I recently caught the first few minutes of the cartoon movie version of Dante’s Inferno. Besides reminding me that “serious” cartoons that are supposedly made for adults are often really badly written, it also reminded me of how poorly the motivations were developed for the character, Dante, when I tried to play the video game version.
Using that old chestnut, the “damsel in distress,” as a primary motivator in video game narratives is hardly something new. The slight plot of Donkey Kong wholly rests on the idea of “guy needs to save girl.” This plot line represents a very simple emblem of a traditional sense of heterosexual romance, men pursue women, thus, it is compelling to tell stories about this pursuit or, in the case of games, take on the role of the man pursuing the woman. Embedded in this notion is the idea that a woman is something worth pursuing in and of herself, however, more sophisticated versions of these stories tend to at least attempt to give us some sense of a relationship that exists between these characters or a sense of who the woman is that a man should go to so much trouble for.
Donkey Kong has a seemingly similar advantage that Dante’s Inferno should have in telling its story. Since Donkey Kong derives its minimal structure from King Kong — ape steals guy’s girl, guy has to pursue girl to get her back — prior knowledge of the story of King Kong may help us to understand that a relationship exists between our hero and damsel. The need for exposition then in Donkey Kong is obviated by the romantic background of the story having already been told.
Likewise, a prior knowledge of Dante’s Divine Comedy should give us insight into the relationship between Dante and Beatrice, idealized as it is by the poet. However, Dante’s Inferno has also revised the tale, making Dante and Beatrice’s platonic and ideal love something less so, modernizing it for a contemporary audience. Beatrice “gives it up” only to Dante because he is especially worthy and faithful. A modern day version of “platonic” love is monogamy . . . or something? Despite being familiar with the previous work, the game still leaves me cold regarding Beatrice as a motivation for Dante.
However, I can’t quite figure out why I am pursuing her so very hard (indeed, like the cartoon movie, I only made it through the first 10 or 20% of the game before returning the rental — talk about a lack of motivation). This brief nod to idealization and a few scenes that fail to give me a sense of who this woman is before she is bleeding on the ground and giving up her ghost to Lucifer himself don’t really speak to me of why Dante likes this woman so much.
Curiously, though, lack of motive is at the heart of classic games that utilize the damsel in distress motif. Is Mario in love with Princess Peach? Is that why he is pursuing her in Super Mario Bros.? That has always remained a bit unclear to me in the Mario mythology. I seem to vaguely recall a reward kiss from Peach in some iteration of the series, but Mario’s motives in the first game seem especially unclear as he is merely launched into the Mushroom kingdom and begins moving to the right (assumedly, the direction that “the castle” where Peach is being held exists). The closing scene, in which Peach simply thanks Mario, also doesn’t clarify any kind of romantic closure to a potential love story.
Instead, if we are to assume some sort of romantic motivation or at the very least that the princess is valuable enough to pursue, Peach is defined merely by her status as princess. In this instance, Peach seems to be reduced to a characterless object rather readily. She has a crown, so she is conceived of by the player as something like treasure, maybe? It’s a rather cold emblem of the goal of a romantic, epic quest if that is the case.
That same coldness seems to exist in Dante’s Inferno. While Beatrice and Dante’s relationship is at least represented briefly in some flashback sequences, as noted the player is simply never really given a sense of who this woman. She is blonde and voluptuous and maybe this signifies something like “treasure” in a most bleak vision of the fundamental nature of male-female relationships, but is blonde and voluptuous a sufficient motive for harrowing hell?
Ironically, I just wrote a few weeks ago about “The Romance of Karateka“, a game very much in the vein of Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., and Dante’s Inferno, but I praised it for its success as a romance cast in this very same formula, saying, “In a sense Karateka‘s romantic sensibilities are simple, traditional, and cliched, but they are also simple, relatable, and supported by the gameplay itself, which boils romance down to one thematic interest: how does effort fit into the equation [of romance]?” (Popmatters.com, 3 February 2010). However, I also observed about the reason for the elegance and simplicity of the way that that game approaches romantic relationships is due to the fact that “It is a boy’s story. Frankly, it is a little boy’s story.” While Mariko is the “object” that motivates the effort in the game, nevertheless, the experience of the game focuses the player on its lesson in romance, which is that effort is required to reach that goal. It is a simple enough lesson about love when you haven’t yet reached puberty, requiring no real necessity in creating complex characters and psychologies to support a mature sense of the complexities of a relationship.
Frankly, such simple goals and lessons also make the seemingly purposeless pursuit of Peach similarly palatable to the pre-pubescent gamer. But Mario has always been marketed first towards that demographic. If the game holds charm for adult gamers, that charm lies in its innocence and simplicity because of the way that it has been shaped for its younger target audience.
If that is the case, Dante’s Inferno rating, Mature, may speak to its problems in developing a plot based on underdeveloped relationships and an underdeveloped damsel in distress. While children might need a simple and emblematic vision of romance to tell a story, adults generally want a bit more information to begin to believe in character’s motivations. If Beatrice is represented as a flat, emblematic character laid bare (quite literally, which is part of the many reasons for its rating) for the adult player, the mixture of mature subject matter with an idealized image and childish theme becomes problematic for the game’s target demographic. It is a dilemma for Dante’s Inferno as the imagery that the developers want to portray in hell is certainly not suitable for a child’s eyes, but, unfortunately, the romance that is being presented is maybe only believable when viewing it through those same eyes. It is a children’s story trapped in an adult frame. If the content of games is to mature, characterization needs to mature alongside it.