3 min read

Go medieval: game play as history lecture

Lukas Herren is a student of philosophy and business and works in communications in the technology industry.

While Pentiment’s game-play makes it a playful, enjoyable, and in-depth history lecture, it also raises deeper questions, says Lukas Herren.
A screen grab of a video game showing a chequered floor amidst classical architecture, with player figures.
Iconography and medieval illustration inspires Pentiment's graphic design.
Obsidian Entertainment.

Pentiment, an adventure game set in the rural Bavarian town of Tassing between the years 1518 and 1543, transports players to a time of political intrigue, religious reform, and societal conflict. With a deep love for history based on meticulous research, the game offers an authentic look at the lives of ordinary people like peasants, monks, artisans, and farmers, and the decisions that shaped their lives. 

At the heart of the game is Andreas Maler, an artisan who is hired to illustrate manuscripts in the Abbey of Kiersau. As he stumbles upon a murder, he is drawn into a web of personal conflicts that balance the different professional and societal groups of the village. Players can immerse themselves in the story and get to know the characters intimately, thanks to sophisticated design and a myriad of thoughtful details. Playing as Andreas, you feel like you are becoming an integrative part of a larger story and leaving a footprint in the village's history. 

The game is beautifully illustrated and captures the essence of medieval aesthetics, making it a joy to play and a valuable educational tool. Everyday life in the Bavarian village is brought to life with attention to detail, from the food they eat to the different scripts characters are represented with. These features transform into crucial puzzle pieces to solve the murder mystery. To help keep track of the storyline and interesting info, the game provides a journal and glossary. 

Pentiment feels like a playful, enjoyable, and in-depth history lecture. It is highly recommended to anyone interested in diving into a different time period – to anyone who appreciates learning not only about grand historical geopolitics but also simple, everyday life. Although it is thought of as a single-player game, it is also beautifully played with another person, with whom to explore which traits to choose, which characters to approach, and ultimately, which path to take. This game is not just for those who want to escape into a different time period, but also for those who appreciate a well-researched, multi-faceted murder mystery. 

The setting of the game enhances its appeal in various ways. The 1500s were the time of the Protestant Reformation, a religious reform movement sweeping through large parts of Europe. Intersecting with it was the German Peasants’ War of 1524-1525. As you play the game, identifying with the main characters in this Bavarian town, you triangulate your position asking questions like: Where did the murder victim stand in terms of religious reform and the peasants’ demands? Where does my interlocutor stand? What position do I take to get the information I need to solve the murder mystery? 

Beyond the enjoyable whodunnit, the game raises deeper questions such as: Is it legitimate to portray people and events untruthfully – that is, in a way that does not correspond to one's own knowledge – for ideological reasons or to promote a good cause? Is it appropriate, for example, to embellish the representation of local history in public space? If so, on what grounds and to what extent? What does this mean for the way we present the history of our churches? In our attempts to steer public perception, are we possibly damaging the discipline (history, church history) as well as the integrity of the positions promoted? 

The name of the game is carefully chosen: Pentimento refers to ‘the presence or emergence of earlier images, forms, or strokes that have been changed and painted over.’ Pentiment is worth engaging with on more than one level. 

The controls are simple, and dialogues are well done, though at times the game can be a bit confusing – accessible albeit occasionally challenging. While void of fast-moving animation and action, it is sophisticatedly made, letting the player get to know and experience each character. All in all, it comes together beautifully and deserves. 


Pentiment is available on Windows and Xbox and is published by Obsidian Entertainment.

4 min read

De-coding the hidden messages in Christmas carols

Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews.

Beyond the festive imagery, some carols hint at rebellion and even revolution. Ian Bradley tells their stories.
Dressed in Victorian clothes, a group of carol singers stand and sing amid Christmas foliage.
Mario Mendez on Unsplash.

Carols are one of the best loved features of Christmas celebrations and one of the most effective means of spreading the good news of the birth of Jesus, the Saviour of the world. In addition to their clear proclamation of the doctrine of incarnation, that God has taken on human form and come to dwell among us, some of our most popular carols may also have been written to convey further hidden messages. 

Take ‘O come, all ye faithful’, for instance. On the surface it seems a straightforward hymn of adoration to the newborn Christ but in fact historians suggest that it may well have been written in its original Latin form, ‘Adeste, fideles,’ as a coded message to rally Jacobites to the cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie on the eve of his rebellion against the British crown in 1745. The man generally reckoned to have been its author, John Francis Wade, was a fervent supporter of the Jacobite cause who seems to have written it while he was plain-chant scribe at the English Catholic college in Douai, France where a weekly Mass was celebrated for the return of the Stuarts to the British throne. 

Half hidden Jacobite images, including Scotch thistles and the Stuart cypher, appear in the earliest manuscripts of the carol. Its call to ‘the faithful’ may have had a double meaning and been intended to alert the supporters of the ‘King over the water’ to Charles James Stuart’s imminent arrival in Britain from the  continent. Similarly, its reference to ‘Rex angelorum’, translated as the King of the Angels, could also be taken to mean the true king of the English in contrast to the Hanoverian incumbent, George II. In its original Latin form, the carol seems initially to have been sung only in Roman Catholic places of worship, notably in the chapel of the Portuguese Embassy in London and its tune was long known as the Portuguese Hymn. 

Another well-known Christmas song may contain similarly coded messages. It has been suggested on the basis of letters from Jesuit priests attached to the English college in Douai, France, that that ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ was written to teach the elements of the Roman Catholic faith to children during the period following the Reformation in which it was officially proscribed and suppressed in the United Kingdom. In this reading, the twelve drummers drumming are the articles of the Apostle’s Creed; the eleven pipers piping the faithful apostles; the ten lords a-leaping the ten commandments; the nine ladies dancing the fruits of the Holy Spirit; the eight maids a-milking the beatitudes; the seven swans a-swimming the seven sacraments of the Catholic church; and the ‘five gold rings’ the five wounds of the crucified Christ.  

A hidden message of a rather different kind may be lurking in another popular carol, ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’, which first appeared in a radical Sheffield newspaper entitled The Iris on Christmas Eve 1816. Its author, James Montgomery, the paper’s editor, was twice imprisoned for his support of the French Revolution and reform riots in Britain. The original last verse, which described Justice repealing the sentences of those sentenced to imprisonment and Mercy breaking their chains, was regarded by the authorities as too polemical and subversive did not find its way into any hymn book when the carol was taken up and sung in churches.  

A carol with a more overtly contemporary message is ‘It came upon the midnight clear’. Its author, Edmund Sears, who claimed descent from one of the original Pilgrim Fathers, was a Unitarian minister in Massachusetts with a deep commitment to social reform and the promotion of peace. He wrote it in 1849, following the violent revolutions in Europe and the bloody and costly war between the United States of America and Mexico in the previous year. These conflicts were undoubtedly in his mind when he wrote ‘O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and here the angels sing’ and expressed his heartfelt longing for a future age of gold ‘when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendours fling’, sentiments which we can certainly echo this Christmas. 

The German carol Stille Nacht (Silent Night), which regularly tops the list of the world’s favourite Christmas song, underwent several adaptations through the twentieth century expressing the changing political mood in Germany. A Socialist version entitled ‘The Workers’ Silent Night’ which circulated widely around 1900 highlighted the prevailing poverty, misery and distress and ended with an appeal to wake up to social action rather than sleep in heavenly peace. It was considered subversive and banned by the German Government before the First World War. During that war, German soldiers on the front adapted Stille Nacht to express a sense of homesickness and in the period of rampant inflation that followed in the 1920s Weimar Republic a social democratic version asked plaintively: ‘in poverty, one starves silently,/When does the saviour come?’. A 1940 Nazi adaptation turned the song into a celebration of the fatherland and traditional German family values. More recent parodies of the English version have tended to focus on the commercial aspects of the festive season, like the American author Chris Fabry’s send-up of last minute Christmas shopping:  ‘Silent Night, Solstice Night, All is calm, all half price’. 

The tradition of adapting traditional Christmas carols to contemporary events has a long pedigree in Britain. ‘Hark, the herald angels sing’ has proved particularly appealing to parodists. During the abdication crisis of 1937 a version circulated which began ‘Hark the herald angels sing, Mrs. Simpson’s pinched our king’ and a group of journalists (of which I was one) heralded the birth of the SDP in 1981 with ‘Hark The Times and Guardian roar, Glory to the Gang of Four’. It is rarer to hear parodies of carols nowadays. Perhaps in our troubled times we just want and need to focus on their message of the coming of the Christchild and of God’s kingdom with its promise of a more peaceful and joyful world.  

Popular articles