fantasy, games, dante's inferno, jonn lupsha, roleplaying, the broken paragon, book/game tie in

Two Tours through Hell: Artistic Liberties in Visceral Games’ Dante’s Inferno

In the translator’s note for his 1954 interpretation of Dante Alighieri’s The Inferno, John Ciardi specifically recognizes the complications of translating an artistic work from one language to another. “When the violin repeats what the piano has just played, it cannot make the same sounds and it can only approximate the same chords. It can, however, recognizably make the same ‘music,’ the same air. But it can do so only when it is as faithful to the self-logic of the violin as it is to the self-logic of the piano” (ix). Ciardi’s philosophy is based on adhering as much to the original text as possible during transposition to best convey its meanings both implicit and explicit. There remains the reality that each instrument has its own abilities and shortcomings and to adapt to them when transposing music from one to the other.

When adapting a work to a different media altogether, though, taking artistic liberties and making loose interpretations to better suit the target audience seems to make an essential survival technique of this idea of adaptation and reinterpretation. So it was with very mixed ambitions of direct interpretation and contemporary innovation that Visceral Games approached Alighieri’s text for their 2010 video game Dante’s Inferno.

The largest problem with Visceral’s liberties with the original poem arises immediately upon booting up the game, and it is in the development of the hero. Throughout much of The Divine Comedy, particularly The Inferno, Dante’s character is a transparent eye into the worlds he explores. He is often a narrator simply bearing witness to the horrors of Hell and the beauty of Heaven, and although he goes on a subtly redemptive journey for his life’s follies, most of which are alluded to in Purgatorio, Dante’s primary function as a character throughout the trilogy is that of a window. He is recast in the game as a battle-hardened soldier of The Third Crusade who has fought under the orders of King Richard I and with spiritual protection offered by an unnamed bishop. During the Crusade, Dante has slain countless enemies and philandered in secret with a female prisoner – he has even sewn a red Holy Cross, often seen adorned by Crusaders and The Knights of the Templar, onto the flesh of his torso. These extreme acts of sexual gratification, self-mutilation and violence by Dante entirely remove him from the possibility of being a softly-treading observer of atrocity like his fictional literary namesake and place him in totally different characterized territory.

Compared to the drastic reimagining of Dante, the following story elements in the first act pale in comparison – and only seem a bit out of place, stylistically, in their narratives. During the Crusade, the player is told that Dante is asked by a beautiful female prisoner to spare the life of her brother – also a prisoner – for which she offers herself to Dante; he agrees and this exchange results in the aforementioned philandering he commits. It is later revealed that Dante’s love Beatrice and his father were slain by this same man Dante has loosed, who was in fact the prisoner’s husband, and Beatrice is now being dragged down through all nine circles of Hell by Lucifer and being turned into a succubus. The treachery played upon Dante by the incarcerated couple feels utterly Shakespearian. Seeing Beatrice’s soul corrupted and soiled gives Dante the motive to travel through Hell to save her, armed with a scythe he has won in battle from Death himself. Dante’s journey to save Beatrice from Lucifer and his winning of Death’s scythe come across as more mythological Greek than anything, reminding one of the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. Even Dante sewing the Holy Cross to his own chest sounds out of place for the Florentine hero, and is written like an extreme example of Arthur Dimmesdale of the 19th-century American classic The Scarlet Letter – the punishment of oneself in masochism and shame.

The end result, in fewer words, is that an essentially passive narrator realizing and rejecting the sin of the everyman in the late Middle Ages is warped into a bloodthirsty, self-mutilating adulterer only motivated to save a woman who we are told wouldn’t be in danger in the first place had he not wallowed in the pleasures of wrath and lust himself. The narrative tone has also changed in nature from singularly early Renaissance-era Italy to include pockets of Greek, English and American symbols spanning from 900 B.C. to the 1850s.

The intent behind disregarding the essence of the narrator and the foil in Dante’s original text is complicated, but is likely rooted in pressure to make his character more appealing to a desensitized gaming audience largely interested in existentialist experiences. In interactive media such as video games, the experience of the single-player adventure generally conforms to a story involving one character making a difference in the world almost completely by himself or herself. Game developers aim to break down the “fourth wall” and immerse the player in the experience, which is more successful with one continuous narrative voice, especially with the incessant complication of command input involved via a controller. In addition, the style of gameplay and cinematic cutscenes in Dante’s Inferno as well as its graphic brutality and nudity are very similar to the astronomically successful God of War series, developed by Sony Computer Entertainment’s Santa Monica Studio, which launched five years prior. The God of War series depicts a violent and hyper-sexualized Ancient Greece and tells a similar story - one relentless soldier’s journey to avenge the accidental death of his family by his own hand, under the influence of Ares and other mythological beings. While Visceral’s iteration of Dante’s epic poem is undoubtedly an original idea, the pressure to emulate or expand upon a successful formula is as prevalent in gaming as it is in film and business. Between the dual influences of a public sick of subtlety and an industry eager to profit from marketable trends, it’s little wonder gamers didn’t find themselves slowly traversing a harrowing and despondent underworld.

However, despite those alterations to the poem doing little to nothing in the game’s favor, there are many instances of genius artistic interpretation of the text of which even Dante scholars would likely approve. Early in the game, Charon makes his appearance as the souls’ ferryman – and, here, the ferry. Here, he takes on the form of an ark crafted of wood and bone, his head and skeleton neck making up the ship’s bow. This illustrates to the player the extent that Charon is, has been and always will be inseparable from his duty ferrying the souls of the damned. This striking image is precisely the kind of dramatic example necessary for the medium of video gaming.

Shortly following Charon’s appearance, the player encounters Minos between the first and second circles. Minos is only superficially changed in comparison to his literary counterpart. In Canto V of The Inferno, Dante writes:

“There Minos sits, grinning, grotesque and hale.
He examines each lost soul as it arrives
and delivers his verdict with his coiling tail.

That is to say, when the ill-fated soul appears before him it confesses all,
and that grim sorter of the dark and foul

decides which place in Hell shall be its end, then wraps his twitching tail about himself
one coil for each degree it must descend.”
(Dante 57-58; Canto V, lines 4-12)

Those stanzas, specifically saying Minos “delivers a verdict” and that he is a “grim sorter,” lead the reader to conjure in his or her mind an image of Minos as a judge and a clerk, perhaps behind a desk, scrutinizing, sentencing and filing away the countless souls that seek him for their punishment. In the game, he is depicted as a 30-foot giant who does exactly this. He grabs a soul, represented by a corporeal body, and smells it, and can subsequently determine its sins. The skin has grown over his eyes, likely a literal interpretation of the term “blind justice,” and he places each soul on a spinning wheel akin to a table saw. The wheel spins rapidly and the souls descend to their places. In the text, Virgil silences Minos and the two move on; in the game, a large-scale battle follows, in which Dante must conquer Minos by force in order to continue down through Hell.

Later, the player sojourns through the fourth circle of Hell – Greed. In Dante’s poem, The Hoarders and The Wasters are depicted brilliantly as two warring armies eternally rolling enormous boulders into each other’s – what they valued so highly in life now weighs them down and forces them to convict to their perspectives. The corresponding area of Dante’s Inferno is a circle of Hell formed entirely of cast-iron vats of molten gold, in which the souls of avarice forever boil and are tormented by their obsession, the rock formations glowing with golden veins.

Visceral Games’ interpretations of Charon and The Fourth Circle are as different from the source material as they are clever, and they show the potential in transposing a creative work to a young and controversial media.

Many faithful adaptations of the book remain throughout the game – the tornado of lustful souls and the bridge leading to it are represented literally as Dante finds himself at the second circle. Cerberus appears more wormlike in the game, though he remains the three-headed beast slavering over the gluttonous. In the eight circle of Hell, Violence, all elements of the original environment are represented fairly. The lake of blood, the wood of suicides and the burning plains (or sands, depending on the translation) all arrive intact. Virgil’s appearances throughout the game contain many quotes directly from the poem as he gives comfort and reassurance to Dante. He also explains the many parts of Hell and their functions, offering justification for the many torments awaiting the dead.

Even some of the specific mythological and historical figures Dante mentions in his text appear, such as Attila and Francesca di Paola, and players are given the option to absolve their sins or punish them for them. Punishing the sinners causes Dante to attack them, and the sinners then turn to smoldering ash. Absolution leads to a mini-game involving capturing sins, after which the sinner begins to float skyward, is enveloped by a pillar of divine light and then disappears. Though there are far fewer high-profile figures in the game than the poem, all that are present come directly from it and even have an accurate one- to two-sentence summary of the person and his/her sins.

Before the player has his or her final showdown with Lucifer, Ciardi’s “self-logic of the instrument” has undoubtedly revealed itself. The constant bloodshed and action sequences involved with slaying demons in Hell is part of an experience that is almost expected or demanded in most games, and therein lays the root of the problem. What separates Dante’s Inferno from being perceived as a work of art like its 700-year-old predecessor isn’t the medium of video gaming itself, nor is it the transposition from the literary to the interactive and electronic. The dilemma is, largely, the per capita amount of gamers who are still playing games like Dante’s Inferno and God of War to achieve some immediate gratification in violence and sex rather than be a part of a living history lesson. Developers like Visceral Games make a choice to either risk that audience and almost all profitability by making a truly direct adaptation of an inactive hero and literary work, or sacrifice the masterful storytelling of a classic work by making a game that strays from its slower pacing and narrative to appease that audience and assure big sales. This same audience’s id-driven bloodlust is likely the reason Dante becomes such an active character.

The artists’ visions of Charon, Minos and Greed are the clearest proof that there is true intelligent and imaginative interpretation involved in Dante’s Inferno, and the circles of Lust and Violence do the same for faithful adaptation – or transposition, as Ciardi would likely call it – of the poem. Where the game stumbles is only in its satiation of a less-than-mature audience; had they grown more austere with their tastes in recent years, gamers would likely have had a more relaxed and haunting tour through Hell.

Source: The Broken Paragon - A collection of essays on gaming by Jonny Lupsha

Works Cited
Alighieri, Dante. The Inferno. Chicago, Mentor. 1954; 1982. Print.
Ciardi, John. “Translator’s Note.” The Inferno. Chicago, Mentor. 1954; 1982. Print.
Dante’s Inferno. Developer Visceral Games. 2010. PlayStation 3 Disc. Pub. EA Games.