Pentiment: interview with Josh Sawyer and Hannah Kennedy, the developers of the exclusive Xbox

Pentiment: interview with Josh Sawyer and Hannah Kennedy, the developers of the exclusive Xbox


In Josh Sawyer's long career, Pentiment is a breath of fresh air. The historic designer of RPGs like Neverwinter Nights 2, Fallout: New Vegas and Pillars of Eternity found himself for the first time in many years working with a tiny team (only 13 people), with the aim of creating a narrative game with much smaller dimensions than the other productions previously developed by Obsidian. At the same time, the artistic style chosen for the Pentiment - a mix of 2D illustrations and an interface inspired by manuscripts and medieval art - has attracted the attention of an audience that until now had never been interested in long and challenging role-playing games that Sawyer had directed.

While Pentiment is just a few weeks away, scheduled for November 15th on PC and Xbox, we chatted with both the game director and Hannah Kennedy, the game's art director. In the Pentiment interview we talked about the origins of the game, the expectations of the public and the opportunities promised by Game Pass.

The interview

Josh Sawyer of Obsidian Pentiment marks a very interesting change in your portfolio. When did you decide to create a thriller with a historical theme?

Sawyer: "I had been planning to make a historical themed game for a long time, but in the beginning it had to be something more traditional, closer to an old-fashioned RPG. Only in the last few years have I started to playing narrative adventures like Night in the Woods and Oxenfree, and so I thought it would be interesting to make a historical game with that kind of approach, more focused on exploration and conversation. I didn't have a clue how we were going to develop it, but when Microsoft acquired Obsidian, I thought it would be great for Game Pass, and I was convinced Microsoft would like the idea. That's when the conversation started. "

We have noticed that in recent times other games have also begun to experiment with a similar style. An example is Inkulinati. How do you explain this sudden interest?

Kennedy: "It is probably due to the size and variety of the video game industry nowadays. I don't know if interest in this particular style or in the historical theme has increased, but surely there are more platforms than the past that stimulate to create more experimental games: Game Pass is an example, but today smaller projects also have more visibility in the eyes of publishers, who realize that not only certain experiments are feasible but can also be successful. The illustrative one is then one very versatile style, which adapts well to many types of games: for this reason different authors see what is done and try to adapt it in a different way.

For the Pentiment dialogues, Obsidian has had to adapt the tools he uses usually In our case Josh was super excited about the idea of ​​making a game that had such a particular artistic style. ì a lot of 2D art inside. Very often when I make concept art I spend all my time making designs which are then used as a reference point by the 3D graphic designers who create the assets. In this case I was asked to create illustrations that on the one hand would serve as a reference point for the team, but on the other hand they would also be used within the game: this excited me. Also I was happy to be working on projects with different styles: when we were developing The Outer Worlds and this project arrived I was skyrocketing because it is something completely different. What I hope is that over time more and more games like this style will be made, with other authors who - seeing what we have done with Pentiment - will begin to wonder how a similar approach can be used with other settings or historical periods. In this case we are talking about a very recognizable style even among those who do not have a passion for medieval history and art. So personally I see a lot of potential to expand the idea.

For the Pentiment interface, many are the experiments done for example with the font of the texts Such a style has created some difficulties or imposed particular limitations in terms of mechanics and systems?

Sawyer: "Navigation was perhaps the most complex challenge".

Kennedy: "Yes, navigation was something completely new, and by experimenting with the artistic style we risked creating something very confusing. Basically all those medieval illustrations that we took as a reference did not have paths or roads inside them, but only depicted people who existed in an environment. We tried to look at other games that did not have well-defined paths, but due to the graphic style it became very difficult to distinguish the depth in the scene, controlling the character was complicated and the experience ended up distracting from the story we wanted to tell. So we decided that it would be better to include paths and roads.

Another thing that was both familiar and new to us is having used the narrative tool that in Obsidian we usually use to create dialogues and ris posed. However, at Pentiment the way we present conversations is completely different from any other project we've worked on. So we had to figure out how to support the dynamic text system, what kind of frame to show, and in general find a solution that was thematically coherent but didn't risk distracting the player. A big problem was deciding where to make the dialogue appear relative to the position of the characters, because we wanted the scene not to be too confusing but at the same time we didn't want the elements to be too scattered on the page. In short, we had a starting idea but then we realized that there were many things to define well.

The protagonist of Pentiment will be the same for everyone, but you can choose the background and influence his interactions Were you interested in that graphic style before Pentiment? How much experience did the team have with that style?

Kennedy: "In the past I made some illustrations with that style, but it was something that was done some time ago and completely rethought when we had to prototype the game. We looked for a way to create a style that felt authentic and faithful, but at the same time that it was functional to the type of game we wanted to create. We could have made it even more realistic: for example, Inkulinati is much closer to the reference material, in texture, in how it looks on the page; however, if it were a game with free exploration between the different scenes it would have been much more confusing, especially with a quantity of characters like the one we have in Pentiment. As a starting point we were inspired by the Nuremberg Chronicles, which is one of the works with more portraits of this type Except that looking at the images I realized that the characters were all the same, and they only changed their hair or their hat, but they all had the same face. In our case we couldn't do it, because our characters had to be immediately recognizable. This is why we finally decided to take some creative liberties.

Do you think that part of the public who have enjoyed your games so far can be turned away from this very different approach? Looking to speak to a new audience?

Sawyer: "I don't think it necessarily has to be a new audience. Many will be people who love the way Obsidian tells the stories, the presence of choices and consequences, and also the possibility to define your character: also if the protagonist of Pentiment is a fixed character, you can customize his background to a certain extent, which affects the conversations and some mini games. If you like those aspects and don't mind the absence of fighting or inventory management, At the same time I am convinced that there is the potential to reach a much larger audience, who may not play much or are not interested in our usual games: but maybe they like the style, they like historical games or At Gamescom there were those who already knew the game and loved it, those who said 'no, it's not for me' and those who had no idea what it was, tried it and appreciated it to the point of vo let it continue. I hope we will approach many people like that, especially through Xbox Game Pass: maybe people will see the illustration of the game, they will think it is original and they will want to try it ".

Kennedy:" When I think about the kind of audience we want to approach I think it is impossible to define a single demographic. Then I am very happy when I happen to see different games, even if many are not for me. Every year at least three or four excellent games come out that belong to those genres that I like: I would like to play them all, but I can't, so I often have to pick one. And I think this is the situation of the industry today. Game Pass allows us developers to work without the pressure of having to please a certain number of people to keep the project stable, while allowing users to free themselves from the economic pressure behind choosing a game. For an experimental project like Pentiment many would have thought 'I can't spend 60 euros on a game and realize it's too expensive'. What I see good in Game Pass for the industry is precisely the push to experiment with projects of this type, both as a developer and as a player ".

In Pentiment there will be several minigames and challenges during the adventure Sawyer: "As far as I'm concerned it's not about pleasing all the people who played my old games. It's OK to do things aimed at different people and like Hannah said, there are tons of games out there and if you want to play RPG you have some great ones. For Pentiment I was convinced that there would be an interested audience: we made it with a small team, so that that audience didn't have to be big. And if the game is more successful than expected we will be happy, but I have never worried too much about the reactions of the public, because after all if you do not like the game I have made it is fine, your life will go on as mine will go on. Happy as before.

You mentioned Night in the Woods as one of the sources of inspiration. Can you tell me more about the works that influenced the project?

Sawyer: "That's right, Night in the Woods was the initial inspiration. I remember when I first saw him, maybe at PAX: my girlfriend was all excited, but I had no idea what it was and I still remember that he couldn't describe it to me because it was so unique. So I played it and I got an idea, it seemed funny, but in the moment that was it. When it came out I started to notice the arrival of games like Oxenfree, Mutation, all adventures that focused on the atmosphere and the sense of immersion, telling about small groups of people who lived in specific times and places. Playing them I realized that in a game there didn't have to be a challenge, it didn't have to there was pressure and a sense of urgency: it could just have been an interesting experience.

Pentiment will be a mystery game in which to find the culprit of a murder People make comparisons with Disco Elysium, but I don't think they are accurate , because it is a mo game lto other than Pentiment. It must be said, however, that Disco Elysium was certainly a source of inspiration, because it is very artistic and playing it is evident the passion of the people behind that project. They too had taken a big risk with what they were doing, and in the end it turned out a beautiful game with excellent writing. I was also inspired by the way they worked on dialogue and aftermath - we did something similar where little interactions you have with people are remembered and have repercussions when you later try to convince them of something. It's an element that I found very interesting, because it makes the little things you do with people more meaningful, and it's great when you get that feeling playing an RPG. "

Pentiment will be very different from all the others. other Obsidian games

Kennedy: "I think with Night in the Woods there are two other important parallels. On the one hand there is the artistic style: when people first saw it they thought it was childish, because it had these animal characters drawn in cartoon style. They thought it was a children's game. But instead they took a style that people didn't think would be suitable for a serious game and used it to tell a very dark and intense story. And that contrast made it more impactful because you didn't expect it. Then there is the second point: both games live in that space where people are not sure if it is a game or a more interactive visual novel, but in the end what is the difference? "

Sawyer: "I don't like labeling or looking at a game like this, wondering if it's a game or not. I do not care. Do you like this experience? That's the only thing that interests me.

Pentiment will be filled with fascinating places like this Now that development has come to an end: How did you find working with such a small team compared to the ones you collaborated with in past?

Sawyer: "There are two considerations to make: one is that working with a small team is very different. Having developed the game during the pandemic I am glad it was with a small group of people: it was a 'very different experience and, for obvious reasons, the group is much more united than a larger team. Also I believe that when working on an RPG there are certain things that users expect or that we developers take for granted that we have to insert, and that's only because fantasy games or other RPGs usually do. With Pentiment, there were things WE wanted to insert that we didn't know if people would want them in the game. When we listed the elements and mechanics to insert, we felt free to decide for ourselves what was important to us and what didn't. I didn't want the weight of 20 years of RPG experience to tell us 'no you have to do this because that's what people want.' So from my point of view is it was more liberating: we hope people will like it, but in the end we will be satisfied that we made the decisions we wanted to make. "

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