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The Literary Merits of Dante's Inferno

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Tuesday, Mar 23, 2010
The funniest thing about Dante’s Inferno is that the only people who will really enjoy the game are the fans of the poem.

Dante’s Inferno is not a game for someone expecting to experience a precise reading of the poem. Video games and linear storytelling don’t get along very well, and unless you’re dealing with a genre built around delivering content, the plot is always going to remain in the background. An interview with the game’s Creative Director, Jonathon Knight, at Gamasutra explains their approach, “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. Ultimately the game is this gateway into Dante’s vision of Hell, but it’s not meant to replace a reading of the poem, obviously, which is much more sophisticated” (Christian Nutt, “The Road To Hell: Creative Direction in Dante’s Inferno”, Gamasutra, 5 February 2010). Knight explains later that they wanted to rely more heavily on the unique ability of video games to create a sense of place by having the game be a brawler but featuring elaborate setpieces to break up the fighting. Since the game relies heavily on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s translation of the poem, I’ll be citing that translation for this post.

Boiling down the first book of the Divine Comedy to its surface elements is a bit trickier than it sounds because you either think the poems are about three stages of the afterlife or that they’re about Dante’s spiritual transformation as he grapples with accepting God’s authority. Dante himself wrote in a letter to Can Grande della Scala, “The subject…of the whole work, taken literally, is the condition of souls after death, simply considered…But if the work be taken allegorically, the subject is man, how by actions of merit or demerit, through freedom of the will, he justly deserves reward or punishment.” (172) Given that the game re-imagines Dante as a Crusader who wields Death’s scythe, who can absolve damned souls to Heaven, and who can shoot super spirit crosses using a crucifix, it seems safe to say that the game is not taking the literal approach to the poem.

From Gustav Dore

Gustave Dore

Put as simply as possible, the one common trait that every sinner has in the poem or game is that they don’t think that they’ve done anything wrong. Committing a sin does not automatically damn you to Hell in Dante’s poem (there are loads of truly nasty people in Purgatory), it’s just that the people in Hell refuse to accept any blame for their situation. Most of them instead blame God or the circumstances that forced them into the act. For example, when Francesca is explaining her fate to Dante she cries out, “If were the King of the Universe our friend”, which is basically just a nice way of saying “God did this to me” (V. 91) Other sinners like Count Ugolino, who ended up eating his own children while locked in prison, blames his act on circumstances rather than his own failings. In other words, they blame God for their being in Hell. It’s a humanist interpretation of sin and punishment because all of these people are being punished for not acknowledging the ramifications of their actions. Virgil explains to Dante, “Of every malice that wins hate in Heaven, Injury is the end; and all such end either by force or fraud afflicteth others” (XI, 22-24). What makes something a sin in Dante’s poem is that it harms other people. What damns you to Hell is refusing to acknowledge that your actions have hurt others.

There’s more to it than that and large parts of the poem are Dante struggling with accepting those values but that seems to be the angle that the game takes. Dante spends the whole game remembering his past sins and accepting his share of the blame. He starts off by refusing to believe that either he or Beatrice belong in Hell and that he can redeem himself. Yet as he keeps remembering his crimes during the Crusades, he realizes that he only has himself to blame. For example, Dante’s father shouts at one point in a boss fight, “Go on, use me as an excuse. I’m not responsible for the man you are.” By the time he reaches the final circle, Dante throws down his cross and admits that he truly does belong in Hell for his sins. Although Beatrice is effectively reduced to being another princess in a castle as my editor G. Christopher Williams put it, I don’t think that her role was that much better in the poem anyways (Sorry, Dante, but your princess is in another castle,, 3 March 2010). Beatrice wasn’t exactly a very deep character to begin with because she’s mainly a symbol of absolute spiritual perfection.

The game consistently gives shout outs to individual characters from the poem by representing them as experience bonuses that can either be dealt with to gain holy or unholy powers, depending on what you decide to do with them. Most of them recite a few sentences of heavily edited dialogue from the poem before you decide their fate. Absolving someone of their sins is, quaintly enough, more time consuming than damning them but can pay off better in the long run. It also neatly captures the essence of how the Divine Comedy is—to paraphrase Dante—a discussion about what punishment best befits a specific crime. The game has been criticized for this feature but I thought that it provided some of the game’s most interesting moments. After hearing a sinner’s cries, the player has the opportunity to read what their sins were before deciding their fate. Allowing the player to decide whether someone should be damned or forgiven is a weirdly “video game way” of recreating that discussion. For example, I sent Brunetto Latini to Heaven along with a few others because I don’t think that they deserved what they got in the poem.

That’s about the most coherent and accurate design element of the game in regards to the poem. Everything else is hit or miss. Dante’s progress in the game is pretty much scene for scene the progress of the poem with certain areas being shortchanged and others getting more attention than they merit. For example, Limbo is just one tiny room full of angry babies, Geryon is now an elevator, and the Malebolge is just a series of challenge matches. If you want to read an excellent scene for scene breakdown of the game, Destructoid has been publishing a series of posts doing just that.

Visually, the game draws heavily on Gustave Dore’s ink prints of Hell combined with Wayne Barlowe’s organic industrialization aesthetic. Both artists depict Hell as a big cavernous space, but Barlowe’s influence is seen mostly in that the walls and rocks in Hell are made from the bodies of sinners. Dore’s influence comes in the form of giant statues that recreate his drawings. So when you’re in the Circle for Greed, you’ll see a statue of Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill, or near the River Phlegyas, you’ll see a statue that looks like an enraged sinner. In the Malebolge, the only thing signifying each trench is a statue of the sinner being punished. The imagery is taken straight out of Dore’s sketches and ink prints. They even stick to the poem’s basic physical descriptions for most of the game, like making the wind in Lust purple (V.89) or the Malebolge composed “wholly of stone and of an iron color.” (XVIII, 2) There are a lot of other impressive set pieces. The Gates of Hell are a recreation of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of the same, while the City of Dis is a gorgeous 3-D version of Wayne Barlowe’s.

The problem with this fusion of different artist’s aesthetics of Hell is that they all rely on representing enormous crowds of people suffering. Dore’s vision of Hell relies on the shock of seeing hundreds or even thousands of people all dumped together in one suffering pile. He magnifies this effect by featuring huge mountains and cliffs in the background so that you truly feel like you are seeing every sinner imaginable. In the game, Hell is a much emptier place because most of the sinners seemed to be trapped in walls. I don’t know what sin that’s supposed to be (maybe it’s what happens to bad game critics), but their presence screws up the theology represented by the paintings. If Hell is divided into nine circles that each focus on a particular punishment for a particular type of sin, why are the “Wall Sinners” everywhere? What do they even represent? I could say the same for a lot of the game’s monsters, which are based on various sins, but I appreciate the need to reuse assets in an AAA game, so what the Hell.

From Wayne Barlowe

Wayne Barlowe

I’m not sure if it’s even possible for a console to depict the number of moving objects necessary to recreate a proper picture of Hell, but without those crowds, Hell feels empty. You have the great towering cliffs and valleys of Dore, built out of souls in the Barlowe style, but once you start walking around, there’s just some statues and demons to kill. Often when you get near one of the rivers, like Styx or Phlegyas, you’ll see hands coming up out of the water, but it really just reinforces the problem. The circle of Greed is an elaborate foundry of molten gold and supposedly burning sinners, but you only hear them in the background. Lust is more purple wind than a place where thousands of listless, helpless souls float about.

The big question for this game is how does it compare to God of War 3? In terms of the actual brawling elements, it’s a basic design with a few new bells and whistles. It wasn’t particularly good or bad in that regard, but compared to God of War 3’s epic boss battles, it doesn’t begin to compete. In terms of setting and the creation of a coherent sense of place? Dante’s Inferno wins because the game is always encouraging me to look around and appreciate my surroundings. I spent most of the game just looking for all the cleverly hidden nods and references to the poem. When you first come across Charon, he recites the opening lines of Canto III and the warning at the Gates of Hell. The three giants guarding Judecca are now frozen into the landscape, trying to blow you off the platform as you fight demons. You’ll come across characters from the poem like Achilles, Count Ugolino, and Pope Bonaparte along with new ones like Mordred from the King Arthur mythos. I loved recognizing the statues from Dore’s pictures or seeing how they depicted a certain area of Hell. There are too many tiny moments to rattle off in one post, which is probably the funniest thing about Dante’s Inferno and its attempts to appeal to a broad audience. The only people who will really enjoy the game are fans of the poem.

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