[At E3, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander looks at Visceral Games' Dante's Inferno to argue that perhaps it doesn't need to take its source material -- the seminal, epic poem -- as seriously as some have suggested it ought.]
Audiences often urge game developers to create more sophisticated, artful experiences, and one avenue to this may be to take inspiration from literature. But when creating games -- especially action games -- how faithful to often austere source material should games be?
As soon as details first began emerging on Electronic Arts' Dante's Inferno, earnest, artful and chin-stroking audiences were unhappy that Alighieri's revolutionary epic poem took so many liberties with the source material.
It's not hard to see why. Where the Divine Comedy's Dante is a suicidal soul-searcher on a journey of discovery about self and sin, Inferno's is a former Crusader armed with a giant scythe that looks like it's made out of a monster's spine.
They've made of the hero a real video game character, complete with "dark past", added a vaguely risque subplot about rescuing Beatrice from the devil's seduction, and pegged on a cheerfully insouciant "Go To Hell" tagline.
As a religious allegory, the original work had -- and continues to have -- significant cultural and spiritual impact, and yet here's a revoltingly gory boss kill involving putting a monster's tongue into a spiked gear (developer Visceral Games aptly chose its new name).
None of this is in the Divine Comedy, of course. Surely Visceral could have done more with one of humanity's greatest pieces of literature than make a God of War clone, right?
Judging by its E3 demo, overt mechanical similarities to God of War probably give the game more to worry about in the court of public opinion than whether or not it's faithful to the source material.
Gleefully gruesome and literally hellish, the game seems to use the poem's backbone and references to enrich an action game, rather than use the game as an attempt to emulate an epic poem in video game form.
The very same literature buffs who despaired the lack of fidelity in Dante's Inferno can still get a kick out of recognizable symbology and references in the game -- whether that's hacking up repulsive, spewing "Gluttony minions" by the River Styx, or the imagination of Charon's boat as a living entity with a head to be twisted off at the neck. There are unbaptized babies running around with weapons.
"The real inspiration is the setting, the characters and the script," senior producer Justin Lambros tells Gamasutra. He says the team was interested in visualizing an "actual geography of hell," and the visuals on screen often go with the voice-over from the actual Divine Comedy narrating each scene.
The Divine Comedy, after all, is largely a poem about two guys walking and talking -- not exactly the core gameplay of an action game. In that way, the liberties the team took were intended to create a stronger video game, a more reasonable priority for, well, a video game, than focusing on a strong epic poem adaptation.
As for the batty storyline, Lambros says the team intended to go "over the top" -- and maybe it should. It's an action title set in Hell. Why not have fun with it?
That's certainly not to assert that games should never treat literary sources with gravity. Audiences would like a game that uses the medium's potential to correspond with other cultural sources, and that's an excellent goal. Dante's Inferno is not that game -- it would rather be an action title.
And that's okay. It still becomes an interesting argument for the merit of taking inspiration, rather than being imitative.