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Pentiment Preview: Obsidian’s historic, religiously charged murder mystery

Pentiment Preview: Obsidian's historic, religiously charged murder mystery
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There are only so many hours in a Bavarian murder investigation set in the early 1600s.
Enlarge / There are only so many hours in a Bavarian murder investigation set in the early 1600s.

Microsoft / Obsidian

A new video game since its unveiling earlier this year Buses was shrouded in secrecy and confusion. We knew it was being developed by Obsidian Entertainment, but also thought it might be a wild departure from this beloved studio’s greatest hits (Fallout New Vegas, The Outer Worlds).

That suspicion was confirmed last week at a pre-Gamescom conference hosted by the gameplay director and art director, who make up one-sixth of the entire development staff. That’s right, Obsidian’s first video game since it was acquired by Microsoft’s deep pockets will launch in November with a team of just 13 people.

Buses Gameplay reveal, June 2022.

Game director Josh Sawyer doesn’t mince words about the budget and scope of this idiosyncratic game – or about his corporate executives finding the right place for it.

“I’ve wanted to do a historical game for a long time, but I can’t remember the exact moment I said, ‘What if it was a narrative adventure and very small?'” Sawyer says in a video conference call. “I have to say, it wasn’t until Microsoft wanted to take us over that I thought we could do it now” – he pauses with a nervous laugh – “for two reasons.” Microsoft had suggested at the acquisition that the studio could explore “unusual and experimental” tariffs, and Microsoft’s subscription-driven Game Pass platform could be a better fit for a game than traditional retail Buses: an accessible, non-combat, decision-driven crime thriller set in the wake of the tumultuous Protestant Reformation. “Whatever ideas I had about maybe doing something like this didn’t seem viable until Microsoft took over.”

Unfortunately not a good time for David Caruso sunglasses

A most disgusting murder.
Enlarge / A most disgusting murder.

Everything I’ve seen and read Buses borrows from that kind of windfall in game publishing, where a publisher has a vested interest in unique-looking games that don’t rely on existing intellectual property (aka a crowdfunding pitch) and don’t sell for $60 need or more on store shelves. And it’s extremely fortunate for Sawyer, who admits he spent his college years studying German history after being inspired by his own family’s unclear genealogy, which eventually led him to explore the Bavarian period in which playing this game thoroughly explore.

describes obsidian Buses billed as “narrative adventure with RPG elements,” and its team leaders repeat this like a mantra: “narrative adventure” and “not an RPG at heart.” However, the designers also emphasize the game’s constants of difficult decisions and moral gray areas that follow the main character Andreas, an artist who lived in a small Bavarian village in the early 16th century, over the course of many years. The game begins with Andreas learning that his best friend has been accused of a murder he did not commit and then realizing he is his friend’s only attorney. You spend the rest Buses try to solve exactly who did committing this murder only to see Andreas become a detective from a small village who investigates other crimes over the years.

Sawyer makes it clear that Andreas has limited resources as a detective in an era when detectives didn’t really exist, let alone forensics or, really, much formal criminal investigation. “There’s a lot of ambiguity,” says Sawyer. “And after all, you have to pinpoint every murder somebody, but it will never be clear if that is really the person. You can use your best judgment or pick the person you want to see leave!” he adds, laughing.

He suggests that decisions, big and small, accumulate over the many years of play and players also need to consider that they have limited time with villagers. During a big meal in the middle of the city, the choice of who you sit with not only affects who you get information from, but can also affect anyone you don’t sit with. or you can make conversation decisions in the middle of town that others can overhear and follow. Sawyer makes it clear that these systems have limits: “There aren’t any [visible] meter [tracking people’s emotions]. Just try to keep track of things that characters seem to be paying attention to, and the game will let you know when and when they’re paying attention [those topics] come back up.”

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