Infernal epic gets video game makeover

One of literature’s most famous visions of life after death is given a suitably bloody makeover with Dante’s Inferno, a hack-and-slash adventure video game that dropped this week for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

Hellish · New Electronic Arts game Dante’s Inferno follows a former crusader’s journey through hell after his beloved Beatrice is kidnapped. - Photos courtesy of Visceral Games

Based loosely on the epic poem by Italian poet Dante Alighieri, Dante’s Inferno follows a former crusader’s brutal journey through the nine circles of hell after his beloved Beatrice is kidnapped by Lucifer. The design of the game’s underworld was heavily inspired by the poet’s famous vision of a hell divided into layers ordered by the cardinal sins.

“We were really interested in making a game set in hell, and not just any version of hell, but specifically the medieval Christian vision of the afterlife,” said Jonathan Knight, the game’s executive producer and creative director.

That focus led the development team at Visceral Games — the Electronic Arts studio behind the survival horror game Dead Space — to Dante’s legendary “Inferno.” Thankfully for the crew designing the game, both Dante’s detailed descriptions in the inferno itself and the widespread influence that his satirical masterpiece has on Western art and literature translated easily into game’s design.

“In researching the topic, we quickly realized that Dante Alighieri’s imaginative and comprehensive depiction of hell in nine circles was more than enough material for a video game adaptation,” Knight explained. “In seeing the many, many maps of hell that have been drawn over the centuries based upon reading his poem, it just became clear that an amazing road map was at our fingers.”

For example, the level modeled after lust the second circle of hell, finds the bone-scythe wielding Dante struggling against the poet’s notorious hurricane of lustful souls. He eventually climbs a decidedly phallic tower and faces off against a humongous version of the circle’s most notorious resident, Queen Cleopatra.

In contrast to the video game’s main character, the original poem’s protagonist was a meek poet following the deceased Beatrice from inferno to paradise. Some of Dante’s famous satirical portraits of his political and religious contemporaries writhing about underground are left intact in the game, but overall, the reimagining takes on a far darker and more violent tone.

The game clearly distinguishes itself from the satire and melodrama of the original work, and Knight promises the new narrative direction the game takes will be just as compelling as the underlying story about a desperate man chasing his beloved through the bowels of the afterlife.

“In addition to being an adaptation of one of the great works of Western literature, there is a very powerful and universal story that the team has crafted — which sits on top of the poem — that really keeps you playing,” Knight said.

One major point of criticism that the game has faced — especially after the release of the demo a few months ago — is that the gameplay too closely resembles that of powerhouse Sony franchise God of War, another series based on a blood-stained antihero tearing through ancient mythology. Knight suggested that it is his game’s play with the notions of sin and redemption that truly sets it apart from the more amoral Kratos, the protagonist of the Greek myth-inspired God of War.

“The combat focuses on the duality of the hero — as both a holy and unholy warrior — and allows the player to either absolve or punish the damned and the many minions of Hell,” Knight explained. “This duality permeates the upgrade trees, the magic system, the collectible relics and the result is a much more open-ended and tunable set of abilities than the typical action game.”

The game arrives on the coattails of an expansive and instantly notorious marketing campaign that featured — among other things — checks for $200, publicly mailed to game critics in the name of  greed.

A lot of the buzz around Dante’s Inferno in recent weeks came from the re-release of the original poem with a new cover based on the game, a bonus section of screenshots and even a brand new foreword written by Knight.

“It was a tremendous thrill, and I put a lot of time into it,” Knight said concerning the daunting task of writing an introduction to one of the most famous works of Western literature. “While the video game is obviously a very loose adaptation of the poem, I am nonetheless a huge admirer of Dante’s genius and what he accomplished.”

Putting aside all the hype, the pre-release criticism and the wild and weird deviations from the original work, Knight believes that one positive effect of Dante’s Inferno the video game might be that it draws gamers to “Dante’s Inferno,” the poem.

“I wanted people to see how the game team strove to stay connected with the source material throughout the creative process,” Knight said. “And I truly believe that more people will come into contact with The Divine Comedy as a result of the game project.”