As The Simpsons Game wrapped up, creative director Jonathan Knight approached his boss, Nick Earl -- now general manager of the Visceral Games studio at Electronic Arts Redwood Shores -- about creating a new franchise. Based on the work of poet Dante Alighieri, the games that would become Dante's Inferno evolved from early prototypes into an adaptation of Inferno, the first part of his epic poem, the Divine Comedy, originally written in the 1300s.
Of course, as we now know, the adaptation is rather loose -- recasting the protagonist and historical figure Dante as a Crusader, and profoundly changing the story of Beatrice, his real-life love interest, as well. In the end, the poem has been dramatically reworked to fit the format and tone required of a contemporary action game.
Here, Jonathan Knight discusses the process behind those changes, and the creative philosophy that guided his reimagining of both Dante's story and his foundational conception of Hell, which has guided popular thought for hundreds of years, and also serves as the setting for the game's action.
How can works of literature be adapted to games, and which ones will work? To find out more, read on.
You must be pretty excited because you're finally getting to ship the game. About how long was the development process?
JK: Um, you know, it was... gosh, good question. I started working on the concept in about the middle of 2007. Production was a little over two years.
I found it really interesting that you guys picked this source material. Obviously The Divine Comedy is one of the fundamental classics of Western literature. What made you think to go in that direction?
JK: Well, we were really interested in doing a game set in Hell, and I think that was really the initial impulse: it was to craft an experience around that kind of dark fantasy of Hell as a real place.
And I was interested in, specifically, the medieval, Christian vision of Hell, you know, as a place of structure, where sinners go and are punished; and I think that a lot of us had a sense that that was a really sophisticated mythos. And when you start researching that topic, one name kind-of always goes to the top, and that's Dante Alighieri.
Like a lot of people, I was familiar with the title, and you know, probably was supposed to read it in school, and didn't, so I picked up a copy -- I had it on my bookshelf at home -- and sat down with it to go through it, just being really interested in this topic, and was blown away at the amount of detail in the poem, in terms of how he envisions this place.
Dante Alighieri synthesized hundreds of years of medieval thought, as well as ancient thought, about the afterlife. And he just creates such a vivid depiction of it that I thought there was plenty of material, enough material there to create a whole game. And rather than just borrowing ideas here and there, we set about to systematically bring his vision to life in the game.
There's also been a lot of discussion about the ways in which the game deviates from the source material. I was wondering if you would be interested in talking about that as well -- in terms of the character, for one thing: the main character has gone through quite a change, and some of the other elements have as well.
JK: The first big challenge was Dante himself. In the poem, he casts himself as the main character, which is very unusual for his time. He was a poet and politician and thinker.
When you read the poem, it's a travelogue of him and Virgil going through the afterlife. They're on a pilgrimage; there's an objective there, which is to reach Beatrice -- who is also a biographical figure from Dante's life -- who died when she was quite young, and he really writes the poem as this way to visit her in the afterlife.
We knew we were going to make an action game, a video game, which needed to have a strong conflict, and we needed a guy who had a background as a warrior, who could fight his way through the nine circles, instead of just talking his way through them. And so, that's where we took that bold step to say, "Well, let's reimagine this guy. Let's cast him as this fallen Crusader who has this morally questionable background."
And rather than Beatrice being waiting for him on the other side, let's have her being a captive that's been kidnapped and taken down into Hell, and Dante sets out on a mission to basically rescue her. And what he finds is that, she's really there because of him, and the things that he's done, and so it really does become less of a rescue mission, more of a redemption story, as you move through the game.
So that was really the place where we needed to make that strong departure, so that there was a story there, of conflict, and the guy had a reason to fight.