Art director Hannah Kennedy on the challenges of using a 500-year-old art style and why paintings can't always be trusted.
It's not often that a game such as Pentiment comes out. But with Microsoft as the wealthy patron and Xbox Game Pass as an avenue for discoverability, Obsidian veteran Josh Sawyer has been given free rein in creating his dream game - an adventure set in 16th century Bavaria featuring a unique art style based on the period's illuminated manuscripts and wood cuts.
Before the release of the game we got the chance to speak with the art director on the project, Hannah Kennedy, and she told us that Pentiment required a lot of thought due to its unique nature.
"We didn't have an immediate comparison game to use as a reference point for this, so we kind of had to mash up a few together. We were looking at games such as Oxenfree and Night in the Woods, how they structure their layouts, trying to wrap our head around how navigation works in a 2D narrative game that is not focused on platforming."
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Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the challenges had to do with the artistic source material that lends itself less readily to the screen than for example comic books or films.
"One thing we noticed with 2D games is that it can be very difficult to understand where you can and can't go in space. What is forward, what is back? In these old wood block pieces it was even more difficult to understand, as they were intentionally really flattened, and you can't tell what is going on depth wise at all. So we knew we needed to pull away from the historical precedent a little bit more."
"We also noticed that we couldn't have stairs going back into the scene, directly away from the camera. It made it feel like they were climbing a ladder or made it confusing, as to whether they were going up or going back. So we just said right away, okay, as an art stable we aren't having back into the scene transitions with the character actually walking away. Instead, they always have to go on this zig zag stair stepping pattern."
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But why even choose such a complicated art style? It all had to do with an important shift in the art worlds that happens during the game's narrative.
"Our main inspiration was Northern Renaissance era artists, and we were really locked in early to the idea of using wood cuts as the primary style of art for the game. The big narrative theme of the game was that we were working in an era that is in the transition from illuminated manuscripts, or hand scribed books, to the invention of print. And that is pretty eventful and central to the story itself. So we knew with the art style that we wanted to do something in that space or in that in-between. What could we say - with the art - about these two worlds matching up at this time?"
One of the primary art sources was the Nuremberg Chronicle, printed in 1493, that combines a historical account with several detailed illustrations. "I bought a simile of that early in the process, and used it to look at how they rendered faces, how they rendered scenes and which colours were they often using," tells Hannah Kennedy. "We used that as a guideline to define our pallets for the game, especially with colours. Seeing the colours they were using in that print was indicative of what pigments they had available, not just at the time period but in that region, which ones were common, which ones were rare."
'Josh very early saw a potato in the game and was like 'NO!! They weren't there yet!'
The protagonist of the game, Andreas Maler, actually hails from Nuremberg, which at the time was a major hub for artistic, financial and technological development. That's no coincidence as the southern German city also was the hometown of the famous painter Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) that, according to Hannah Kennedy, served as a rough sketch for the character: "Andreas is not as well set up and formally trained, as Dürer was at the time. But it is a figure that many people know from that region and time period, and we thought it was interesting that he is, at least in some circles, considered the parent figure of the self portrait, the signed signature self portrait. This fits well in a game that is about an artist discovering himself."
Writing a story and not the least crafting an art style indicative of this quite remote period required a lot of research. To streamline the process, Obsidian hired academics specialising in the European Middle Ages which served as consultants on the project. Hannah Kennedy reveals that they not only helped with the overall setting, but also commented on the art:
"They could point out, 'hey they didn't have those,' or 'this is way too fancy for that type of person.' Stuff where I can't find that out in a cursory Google research session of a couple of hours. There is just so much social, economic, religious context that having those specialty historians was very helpful. Especially in calling out anomalies within something we had drawn, something that we just assumed we were doing correctly."
Hannah Kennedy goes on to list some of the mistakes that the art team initially made. One of the things they learned was that conveniences such as chimneys and glass windows that are usually found in even the poorest houses in fantasy games, were not that widespread among the working or peasant classes. And of course, while Columbus had discovered America in 1492, a certain vegetable had yet to reach European shores by the time of the game. "Josh very early saw a potato in the game and was like 'NO!! They weren't there yet!'" she recalls laughing.
Paintings are not necessarily indicative of what people were really wearing. It's almost like the Instagram photos of the era.
While the overall presentation is therefore relatively true to the source material, there were some areas that allowed for more creative freedom, simply from the lack of credible historical sources. "One of the areas that was the most challenging was house dressing and costumery. Because this is the pre-photography phase history. So learning about that you either have to dig through a specialty book on Middle Age wardrobe, which is quite time consuming, or consult a specialist. That was something we didn't have good visual references for, outside of other paintings. Which are not necessarily indicative of what people were really wearing. You know, it's almost like the Instagram photos of the era, where people sat posing for days on end in the outfit they wanted to be remembered by history for, not necessarily what they were actually wearing in daily life."
As a final question, we asked Hannah Kennedy how it felt, as an artist herself, to work on a game starring an illustrator.
"I think there is a big sort of meta narrative there, not just the art making aspect, but making games as a creative endeavour overall. I can relate to the position that Andreas is in a lot, but I also think that Josh is using that as a sort of parallel of wanting to creatively make games. In anything that is creative work, whether you are making a thing for entertainment purposes or for artistic purposes, there is that balance of chasing your passion versus making it your job."
There is also some other on the nose stuff, that kind of stung. There is this scene where Andreas is working in the scriptorium, and the writers and illustrators are talking about, 'oh yeah, it's gonna wreck your back just sitting there.' Oh boy, that is me working at my desk all the time! And then you see some of the scriptorium artist in the later acts, and they are even older, and they are like, 'I had to stop doing it, because I just couldn't sit like that anymore,' and I'm like, 'oh God, it's coming for me!'"