support it.
I tried. I really did! I pulled strings. Thought about certain conversations. Looked for new motifs and examined certain tracks in a new light. I got far enough to have a decent one Guess on what might actually have happened—but when the Archdeacon arrived in town to pass judgment, ready to hand out the required death necessitated by a noble murder, I knew I didn’t have the juice to actually prove my new theory. And if I could not prove it, Andreas’ friendly mentor—the chosen scapegoat for the murder, if no more likely candidate could be advanced—would be executed for the crime.
I didn’t lie, okay? I did not invent a single fact, as the tribunal paid full attention to Andreas, aware that he had investigated the murder with some diligence. Instead, I simply presented the evidence I had dutifully collected—evidence that I knew would sentence my first suspect, an innocent man, to death. What else can I do?
Penitentiary takes, as its most obvious influence, Umberto Eco’s 1980 historical detective novel The name of the rose. (It actually is one of several games, most of them produced in Europe, which have either directly adapted, or heavily referenced, Eco’s book; it’s a strange little subgenre of interactive fiction.) And, like Eco’s novel—in which the Holmes-esque suitor William of Baskerville, for all his cleverness and logical acumen, inevitably causes far more damage and destruction by investigating a crime than he would have done. by simply leaving good enough alone – it’s a story where an investigator who wanders into a crime is far more likely to be a force of chaos than one of justice. I have solved one a lot of murders in video games at this point, cleared up god knows how many insidious plots, and emerges the intellectual victor. Few of these triumphs have ever affected me so much as to see a man whom I had condemned to an unjust fate screaming his innocence, even as the first terrible blow fell.
Penitentiary is an artful game, in several senses of the word. Even when you think you’ve been confused by its striking visual style, it’ll pull a trick—an allegorical dream sequence, or a trip through the illustrations of a literal storybook—to remind you of the beauty of what you’re looking at. But it is if anything even more artful in the way it tells its story. Both Andreas and I had the best intentions when we had to solve a murder. We did the best we could with the limited time and resources available. And then we failed, in ways that left lasting wounds on an entire society. For a genre that so often celebrates cleverness for cleverness’ sake, it was a sobering and, yes, a artful reminder of the limits of what good intentions can achieve – and the full range of horrors they can inflict.