A still from the video game Pentiment
Pentiment (Xbox, PC, PlayStation 4|5, and Nintendo Switch)

Pentiment, the historical role-playing video game that had Lawrence University influences all over its development, has won a 2024 Peabody Award.

“I couldn’t be more pleased by the attention Pentiment is receiving,” said Edmund Kern, the associate professor of history at Lawrence who was brought in as a consultant to help the developers stay historically accurate in the world-building of 16th-century Bavaria.

The annual Peabody Awards, celebrating the most compelling and empowering stories in broadcasting and streaming media, were announced May 9, with an awards banquet planned for June 9 in Los Angeles.

Edmund Kern (Photo by Danny Damiani)
Edmund Kern (Photo by Danny Damiani)

It is the latest accolade for Obsidian Entertainment’s Pentiment, developed by a team of designers led by Lawrence alumnus Josh Sawyer ’98, with consulting work from Kern and Lawrence alumnus Winston Black ’99. Sawyer brought Kern and Black into the process because he wanted to get the details right.

That commitment to historical accuracy was praised by the Peabody Awards Board of Jurors as it announced the winners: “Pentiment starts with an unusual premise: an illuminated manuscript artist, and later the daughter of his friend the town printer (an artist herself), must solve a series of mysterious murders that occur over a 30-year period in a small Bavarian town run by the local Catholic Abbey during the early years of the Protestant Reformation. With great historical accuracy, the game intricately weaves period art and print styles into its visuals while delving into the region’s political, economic, and spiritual landscapes, and examining the gender, class, and ethnic dynamics of this period of European history.”

Lawrence expertise fuels historical role-playing game that's drawing rave reviews

Kern, a member of the Lawrence history faculty since 1992 with academic interests in early modern European history, called the video game “an absolute marvel” deserving of all the attention it’s getting.

“I remember meeting with Josh at a restaurant in Appleton early on to discuss planning and how eager he was to develop a game that would emphasize fidelity to the 16th century,” Kern said. “As history geeks, we both thought it could work and find an audience, but not in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would result in a Peabody. That the award committee hailed the game’s historical accuracy is especially gratifying. In both emails and conversations, we discussed getting both the context and details right, and I think it shows in what Josh and his team produced.”

Josh Sawyer seen during video interview about Pentiment.
Josh Sawyer '98 (Photo courtesy of Obsidian Entertainment)

Pentiment is among impressive company. It is one of 34 winners announced by the Peabody Awards across entertainment, documentaries, news programming, radio and podcasts, and public service. Pentiment won in the Interactive & Immersive category, joining three other winners: The Hidden History of Racism in New York City (Instagram); We Are OFK (PlayStation, Nintendo Switch, Steam); and You Destroy. We Create | The war on Ukraine’s culture (Meta Quest).

“Whether courageously documenting wars across the globe or cleverly bringing much needed smiles to our faces, the winners of the 84th Peabody Awards each crafted compelling and imaginative stories,” said Jeffrey Jones, executive director of Peabody. “Spanning a wide range of mediums and genres, they delivered enthralling projects that are worthy of our highest recognition.”

Sawyer, who was featured on the cover of Lawrence magazine in the summer of 2023 for his work on Pentiment, said in 2023 that he reached out to Kern and his classmate Black because of their knowledge of that time period and their commitment to historical accuracy. Black, chair of Christian Studies at St. Francis Xavier University, Nova Scotia, Canada, provided insight on medicinal practices and related social dynamics of that region of Europe in the early 16th century.

The deeper I got into it, the more I realized that even though I continued collecting and reading history books and being interested in history as a topic after I left Lawrence, I am not a historian,” Sawyer said. “There are limits.”

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Sawyer was a history major at Lawrence whose interest in web design, flash animation, and video and role-playing games led him into the world of video game development. Much of his work has been in developing popular action or fantasy games such as Fallout: New Vegas, Pillars of Eternity, and Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire. When Obsidian was purchased by Microsoft in 2018, the door opened to creating more niche products available for Xbox GamePass, including a historical role-playing game.

Pentiment is clearly bringing the full weight of my actual history education to play,” Sawyer said in 2023. “We even have a bibliography in the game. Ed Kern said, ‘That’s a bunch of stuff from my course work.’ And I said, ‘Well, of course it is. Those were very foundational to my understanding of early modern Europe.’ They’re still very fundamental to how I think about that space.”

Sawyer, with an assist from both a former history professor and classmate, is now a Peabody Award winner.