Obsidian Entertainment’s latest games, Penitentiarytakes its title from the term pentimento, a change made by an artist while painting. Its origin is the Italian word paintwhich means to change one’s mind or repent. Penitentiary‘s aim is to show how history, like oil on a canvas, can be covered, then rediscovered or forgotten.
The game, which has been getting rave reviews, is set in 16th-century Bavaria in the Holy Roman Empire, an area that’s now part of Germany. The player takes control of Andreas Maler, a journeyman artist with a university education, embroiled over 25 years in a series of murders and scandals that take place in the fictional locations of Kiersau Abbey and Tassing. Inspired by Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rosethe game tries, as Eco’s novel did, to capture the texture of history, the traces of font and ink, of manuscripts and print wood cuts.
It is, then, a passion project for the game’s director, Josh Sawyer, who’s probably best known for the much loved Fallout New Vegasas well as helming the nostalgic and pioneering modern isometric RPG Pillars of Eternity. On Twitter and IRL, he radiates enthusiasm for Penitentiary‘s setting, a time of epic technological and social upheaval that began with the Reformation and ended with the introduction of Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the solar system.
To learn more about Penitentiary‘s uncanny appeal, WIRED got on Zoom with Sawyer to talk about Eco, murder mysteries, double monasteries, and what this newer art form might tell us about early modern history. He recommended some great books too.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
WIRED: I’m interested in the relationship between Penitentiary and this time in history. Why 16th-century Bavaria?
Josh Sawyer: In college, I studied early modern history. I like the late medieval and early modern transition, because there’s so much social change going on. Changing religious institutions, academic institutions, social structures. Capitalism starts to sort of barely emerge. There’s a lot of cross-cultural contact, because of trade that takes people across the world. So this period has always been really interesting to me, just because of everything that’s going on.
The Middle Ages are often misunderstood, right?
People think the Middle Ages are this one long, uninterrupted period of nothing happening, or just wars or whatever. But there is a big spike and change throughout a few centuries, towards the end of the period. So that was always really fascinating to me. Also, my family history: My grandmother was born in Bavaria. So there were a lot of things that made it a more natural fit for me than some other parts of history, and it’s something I just personally have an affinity for.
Why are there so many historical games, do you think?
I think it’s funny that we’re asking that now, when there was a real drought for a long time. History contains everything cool that has ever happened. It’s easy to build fantastic worlds and stories out of a well-researched historical context. When it’s done well, I think players appreciate that they are immersed in something that reflects back on the actual world we live in.