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The Road To Hell: The Creative Direction of Dante's Inferno
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The Road To Hell: The Creative Direction of Dante's Inferno

February 5, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Giuseppe Crugliano
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We pitched this game to EA into 2004. Said was not a good idea. Disappointing.

Joshua Sterns
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A good Q&A session, but where are the really tough questions. For example.

How is Dante's going to measure up to an already established franchise like God of War? Personally Dante's appears to be a Christian version of God of War.

What is the next focus for Visceral? Are they working on more Dead Space, a Dante sequel, neither, both?

The Metacritic score is currently at 74 for Xbox and 78 for PS3. Was this average score expected, or are critics being overly harsh for a new IP?

I also heard from Kotaku that the DLC has Co-op and a challenge editor. Both these features are rare in action hack/slash games. What motivated the studio to conquer these challenges, and why not include them with the base game? Were they slipped in last minute? Is this just a marketing device to make DI stand out?---buying the game brand new gets you a DLC code.

E Zachary Knight
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Reading this interview reminds me of the first two frames of this comic:

In summary : "A game idea is born. Guns are added to it."

Ted Brown
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I found these questions to be direct and insightful, especially given the... complexities of the game at hand.

Shay Pierce
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Developers: "We want to make a game where you fight demons in Hell using Death's scythe." Publisher: "We want this game to be attached to a recognizable Intellectual Property so it will sell more copies. Are there any IPs we wouldn't have to pay for?"

Result? Dante's Inferno.

Love the title of the article by the way.

Matt Riley
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I really wish this interview had pushed Jonathan Knight more. When a movie adopts a famous work, there are always the hardcore fans that are dismayed by the end product, but we generally can understand the rationale. Peter Jackson, for example, obviously cared about conveying Tolkein's message: "by being faithful to his themes, his characters and the things he clearly cared about, I can at least feel I’m honouring his wonderful imagination in the best way I know how." The Lord of the Rings trilogy brought Tolkien to a much larger audience.

What was the rationale with Dante's Inferno? JK admitted to only presenting the surface layers, modifying the main characters and story line, and not even reading the poem until recently. Why make *this*? If he wasn't a fan of the source materially originally, why couldn't he make a hack and slash game around his own IP?

I really hoped this interview would give us a reason to doubt Shay's comments, but they seem like the most plausible explanation.

I realize this is distorting the intention, but I found Merriam Webster's definition of visceral particularly ironic:

2. not intellectual

3. dealing with crude or elemental emotions

[User Banned]
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Jason Johnson
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@ Dave. Read as: this is what video games have to be when your publisher has lost around 75% of its market value within the span of about a year.

Still its a shame they couldn't build a brawler without dragging an important work of literature into it. It's not like the name carries any weight with gamers, unless they are going for the Devil May Cry reference.

Also, not sure if the title is an intentional double entendre.

Matthew Bonnitt
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I just watched a video of the game and I have to say that it looks like a decent hack n’ slash game in the vein of, yes, Devil May Cry or God of War. I think the game could be really fun.

Like others, though, I have a problem with Visceral’s use of IP. I believe the game would have really worked much better if the game had been marketed as “inspired by Dante’s Inferno” rather than “this IS Dante’s Inferno.” I don’t think there would be such a bad taste in my mouth as Visceral skimmed the most superficial components from a beautiful, complex staple of Western literature. If they had gone the “inspired” route, I would have thought, “Yeah, I can see some connections to the poem.”

Matthew Bonnitt
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Some comments on Knight's quotations:

“And so, we absolutely had to craft a narrative around a very aggressive protagonist with supernatural weapons, and the ability to break into Hell and fight through the nine circles. So, knowing that that's what video games are, and that's what video games are going to be, we definitely had to craft a narrative around that.”

Is that really what video games are and are going to be? That’s a crying shame. I thought the industry was trying to move beyond that (mis)conception, trying to show the world that video games could partake in important cultural dialogues and be just as meaningful and relevant as movies or books.

“The Divine Comedy is a three part piece that's 14,000 lines, and... there's a lot going on there, and I think the game is clearly taking the top couple of layers of that, but it does not go deep into the more theological, or philosophical, or what-have-you elements of the poem.”

This goes back to my marketing comment: if Visceral is just going to take the top layers (the most superficial layers), why try so hard to tie the game to the poem? Why not simply say the game is inspired by the poem? At least this way Visceral would get some points for taking creative license (as things are, creative license actually hurts the product, in my opinion).

“It might be. I think that the list is probably not as long as people might think, you know. I think what works Dante's Inferno, and I think what works about some of these big works of literature that I can imagine as video games, is when they really do more than just tell a story, but they spin a whole world. They create an alternate reality that feels really believable.”

Must a work of literature create an alternate reality for that text to be adaptable for a video game? I don’t think so. In a Gamasutra article, Mona Ibrahim makes up a game about the Russian Revolution as an illustration for her article (link: The first person to post commented on how let down he was that she wasn’t taking about a real game. I completely agree, and the first thing that popped into my head was that Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago would make a great game based on the Russian Revolution. Pasternak didn't create an alternate reality; he just detailed how things were – with some artistic license. The list of books that can be made into games is actually probably quite extensive as long as one is open to different forms of gameplay.

(I understand that Visceral makes certain types of games, which is completely fine. I'm dealing with this statement as a generalization for the industry as a whole, since that is what it seems Knight is saying).

Ismael Escandon
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The issue is all the people saying its a GoW clone or DMC clone everythings a clone of a clone that you can't disagree with even GoW the big thing is : The lil thing that happens when your going to kill something oh you press O thingy : that's how much of an impression GoW did great story yes great gameplay yes still a clone of old gameplay ? Absolutely. I will agree on the fact that they murdered a great poem but hey lets give them a shot the kids are newbs let them figure out stuff.

My point is yes its going to happen where people say "Oh, its more of the same plus GoW is way better" stop living in the past lets give new games a chance I remember the time GoW came out "Man DMC clone so hard game is going to fail" Xplay said 5/5 : gamer said " OMG dude game is so winsauce best game ever". its just easy to agree with others.

Personaly I'm interested and once It comes out and I beat it. I'll say why the hell I didn't or did like it. For now observe and see where the director is taking this game : Game heaven or Game Hell aka "Trashbin".

Leonardo Ferreira
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"Let's cast him as this fallen Crusader who has this morally questionable background."

And then people even ask why is it so hard to make videogames to be taken seriously.

Steve Mallory
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While the poem is filled with imagery that has defined many definitions of Hell since it was written, the poem features very little conflict beyond allegorical internal conflicts about the nature of man and his attempts to bypass sin. Not much in the literal document exists to hang a dramatic story upon - clearly some of this would need to be manufactured.

That isn't to say that you can't create a compelling story using the description of Hell as outlined by Dante. a middling movie but excellent book, "What Dreams May Come", used much of Dante's imagery to describe Hell, and more importantly, provided a much more grounded and emotional reason why a moral, good man would willingly go to Hell. In fact, in my opinion, using that novel as a starting point would much more closely follow the romantic notions of Dante's poem while also providing the dramatic context needed to ground the game in the realities of the poem.

This is what I am curious about, though, is what was their game narrative premise? It looks like "Redemption through the trials of Hell saves True Love", and I think that is the problem. Dante wrote the poem about a long lost love, his true love Beatrice. Perhaps a more compelling premise to the game narrative might have been: "Nothing can stop true love, not even Hell." Dante doesn't need redeeming, he shouldn't be conflicted, dark or brooding. That is such a modern-concept and is misplaced given the context of the material.

Roberto Dillon
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turning Dante into a "fallen crusader with a questionable background" is beyond ridiculous.... On the other hand, having a "fallen crusader with a questionable background" going to hell to rescue his beloved while being led by Dante (who will then play Virgil's role and help/mentor the player in his bloody quest) would have been less offensive to the original material while still delivering the same game in the end. IMHO.

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Steve Mallory
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I think its a case of Dante sprinkling a great many references to politicians, prominent figures, etc. that were his contemporaries, or recent contemporaries, that mean very little to those outside of the Literati who spend a great deal of time analyzing the poem.

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King in Yellow
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What did you expect from EA? Literary Genius?

Carlos Mijares
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I played the demo, which I found entertaining enough, and while it's understandable that it must share many traits of the beat e'm up genre, it felt too much like God of War, moment to moment. From the female narrator, to the art style, to the camera system, background environments, combat, etc. The question becomes, "If I want an experience so closely similar to God of War, why not just wait for GoWIII and then see which one is worth my time?"

@ Joshua Sterns

"The Metacritic score is currently at 74 for Xbox and 78 for PS3. Was this average score expected, or are critics being overly harsh for a new IP?"

They're probably not being unfairly harsh. Just over a month ago the new IP Bayonetta was introduced. The game shares the same genre as Dante's Inferno (i.e. you'd play both games for the same reason, to beat tons of enemies epically), yet it has a Metacritic of about 90 (still too low).

Scott Foulk
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I do not think that this depiction of Dante's Inferno is debasing Dante's literary masterpiece. In fact, I question it as a literary masterpiece to begin with. Dante is basically making himself the protagonist in his own poem. He places the bad people, aka those he doesn't like politically or personally, from Popes to clergymen, into Hell. He places the rest into Purgatory or Heaven, especially Beatrice, who is practically a goddess in the Paradiso. So I don't know why it is labeled as a masterpiece. It appears to be very much a self-indulgent work of poetry - Dante is the victim, and Beatrice is the deity. Albeit, it is very lengthy, and very old. So maybe that's the reason it is a masterpiece.

Just like a vase, only after 2000 years.