[In a series analyzing games a year after their release date, Gamasutra's Simon Parkin examines EA and Visceral Games' Dante’s Inferno, to find a game that, despite featuring a “50-foot topless Cleopatra from whose pert breasts knife-wielding infants leap” is "unlikely to be nearly so enduring as its inspiration."]
Few video games have drawn upon 14th Century Catholic poetry for inspiration, and yet this unorthodox starting point did little to distinguish Visceral Games’ take on Dante Alighieri’s poem Dante’s Inferno -- released for consoles in February 2010 -- from the pack.
The scenes featured in Renaissance Catholic nightmares, it turns out, share much in common with the stock environments of contemporary video games.
The bloodied walls, Hellish monsters and unending screams are as much a canonical part of gaming’s landscapes as the pea-green hills of Mario’s Mushroom Kingdom. The tone and imagery of the poem is already embedded into the medium, from id Software’s Doom all the way through to Brutal Legend.
As such, EA’s eagerness to generate a storm of controversy ahead of the game’s release - even going to far as to hire actors to pretend to be Christian protesters at E3 in 2009 – seemed wholly misguided.
For one, the original’s author would no doubt be thrilled at the prospect of his poem being turned into a hack-and-slash video game, rendered in all its gory detail, in the hope of shocking a new godless generation into repentance.
But more than that, Dante’s Inferno is a work that visualizes the horrors of hell, a rich pool of inspiration perfect for a video game artist to plunder, albeit perhaps without the subtext of hope for the player’s salvation.
Indeed, the only classic in danger of desecration at Visceral’s hands was God of War. It was from David Jaffe’s game from which the developer borrowed not only a slew of interactive vocabulary - from the button-mash weak and strong attacks to the Quick Time Event interludes – but also a general approach in turning ancient myth to modern game.
Squint and Dante himself even looks like Kratos, the bare, ripped torso distinguishable only by way of the crusader’s cross stitched into the flesh. Meanwhile, in the hands, the two characters are almost interchangeable, Dante’s scythe offering melee and ranged attacks with which to combo together kills, while his double jump and wall-scaling abilities facilitate rudimentary platform puzzles.
Arguably, however, the sequential circles of hell, each themed to one of the deadly sins offer a more robust framework for the game to fit within than the scattershot myths of Sony’s work. The sin in question themes the enemy design, while the notable villains from history that Dante encounters slot within each environment according to the wrongdoing from which they found their fame.
So a 50-foot topless Cleopatra from whose pert breasts knife-wielding infants leap represents the darker side of lust. There is no subtlety or nuance here, but then, Alighieri’s imagery left little to the imagination and even less to question.
Less successful than the game’s bold recreation of the poem’s monsters, however, was its ability to communicate the wider message of the original work. Impale an enemy on the tip of your scythe and you are given the option to either punish or absolve them via a gruesome finishing move.
Punishment earns you Unholy points, opening up offensive moves for purchase on Dante’s ability tree, while absolution earns Holy points that unlock new defensive and ranged attacks. While one might expect development towards ‘good’ and ‘evil’ to be mutually exclusive, morality choices within Dante’s Inferno have no meaningful outcome over the long term, instead merely dictating which areas in which the hero excels in the short term.
Even more interesting has been the commentary on the game from the academic community following its release, the game attracting criticism for its twisting of the relationship between Dante and his lover Beatrice Portinari.
In the poem, Beatrice’s role is to lead Dante towards salvation, a theme that is inverted in the game to the more orthodox video game premise in which the hero is on a journey to save the girl.
Columbia University Professor Teodolinda Barolini, a former president of the Dante Society of America, said of the narrative twist: “Of all the things that are troubling, the sexualization and infantilization of Beatrice are the worst. Beatrice is the human girl who is dead and is now an agent of the divine. She is not to be saved by him, she is saving him. That’s the whole point. Here, she has become the prototypical damsel in distress. She’s this kind of bizarrely corrupted Barbie doll.”
That the game should appropriate (and exaggerate) the imagery of Alighieri’s poem but discard the meaning may be troubling to Ivy League professors, but in a sense, the editorial lobotomy reflects the intent of its creators. Alighieri’s desire was to challenge readers’ beliefs.
By contrast, Visceral Games’ intent was merely to entertain, not to evangelize. Far easier to do that by having players rescue a damsel in distress than encounter a ghost who leads the way to a spiritual epiphany.
In a Western culture that has largely turned its back on notions of guilt and afterlife punishment, the Hellish visions in the game instead assume a kind of pornographic quality: they exist to delight through their riotous perversion, not to offer a sort of spiritual disincentive.
But even judged purely on that quality, the game falls short of its potential, the stand-out boss battles failing to elevate what is a woolly, imprecise God of War cover version. So while Dante’s Inferno the video game may rank higher than Dante’s Inferno the poem in a Google search today, it’s unlikely to be nearly so enduring as its inspiration.