The Confused Theology of Dante’s Inferno

Brian Crecente, who reviewed Dante’s Inferno for Kotaku and liked it a lot more than I did, writes the following under the subject of things he loved about the game:

“For many, gaming is a lighthearted, thought-free diversion and there are plenty of titles designed to tap into that market. But there are so few that deal with important issues in a consequential way. So the overt inclusion of a Christian Hell guided by Christan morality in a video game meant for a wide audience is a big deal. Not because of what it is saying about the afterlife, but because of what it says about the willingness of a publicly held, widely known game publisher to create something so steeped in controversy and not—beyond horrid marketing—allow that controversy to become the game. It manages to entertain and preach equally.” (Dante’s Inferno Review: Big Ideas, Small Problems, Kotaku, 9 February 2010)

This struck me as an odd thing to praise, since one of the things that I found most confusing and least appealing about Dante’s Inferno was it’s slapdash theology. I’m not a religious person, and while raised Christian, I do not subscribe to any of its dogmas or teachings. I am however familiar with them, both as a student of history and as a generally well-read member of Western civilization, and I think it can be said with some confidence that Crecente has this wrong. Dante’s Inferno does not present a Christian Hell, and the world of this game is not guided by Christian morality. In fact, while the setting has a firm basis in the Christianity of Dante Alighieri’s time, the story and actions of this game contravene those beliefs at every turn.

In the original poem, Dante (the character) is an almost entirely passive figure. Virgil and then Beatrice guide him through the sights and sounds of the afterlife, and he reacts to the horrors and wonders laid out before him. Even the slightest attempt by him to adjust the fate of any of the souls that he encounters fails. This is, indeed, one of the points of the whole poem and of the theology behind it. God has damned these people for eternity. Their own actions in life have forever decided their fate. What they did in this world determines what will happen in the next. The game Dante’s Inferno flies in the face of these bedrock beliefs, as well it should. The Dante of the poem would make a terrible action hero, and there’s not the same market for interactive 3D tour experiences (even of Hell) as there is for action-packed slashfests.

By giving Dante the Crusader the ability to redeem or admonish souls, Visceral has veered wildly from Christian theology, in which only God has such power. It makes for a more interesting character, definitely, but it raises tons of questions that it never tries to examine. Dante’s power to choose the fate of others of necessity implies that the God who damned them in the first place was either wrong or is not all powerful. The fact that as he cuts a swath through Hell’s nine levels Dante takes out some of the most important figures in the damnation process implies that God’s power is finite, that his work can be undone. That’s all great stuff, the kind of stuff that makes an interesting game. My problem is, this game never mentions it.

Crecente claims that the game is notable because it “manages to entertain and preach equally”. I would maintain that the game is not preaching anything at all, indeed it actively dodges the tough questions and the even tougher lessons. Dante successfully defies God’s will at every turn, to which God reacts scarcely at all (beyond a brief appearance by an angel spouting enigmatic dialogue). The message of the game seems to be that you can defy death and damnation, that you can make your own way despite the rules. That’s the easy way out. It’s what we all want to believe. But it’s not the message of the original Divine Comedy.

The fact is, Visceral have done what artists, writers, and theologians have done for ages: taken the parts of a religious text that they liked (monsters, gruesome tortures, etc.) and ignored the parts they found inconvenient. For all its pretensions to seriousness, I think this game deals with issues of faith and damnation even less interestingly than the otherwise flirty and ridiculous (but fun!) Bayonetta does. At least that game acknowledged the inherent theological consequences of a war between forces claiming to be divine and those ascribed with infernal characteristics. Dante’s Inferno borrows all the signifiers of Hell and jams them into a game without pondering the real questions that having such an active character among these emblems of morality raises.

Unless Dante is supposed to be Jesus. Then, we’d have an interesting game…