Inland Empire is David McNeill’s column about world building, CRPG’s, love, loss and many other kinds of literary vulnerability.
Choices matter not because of their immediate material consequence, but instead their potentiality. Andreas Maler comes to the Bavarian town of Tassing as an outsider, to the church and to the town. His lack of investment in standing traditions and existing relationships imbues him, and by extension you, the player, with terrible influence over the people around you. Andreas can’t shape reality: no one treats him with absolute authority. Rather, the smallest decisions carry the potential energy to create an impact with consequences unknowable, both in nature and time.
Pentiment is about how small decisions in people’s lives can be co-opted, dissolved, over-written and expounded by history and the systems within it. A simple request early on illustrates this mode of reality well. You’re staying in the guest room of the Gertners, a family of affable, salt of the earth local farmers. You wake, and Clara asks if you can pay your rent early so she can pay her taxes to The Abbot. Turns out the church has decided they need the tax early. The irony is that you work for and are paid by The Abbot. You work there, producing artwork for their wealthy patrons.
So you go to The Abott and have the option to beg for your pay early. The two people who can facilitate this tell you to take a walk, until you mention it’s so that the Gernters can pay their tax. Begrudgingly, acting like you’re being ungrateful, Brother Mathieu will give you the money early with this rationale. And as I walked Andreas from the church, down the hill, through The Meadow, I stopped. What the hell am I doing, actually. Did I just ask for my paycheck early so my landlords can pay my employers sooner? What?
This decision doesn’t make your landlord Clara happy, but grateful. Earnestly grateful. This doesn’t net you experience points or gain you items. It makes you feel good for making someone you care about feel relieved. Feel less stressed. To illustrate how completely the story takes over your brain, when I collected the money Andreas mentally goes “I could give it to her tomorrow morning, or surprise her with the money and leave it on the table” and my first thought was of course I’m not going to leave it on the table, what if it gets lost and she can’t pay?
And, if you leave the money on the table, Clara loves the surprise. The money is fine. But that’s how convincing the conceit is. Clara is so awkward in her request for the early payment, apologetic and hiding her shame. It’s such convincing writing that I began to treat it less as a quest and more as a favour for a friend. I couldn’t risk the money going missing so I gave up the chance to make my landlord happy. Regardless, I pissed off my employers but bizarrely it’s their fault for asking for taxes early. Our personal relationships are the victim of the Emperor deciding they need their coin early, resulting in this bizarre musical chairs money swapping situation.
Pentiment is rich in this texture. Every character you speak with has their own life they’re busy living. It feels like you’re constantly tripping over other people’s priorities, interrupting their important business to ask for help. Or, indeed, to help them.
The central conflict of Pentiment is the tension between systems and individuals. The Abbey is a bastion from a time long since past, clinging to the town in a symbiotic, parasitic relationship. The townsfolk resent the brothers. The townsfolk resent the taxes. And The Abbey itself is reacting to the larger forces of the church: knowing they are no longer relevant, to ask for any assistance or intervention from the powers that be risks someone glancing at Tassing too closely and noticing an open column in a ledger long thought shut. And so the town and Abbot and the Abbey are paradoxically linked.
These structural apparatus pressure individuals within the community. When leant on hard enough, these tensions erupt in violent spasms. Three of them, in fact. Three murders, all irreversibly linked to the church and town. Exactly how remains obscured, but even the best cover up leaves fingerprints. Fragments. A thief who runs away, returns a changed man with a secret. A brother hides a relationship with a visiting lord, both concealing their penchant for pagan rituals beneath the guise of intellectual and spiritual superiority. A woman has religious visions, co-opted by a priest who seems to know more than he lets on.
Andreas gathers these fragments, never quite sure of the larger picture, only certain he’s missing something. But it doesn’t matter. Pentiment has little interest in certainty. At the end of each investigation, Andreas must name a killer, equipped with evidence that feels insufficient, sometimes contradictory. In fact, you can decide to name an innocent person for your own reasons. Perhaps you want the miller gone so his mistress is free for your advances. Perhaps one of the brothers is an asshole and you think he deserves to go.
In a scene which must be played to be believed, whoever Andreas names as the killer after the first murder is dragged into the town square, begging for mercy. With the church and town looking on, the lord’s executioner beheads the suspected murderer.
It is sudden, mundane and awful, compounded by the sense that whoever you named may have done the deed, yes, but was certainly being coerced by some unseen manipulator. A series of notes in elegant script point to someone scheming behind the scenes. Someone who knows the town’s secrets and pulls on the right threads at the right time. Yet the town’s history is shaped by your decisions and indecisions.
Perhaps the greatest tragedies in Andreas’ life are personal, then. On returning to Tassing seven years later, he made decisions without us. Ignored letters from dear friends in the town. Never visited. Failed in his marriage. Lost a child. Neglected the life he walked away from and ruined the life he walked toward.
I haven’t stopped thinking about the first real conversation I had on Andreas’ return. I stepped into Claus’ workshop and he asked why I didn’t write back. Why I ignored a letter from a dear friend who’s wife and child passed away? He isn’t angry, his devestation is quiet.
Because there’s no one person to be angry with. No single individual who did the wrong thing. The system is the culprit for Tassings being indentured to The Abbot in the first place. And their system, the church, is what raises taxes, demands more and more from the peasants. And so too their system prevents the church leaders from breaking out of their stead and asking for help. Yes, individual pride is at stake, but it’s more than that. The system has moved on from Abot’s like this, and asking for assistance risks its very existence at all.
Which is the point that Brother Aedoc makes when Andreas first leaves the town. All things end. Even friendships. Even The Abot. Systems are living things. They are born and evolve. They grow ill. They limp on. They perish. The real question is the potential of the actors within the system to create, to change, to harm.
Andreas, no matter what you do in Tassing, leads a life of unfulfilled grandeur and fame. He doesn’t write back to his friend whose wife and child passed away. Doesn’t write to the sister, Zdena he had an ongoing tryst with. Leaves Tassing like a scrapped draft of a previous version of his life, moves on to the next chapter. On returning to Tassing, we don’t quite know why Andreas put the town behind him, but people ask. They want to know why he ignored letters. Why he never visited. You can’t decide why Andreas made these choices, but what you think Andreas would say to that person. Would he be honest? Say what they want to hear? Be flippant?
Whatever you choose ultimately doesn’t “matter” to the big picture, but matters because the people matter. The town is on the brink of revolution and Andreas’ return forces him into the heart of the conflict. Before long, the leader of the revolt is murdered and once again Andreas must solve a murder, only this time he’s certain there’s enough information to do it properly. Even as time ran out and I wasted a precious afternoon weaving wool (I’ve seriously never been more frustrated by a decision in a game), I became almost certain I knew the identity of the thread puller. I had no way to prove it, desperately scratching around the shape of it. I had to name one of two suspects whose guilt I couldn’t substantiate. Nowhere near enough evidence for a mob execution. And yet the game makes you. You must choose.
In the same way The Last of Us forces you to pull the trigger in its penultimate moment, Pentiment makes Andreas complicit. Co-opted, sure, but complicit nonetheless. You have to name a murderer. And whatever you choose, the town descends into further violence. Ultimately, Andreas claims his need for meaning and gives his life to save as many books from the library as he can.
Yet the story persists. Tassing goes on. Andreas’ best friend, who lost everything, has his granddaughter. And we become her, Magdalene.
Later, during her task to paint a mural depicting the town’s history, and, in a way, dictate what the story of Tassing will be, Magdalene comes upon the ruins of The Abbey. Of the Scriptorium, where Andreas spent so many days waxing philosophical about the nature of art and reason with the brothers. Where so many books burned into coals. Where Andreas gave his life.
As Magdalene enters the gardens a flute begins to play and a latin voice sings a haunting melody. Moss and so many plants bloom, retaking the foundation of the building. Windows are nothing but black eye-lets, the scorch marks from that fateful night ascending to the heavens, scarring the stone forevermore. It’s not just sad, it’s larger than the feeling. Even before the fire, the Scriptorium, once preoccupied with art and manuscripts, was slowing. Each of the many urgencies and tasks crawling to a halt, one by one. The works grew irrelevant as the brothers grew old, and soon they too would wind down forever. And here, the once beautiful Abbey is little but a ruin. Leaves drift in the wind. Wooden roof supports rot in the fresh air. Nettle reclaims brick and marble.
And yet, among the bones, clusters of red roses sprout. Magdalene thinks “these roses seem to have made the abbey their home. I’m glad something beautiful is still growing here.” A mundane admission perhaps. But the heart of Pentiment. Yes, these events are history writ-large. Big, unwieldy things dictated by the Emperor and the church and the towns and people’s belief in god. Small as well. Simple and elemental. Tactile. The consequences made manifest by the change they precipitate. Andreas’ sacrifice is marked by the roses that grow in place of the once important tasks and essentialism of The Abbey.
Marked too by a defamed mural that shows the consequences of Andreas’ actions in the town. The killing of a lord. The pagan rituals of the abbot. The burning of the church. The true, accurate history of events.
Putting together Pentiment is like trying to describe reality. The component parts are identifiable, explicable. But the whole of it, the shape of the thing, is huge and scary and horrifically, beautifully mundane.
In the end, we learn that the pagans and church are not so different - their beliefs about the town’s origin are one and the same. Both are wrong about their own history. Through Magdalene, we learn that to be an artist is to commit to risking everything to live. And that the majesty and fulfillment of such work can be a cloak thrown over reality. That to pursue the truth can help us hide from life. Avoid risk. That these are not mutually exclusive modes of living. As Magdalene completes the mural, a part of her life is completed. Not so neatly, not a “season” that so easily can be dismissed as traumatic. Rather, she tells her part of the story and leaves room for what’s to come - leaves a blank space for those next.
Even as the book shuts on Pentiment it is a single tome in a vast collection. And I find myself thinking of Andreas. Of his fate. Of the day he perished in the fire, and the day he decided to rejoin us. Life ought to be lived, he tells Magdalene. The gift he gives to her is the vision of a man embittered by vanity, failure, shame, but goodness too. Even knowing Tassing’s history is a lie, that their Christian beliefs are inherently corrupt, the town goes on. Some still believe in god. Others relinquish their belief.
Magdalene gets to live and gets to leave. Decides to do both.
Her art is not a prison as it was for Andreas. Not a diversion to belay reality. She can do everything Andreas could not. Everything Tassing could not. Not in spite of, but because of. What came before is not a leaden anchor that drowns us. It provides for us the tools to move forward.
All of that is important but not why I can’t stop thinking about Pentiment. It’s seeing Zdena after seven years, and her frustration that our dalliance meant nothing to Andreas. It’s Smokey and Vácslav explaining the Dossier of Reason through personal experience. It’s the devastating quiet in Claus’ voice when he asks why Andreas didn’t write back. Pentiment is a story about small moments. Delicate interactions that cascade into conversations that erupt into arguments that spasm into change. Violence and beauty are intrinsically linked. It’s people, regular humans making choices in systems, in unknowing collaboration with time, that change the world. Not spirits of the forest or an all seeing god or saints or fairy stories, just regular folk. Pentiment seems to ask, again and again, why isn't this enough? The beautiful, natural world and the people within it. Why diminish us with cheap myths and gods when we are all here. Why can't we be enough. Regular folk loving and hating and bickering and caring and trying. Always trying. Which is all any of us can do. Try to live. Try to live well.