Comparative Criticism #2: Historical Fiction in Pentiment and The Name of the Rose

Examining how to make good historical fiction

Comparative Criticism #2: Historical Fiction in Pentiment and The Name of the Rose
Sources: BR24; DW.

How can we harness the potential of video games to craft captivating and immersive historical fiction experiences, similar to the way we enjoy well-crafted books and movies? RPG is an interesting genre of video games for exploring the sense of progression and choice over history, and recently Pentiment offers an inspiring experience that deserves to be further appreciated and analyzed alongside classics like The Name of the Rose.

What is Historical Fiction?

Historical fiction is a genre characterized by narratives that intricately intertwine with widely accepted historical aspects of a specific time period as acknowledged by historians. It’s important to note that within this genre, subgenres like alternate history and historical fantasy intentionally insert ahistorical or speculative elements into the narrative.

"Historical novel, a novel that has as its setting a period of history and that attempts to convey the spirit, manners, and social conditions of a past age with realistic detail and fidelity (which is in some cases only apparent fidelity) to historical fact." — Adam Augustyn (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

The forerunner works of historical fiction go back above all to the theatre. From Ancient Greece at least we find plays that mix historical events and characters with fictional elements, an example is The Persians (472 BC), by Aeschylus. Under the influence of Renaissance and humanism, several notable writers of classicism and later romanticism also wrote immortal plays about events in Roman, Greek, and medieval history, such as Julius Caesar (1599), Antony and Cleopatra (1607) and many other plays by Shakespeare, and Egmont (1788) and other plays by Goethe.

During the 19th century, historical fiction emerged as a genre within Western literature. This occurred within a context where writers, particularly those associated with the romanticism or realism movements, were interested in portraying and reflecting on the stories of their nations. The trend was evident among authors from various European countries. Such was the case with Walter Scott in England, Honoré de Balzac in France, and Leo Tolstoy in Russia.

Waverley; or, 'Tis Sixty Years Since, by Walter Scott. Source: thescottishlandscape.

In parallel, historical fiction also appeared in abundance in music; above all, we can highlight several opera pieces in Italian and German, such as those by Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner. Many filmmakers in the 20th century adapted historical fiction to the cinema, such as Akira Kurosawa (Japan) and Ridley Scott (England).

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, we saw video game directors interested in investing in historical fiction in video games. A pioneering work on this proposal in video games was The Oregon Trail (1971), developed by Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger. Later, notable contributions from directors like Steven Spielberg (with Medal of Honor) and Patrice Désilets (with Assassin’s Creed) propelled historical fiction elements to new heights of popularity within the realm of video games. However, video games rarely have deep, detailed, and thoughtful works in terms of historical fiction.

Oblivion recently released Pentiment (2022), one of those rare good works of historical fiction in video games. My goal is to see what this game can teach with the development and appreciation of historical fiction in video games. The best approach is to compare this game to other notable works of historical fiction in a similar context, like The Name of the Rose.

Differences From Historical Fiction in Literature, Cinema, and Video Games

The Name of the Rose, a novel by Umberto Eco published in 1980, and its film adaptation directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud in 1986, serve as illustrations of historical fiction. Both works are set in the Middle Ages and encompass historical, cultural, and religious elements of that era. However, there are differences between the book and the film’s impact on the portrayal of these historical elements.

Firstly, the book contains much more historical detail than the movie, especially regarding the daily life of the monks and the theology and philosophy of the time. The book presents long discussions on topics such as the nature of laughter, the relationship between language and truth, and the dispute between the Franciscan and Dominican orders. These historical elements are absent from the movie, which focuses more on the mystery plot.

Secondly, the movie presents some alterations in relation to the book’s plot. One notable change lies in the protagonist's depiction, William of Baskerville, who is portrayed as a more conventional action hero in the movie, in contrast to his more reflective and intellectual portrayal in the book. The ending of the movie is also slightly different from the ending of the book.

Finally, it is important to note that both the book and the movie present elements of fiction that are not strictly historical. For example, the book and the movie present a series of murders and intrigues that are not based on real historical events. In addition, the plot of the book and the movie presents a series of symbolic and allegorical elements that go beyond the historical context of the time in which they take place.

We can see that part of the content of historical representation in Umberto Eco’s book was changed in the film due to differences between cinema and literature. A book is much more conducive to leading the reader into extensive reflections on philosophical and theological issues about the relationship between language and truth, the nature of laughter, and the concept of time.

Conversely, a film is required to be more efficient in immersing the viewer in a captivating murder investigation adventure and has the ability to heighten the impact of mystery and dramatic scenes. Consequently, it is only natural to expect that Jean-Jacques Annaud would lead the plot to emphasize this facet of the book.

With a video game, it also seems powerful in immersing the player in a murder investigation adventure. Furthermore, video games possess the ability to engage the player for a longer period, enabling them to immerse themselves in expansive narratives and granting them the means to interact with the unfolding events, particularly within the realm of the RPG genre. Additionally, it becomes possible to introduce theoretical reflections through side quests, documents, and optional dialogues. That is precisely what Pentiment (2022) provides within the realm of historical fiction. This game, directed by Josh Sawyer and featuring narrative design by Zoe Franznick, embodies the essence of such immersive storytelling.

"The mystery is core to the narrative of the game. We took a lot of inspiration from mysteries that occur in historical fiction, such as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and The Return of Martin Guerre. Both of these were major influences on Pentiment and are, if not murder mysteries, then mysteries themselves, and so that was always a core motif of the game."
— Zoe Franznick (interview SUPERJUMP, 2022)

In all three areas — literature, cinema, and video games — the works in question mix the representation of historical phenomena known in historiography with purely fictional representations. With literature, we often see many more dialogues and thoughts that are impossible to verify by historiography. As cinema inevitably needs to give a visual representation of the scenes of the story, it tends to have more visual inaccuracies, as sometimes it will have to put things in the scenario that we can only assume could be in that context.

Lastly, in the realm of video games, not only does the question of the amount of dialogue and internal monologue resurface, but an additional layer also comes into play: the realm of possibilities. What actions were within the realm of possibility for a historical character during a specific period? The design mechanics of a historical fiction game are often intricately tied to the potential actions a character could undertake within their historical context. Therefore, a game is not bound by a single predetermined course of history. This aspect is intriguing as it unveils to the player the vast array of possibilities throughout human history. Each possibility must be meticulously studied by developers to prevent anachronisms from arising.

Parallels Between Pentiment and The Name of Rose

Pentiment and The Name of the Rose are considerably different in terms of plot, starting with the distinction that Pentiment unfolds during the early modern era in 16th-century Germany, whereas The Name of the Rose is set in 14th-century Northern Italy. However, despite these disparities, both works share several thematic elements, including the Inquisition spanning from the 12th to 19th centuries, the interplay of art and writing, theological exploration, and the intricate relationship between religion and power.

In Pentiment, the main character is accused of heresy and is forced to flee the Inquisition. In The Name of the Rose, the protagonist investigates a series of murders in an abbey where the Inquisition plays an important role in the plot. Pentiment shows the Inquisition as a force present in everyday life, while The Name of the Rose portrays them as a subtle and obscure force.

In Pentiment, the story involves two artistic protagonists: a man who works with illuminations, and a woman who works with frescoes. In The Name of the Rose, the story revolves around an ancient manuscript on the philosophy of art (the only remaining copy of Aristotle's Second Book of Poetics) and addresses its artistic and historical value. However, whereas Pentiment focuses on the artist's creative process, The Name of the Rose focuses on the history and importance of the ancient manuscript.

In Pentiment, the protagonists find themselves continuously interrogated about their faith and religion, potentially leading to accusations of heresy. In The Name of the Rose, the story involves an investigation into the meaning of an ancient manuscript and its theological implications. However, whereas Pentiment presents a more personal view of faith and religion, The Name of the Rose poses more complex and deeper questions about the meaning of religion and its role in society.

Religion and Power:
Both works explore the relationship between religion and power. In Pentiment, the Inquisition plays an important role in the story, highlighting how religion can be wielded as a means of manipulation and oppression. On the other hand, The Name of the Rose revolves around an investigation into the motives behind the abbey murders, exposing how religion can be a form of political control. However, while Pentiment primarily focuses on portraying the Inquisition as an oppressive institution, The Name of the Rose presents a more nuanced and broader perspective on the interplay between religion and power, showing how it can be used for both good and evil purposes.

In both works, writing is presented as a way of preserving history and knowledge, something that is valued by the characters. In Pentiment, the main character is dedicated to copying ancient manuscripts to preserve the history and culture of her people. In The Name of the Rose, the abbey’s library is viewed as a valuable treasure that needs to be protected at all costs, as it contains important knowledge that may be lost forever.

Among all these aspects, perhaps the deepest parallel is in the meaning of writing. In Pentiment, writing is an object of desire and a tool of power. The main character, an artist working at the German court, accepted the job of copying an ancient manuscript that contains a valuable secret. They instructed her to make copies of the manuscript and then destroy the original to ensure that no one else can discover the secret. Writing, therefore, is power and knowledge that needs to be protected and controlled.

Within The Name of the Rose, Jorge, believing that humor and lightheartedness serve as tools of the Devil, poisons the pages of Aristotle’s Second Book of Poetics, a work centered on the theme of comedy. He aimed to halt the spread of what he perceived as dangerous ideas. Anyone who reads the book inadvertently ingests the poison while licking their fingers to help turn the pages.

Lastly, it is important to highlight that, while there are several parallels between Pentiment and The Name of the Rose, each work possesses unique thematic elements within its respective plot. For instance, Pentiment delves into topics that may not be present in either the film or book adaptation of The Name of the Rose. The game tackles subjects related to the transition from the medieval to the modern period, such as the emergence of the printing press and the Protestant Reformation.

What Makes Pentiment and The Name of the Rose Good Historical Fictions?

Since The Name of the Rose and Pentiment are recognized as good works of historical fiction, we must ask ourselves: what makes these works good historical fiction in their respective media (literature, cinema, and video games)? We can highlight three fundamental aspects that usually make works of historical fiction good: accuracy, insight, and immersion.

I. Accuracy

As historical fiction is defined by the conjunction between fictional elements and characters or contexts based on historiographical knowledge, naturally one criterion for evaluating the quality of historical fiction is how accurate it is with its historiographical sources. To analyze this aspect of the work, works of historical fiction often have a bibliography, so that the reader, spectator, or critic can know what it was based on (as there is often more than one probable interpretation for some historical events).

This does sometimes happen in some historical fiction, such as Pentiment, whose bibliography also includes Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Sometimes, as in the book Memoirs of Hadrian (1951) by Marguerite Yourcenar, there is even a long section commenting on the interpretations and sources chosen to base the novel. On the other hand, some works limit themselves to showing the researchers who provided assistance for the work, or sometimes the references appear only implicitly.

The accuracy of historical fiction lies in its solid foundation of historical elements that align with the knowledge available in historiography at the time of the work’s release. It is important to note that the quality of a historical fiction work cannot be judged based on historiographic information that becomes known only after its release. In these terms, if we understand historical fiction as a subtype of science fiction (since it is based on historical sciences), we can make an analogy with Isaac Asimov’s distinction between hard science fiction and soft science fiction.

Hard Historical Fiction:
Analogously, we can say that hard historical fiction is fiction that is highly rigid in terms of historical background. Ideally, hard historical fiction contradicts nothing known in the historical sciences. However, fictional creativity enters those parts of the story about which there is no consensus about what happened. Here, the screenwriter is free to choose between hypotheses considered probable or even to formulate his own hypothesis, as long as it is plausible and consistent with the other information we know about the respective historical period.

For example, we know that Julius Caesar died on March 15, 44 BC, at 55, but we don’t know exactly what he did the day before his death. Nothing prevents a historical fiction writer from writing that Julius Caesar went horseback riding in the morning and in the afternoon he visited an old friend, as these are possible things that could have happened and do not contradict historical knowledge.

"Assassination of Julius Caesar", by Vincenzo Camuccini. Source: La Galleria Nazionale (via Wikicommons).

Soft Historical Fiction:
Analogously, we can say that Soft Historical Fiction is fiction that is only partially committed to the historical basis. The writer of soft historical fiction chooses the extent to which they want to consider what is known in historiography. They can even intentionally deny a historical fact and create counterfactual historical fiction.

For example, in Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle (1962), the story unfolds in 1962, fifteen years after the conclusion of World War II in the year 1947. However, it diverges into an alternate timeline where Nazi Germany emerged victorious in the war, alongside the Japanese Empire. This deliberate deviation from historical fact does not constitute an inaccuracy in historiography; rather, it serves as a deliberate exploration of captivating historical questions, prompting readers to imagine the potential outcomes if World War II had yielded different victors.

The Man in the High Castle (book), by Phillip K. Dick. Source: Ethan Harvey.

Through this last example, I hope to show that soft historical fiction is not necessarily worse than hard historical fiction. There are good reasons to create counterfactual historical fiction. It has the ability to have us consider the importance of certain historical facts and reflect on how everything could have been different if a certain historical event diverged from its known course. Note that in this way, I imply that accuracy is just one thing that makes historical fiction quality. This brings us to the insight factor.

II. Insight

From my point of view, the most important factor for good historical fiction is how it raises interesting questions about history and historiography, provoking insights into the significance of what happened or what could have happened. Both The Name of the Rose and Pentiment are successful historical fiction in this regard.

For quite some time, historians and philosophers have concurred on the notion that Aristotle’s Poetics is an unfinished work. However, The Name of the Rose raises a thought-provoking question regarding Aristotle’s Poetics. There are places where Aristotle suggests he will comment more on some subject later, but he doesn’t. Perhaps the most famous example is the concept of “catharsis”, about which we know very little. Umberto Eco poses the following question: what if Book II of Poetics was about comedy? This makes sense, as the book we have on Poetics deals almost exclusively with Epic and mainly with Tragedy.

The author of The Name of the Rose goes further and reflects on what might have happened to the hypothetical Book II (about comedy). As Eco is a great medievalist, he inferred very well how this work would be received in the Middle Ages. Considering the theological discussions of the second half of the medieval period, it makes sense that a positive view of laughter could have been associated with something dangerous and evil.

Leonardo Bruni's translation of Aristotle's Poetics. Source: Wiki.

Pentiment also poses an interesting historical question about language and society during the transitional period between the medieval and modern periods. As established in historiography, this transformative process was not instantaneous but spanned across centuries, leading some historians to adopt the notion of “A Long Middle Ages” coined by Jacques Le Goff, extending until the start of the Industrial Revolution. In Pentiment, we can see that we live in a transitional period. It is possible to notice the coexistence of humanist and Renaissance values with theological and feudal values.

What is fascinating about Pentiment is the way it shows how people who read and work with printed texts have a formal speaking/writing style that is uniform and standardized. On the other hand, people who are illiterate or who are used to texts with cursive handwriting are easily distinguished by the way they write and speak, some speak and write in an extremely ornate and polished way, while others write and speak in a simple and crude manner.

In this way, the game offers an interesting insight into the influence of writing on power relations in society. Usually, we associate the press as an important factor in the democratization of knowledge, but we don’t always remember the impact this had on the way of writing and speaking.

III. Immersion

Lastly, immersion stands as another important factor that defines exceptional fiction. While historical accuracy is crucial, it is equally important to use such historical knowledge to construct an immersive environment for the readers, viewers, or players. For this work to have didactic, reflective, and critical potential, it is important that it be minimally immersive so that those who appreciate it feel transported to another historical time or another place. Both Pentiment and The Name of the Rose (film) do this well, albeit through distinct approaches.

While Jean-Jacques Annaud's film strives to create a realistic context for the characters' costumes and settings inside and outside religious institutions, Josh Sawyer's game uses a clever animation strategy that makes the player feel immersed in the way stories were written and read during the period: by illuminations. In Pentiment, even the cutscenes work like illustrations in a medieval book, and when we move from one scenario to another, the loading screen is replaced by a page turn.

Both Pentiment and The Name of the Rose use various historical references to imagine the setting, the costumes, and even the way the characters speak or write. These references are present from the food served on the peasants’ tables to the terms and phrases in Latin and Greek during theoretical discussions between priests and academics. An important part of the immersion is also in music and sounds, and both works take great care in these aspects.

The Potential of RPGs for Historical Fiction

I would like to say a few words about the potential of RPGs for historical fiction. Pentiment’s studio is known for its tradition of designing good RPGs, but beyond tradition, I think there are other reasons for choosing the RPG genre for Pentiment.

In fact, there are two great potentials within the historical fiction genre that have yet to be fully explored: the ability to portray the historical process of social and cultural evolution, and the capacity to depict the history of freedom through plausible choices made by historical figures within their respective time periods. These potentials offer vast opportunities for in-depth exploration and expansion within the realm of historical fiction.

Pentiment. Source: Obsidian.

I really appreciate the way Pentiment allows us to assume different backgrounds for our characters. We may be educated at different universities in different parts of Europe and have very different skills, such as having studied theology or law. These choices are not arbitrary but represent common choices at universities in that period. Choices like these uniquely and immersively represent the freedom of aristocrats and burghers in the 16th century.

All freedom is restricted to a time and space, and role-playing games are able to directly immerse the player in these contexts of freedom in a way that books, movies, and linear games cannot. Similarly, all evolution is also circumstantial, the capacity for social mobility depends on the social structure of a society, which can be more or less rigid. RPGs are privileged to represent this in their games, as the foundation of RPGs lies in evolution mechanics, so this genre is conducive to making the player feel how rigid or malleable a society is in terms of growth in a professional career, social class, and other aspects.

Although video games are already about half a century old, this medium took a long time to gain satisfactory technical resources to make immersive historical fiction. Additionally, it took a while for the medium to be taken more seriously as a form of artistic expression. Pentiment is one of the rare video games with historical and creative depth comparable to notable works of historical fiction in other media. This game is a testament to the future of historical fiction in video games, particularly within the realm of role-playing games (RPGs).


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