The Talking Scripts of Obsidian’s Pentiment
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In the Obsidian detective role-playing game Pentiment, you embody the artist Andreas Maler (engl. ‘Painter’), who works on his masterpiece in the fictitious monastery of the small village of Tassing in Bavaria in 1518. As is typical for role-playing games, you have various options for aligning and playing your character. Depending on how confrontational you behave, Andreas naturally gets on less well with the people around him. When suddenly a murder happens in the monastery and Andreas’ friend is suspected, he does everything he can to solve it. To do so, he has to explore the area, follow clues and talk to people. This might sound very ordinary, but in this game these conversations have a special feature.
Pentiment has no voice-acting, but assigns special scripts to the speakers. Almost all of them are handwritten. They differ in their subtlety and complexity depending on the training of the writers. It gets especially interesting at moments when Andreas Maler receives new information about a person. For example, if he initially thought they were very educated and finds out that they can’t write at all, the writing in the speech bubbles changes to a very simple, untidy-looking one. But the opposite situation also occurs: if he finds out that someone has studied at university when he did not expect that before, the writing becomes more ornate and seems more experienced. In a way, the writing reflects Andreas’ opinion of the person.
These changes also have an impact on the players’ perception. It was only because the font of a baron suddenly seemed more sophisticated after he talked about his studies that it became clear to me as a player that a degree in the nobility was not common at that time at all and, moreover, meant a great educational advancement even for his rank. I felt similarly about a nun who first spoke in a Gothic Script that was indicative of a higher ecclesiastical education. After Andreas was told that she had never learned to read, it suddenly – and in a visible process – changes into a very simple handwriting. The written sentence is erased from the page and replaced by the new one.
There are, of course, many other categories into which one can classify one’s fellow human beings. For example, the game – or Andreas – distinguishes between Peasant, Scribe, Humanist, Monastic and Printer Type Script, so that one can infer the type of education of the person speaking, by the type of writing chosen, but also vice versa. The Peasant Script stands for those with no or low schooling or simply in less prestigious occupations. This includes most villagers, as well as (to my astonishment) most monks and nuns. The Scribe Script, for example, is used by the rich miller, whereas the Humanist Script marks a higher, presumably a university education. Various people use it, such as the baron, the archdeacon, the village doctor, but also Andreas himself.
The Gothic Monastic Script, contrary to its name, does not identify all the people in the monastery, but those who are close to the scriptorium (the writing room of the monastery) and work there. If a complex script were to indicate only the level of education or prestige, all people in decision-making positions, especially the archdeacon, who also appears as a judge, would have to use the Monastic Script. However, it is also a very time-consuming and decorative script that is suitable for ornate books but not necessarily for everyday use.
These classifications should therefore be helpful for both players and Andreas to be able to assign the secret message that was left for him to a person, by limiting the circle of suspects. But if you find writing that cannot be attributed to any of the identified groups, you have a completely new mystery to solve and should re-evaluate what you know.
No matter which font is used, they are all displayed according to their writing order. For handwritten sentences, you can see the sequence of necessary pen strokes. For simple scripts, this means that each character is written separately and the complete content of the sentence is only revealed at the end. With complicated Gothic Scripts, all outlines are shown at once (presumably in wise anticipation of the players’ impatience), while the letters are gradually filled in with ink at a comfortable reading speed.
Printing was not yet as widespread as it is today, most of the inhabitants of the small village do not have their own books at home, and the Kiersau Monastery is one of the last bastions to customize elaborate hand-painted books. The printer and his family maintain a special position in this system, which manifests itself in a special peculiarity of their speech bubbles. Their utterances are the only ones that are not handwritten but printed, if desired even with ligatures that can be chosen in the menu. As one knows from a stamp, the ink is not evenly applied in all places and therefore appears very faded at the edges. For printing (only for the first introducing sentence of a conversation), all printing letters are lined up individually on their head and only turned over at the end. This way they leave a printed sentence with a corresponding sound effect as a counterpart to the pen scratching on the paper.
Many of the speech bubbles contain spelling mistakes, which are subsequently erased and visibly corrected on top, similar to a font change. What seemed to me to be a special peculiarity of the game are in fact the pentimenti the game was named after. It is the concept of changes made to graphic artworks by the artists themselves. The typeface used for conversations could thus be considered a work of art itself, because unlike in a modern text editing program, the final result only exists with visible traces of editing, precisely the pentimenti. Even though the fonts indicate tendencies and are not unique to each person, they are assigned very personally and do not only stand for the speakers’ professions, but in some cases also show nuances of personality of the individual characters.
While the writing reflects Andreas’ view of people, the errors and touch-ups may be indications of the speaker’s education or even mental state; the simpler the writing, the more common these errors are. But they are not typical slips of the tongue, where instead of saying the word you are looking for, you happen to use another that sounds very similar to it. They are rather transposed or mixed-up letters, i.e. typing errors, as they might happen with our keyboards today. In that case, they would be graphic representations of slips of the tongue, which also cannot be undone.
There are different ways to interpret emotions or attitudes from the writing of the utterances alone. Even the use of different ink colors is not chosen at random. Normally all utterances are written in black ink. But there are a few exceptions, in which there are left gaps and only after the display of the sentence is concluded, something – a word or a phrase – is added in either blue, red, or green ink. According to game director Josh Sawyer, the colors were chosen somewhat arbitrarily, but a closer look reveals some strong patterns, especially in the first two of the three game chapters.
The red words are relatively easy to classify; they usually denote something divine, such as Lord or Christ, but more generally something supernatural and powerful, as one notices in one of Andreas’ discussions about whether ancient legendary figures were evil. It’s less obvious with the other two colors, since they both represent emphases. On the one hand, a small part of the blue markings stand for essential religious names that may not be “important” enough to be written in red, such as the Virgin Mary or also Mary Magdalene. On the other hand, it also seems that blue marks words that for the speakers are associated with negative feelings. These include a child’s defiant “There were not that many!” as well as an admonishing “Please return it [the borrowed book] immediately!” An expression like “Its edges, the borders… they are shimmering!” could seem enthusiastic without context, but in the game it describes a ghos sighting and allows you to get a feeling of the perceived fear of the moment. Also Andreas’ blue written “Mother Illuminata?” does not express a dislike for her, but stands for his feeling of sorrow for the former bearer of the title. Green highlights, on the other hand, initially seem to have a very positive connotation. In a boy’s description of how the stones he threw down a shaft went “Pling!” one can literally hear the joy in his voice, just as in that of Andreas’s older colleague, who tells him “Andreas, you are my pride!” Because of this positive imprint in the first chapter of the game, even individual remarks that seemingly would not fit into this category come across as hopeful or friendly. “What is at stake here?” in the middle of a heated discussion would make Andreas sound very hostile if it was written in blue, but sincerely interested in green. An additional meaning, which intuitively may not appear positive to us, comes into play in the case of taunting comments, which always include a mocking smile. These are particularly noticeable in very heated arguments. The colors therefore do not only serve to draw and direct attention, but above all mark emotions towards the referred.
Since different people have different values, the choice of colors can vary between them. In the case of the charcoal burner’s assistant, who is surprisingly well-read and philosophically interested (but not religious), religious concepts are depicted in blue instead of red, which deprives them of divinity. In Tassing, which is dominated by the church and the monastery, these are dangerous views. Also, the blue baruch Hashem (similar to “God be thanked”) of the Jewish printer from Prague can be easily explained by his different cultural and religious background. Even if the development team may not have followed the categorisation 100% to the end, the thought behind it is hard to miss.
Emotional outbursts are not marked in color, but are depicted by visual effects. Anger can be recognized, as in other types of writing, by ink splashes scattered around written words that were created by pressing hard on the paper. Some display modes are game or animation specific: with “shaking text” the words bounce back and forth frantically, so you know the other person is at least very angry or even yelling at you. A whisper, on the other hand, gets a particularly small font.
The different fonts were not simply created with one glyph (the actual realisation of a character) per letter and punctuation mark. Obsidian did not limit itself to these 52 glyphs for the English version (in other languages, further glyphs would be needed, such as umlauts and the ß in German), but opted for a particularly sophisticated variant: The individual characters did not only differentiate according to their upper and lower case, but also according to where they are used. In a cursive script, an s at the beginning of a word looks different from one at the end of a word. Different sizes of consecutive letters can even represent changes in pitch. So the developers set out to actually handwrite a total of 2016 glyphs.
Typography, which refers to the specific design and arrangement of fonts and typefaces, for a long time was not considered part of linguistics. According to Ferdinand de Saussure’s division into langue and parole (the basic system of a given language and its concrete application), only langue was considered “worthy” of scientific study. Application-related typography was seen as a “parole phenomenon”, as long as it was taken for granted that only phonetic utterances could be studied linguistically.
The material with which the signs are produced is entirely indifferent, for it does not affect the system […]; whether I write the letters in white or black, recessed or raised, with a pen or a chisel, that is indifferent to their meaning. (Ferdinand de Saussure)
But it really irrelevant for our understanding and interpretation, how a text is presented or does its presentation influence us?
Of course, the assumption that one can absorb pure content unaffected by its visuals has become outdated to a certain extent – anyone working in advertising is likely to confirm this.
There are many factors in the presentation of utterances in Pentiment that bring us to read the text in different ways: As in purely written sources, emphasis is marked by underlining and volume by bold type or capitalisation. In addition, different ink colours stand for different meanings. Particularly the font styles, which change according to Andreas’ personal assessment, are a clear indication of how much information can be read out quite directly in the graphic representation of writings. They are therefore not only worthy of written investigation, but also provide the players themselves with a great deal of added value for understanding the statements. And to directly counter Saussure: In Pentiment, it is absolutely decisive whether I write a word in black or red, with a pen or a printing press!
- Spitzmüller, Jürgen. „Typographie“. In Einführung in die Schriftlinguistik, von Christa Dürscheid, 207–38. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2020.
- Enfield, N.J.: How we Talk. The inner workings of conversation. Basic Cooks New York, 2017
- Colors of India: How Pentiment’s hand-crafted fonts give pen and ink a voice
- Wikipedia: Pentimenti