What Kind of Week Has It Been? Part Two: Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here…

June 10, 2009

Halfway through the road of our lives, pleasant dreamers, I found myself in a dense forest– Just kidding. But if you think for a moment that image is unrelated to current events in games, you might want to check out one of Electronic Art’s latest titles: “Dante’s Inferno”, which they announced at last week’s E3. I’m a big fan of Alighieri’s work, and I’ve long considered one day adapting his trilogy of epic Catholic poetry into a game myself. After all, my games are all about interactive dialogue, and what is “The Divine Comedy” but a journey through the afterlife with Virgil as your tour guide?

The relationship between Dante and the poet of the “Aeneid” is one that would seem easily applicable to games, though in a very simple fashion– an extended, benign escort-mission. Virgil walks Dante (and the player) through Hell, while Dante (and the player) talk to the various souls suffering the Lord’s wrath. Dante’s own experience in the poem is rather passive and linear, so it’s just fine for my own somewhat limited capabilities in Flash. The only thing getting in is my lack of finesse with graphics and animation, but I’m sure I could either conquer those difficulties or think interesting ways around them easily enough.

It’s why I’m so disappointed by what EA has decided to do with Dante’s classic meditation on the afterlife– granted, I’m not expecting they’d do exactly what I’d do (or even hope so– after all, I want to make this myself), but still, you’d think they’d know better than this. Instead of taking “The Divine Comedy” and using as a springboard for a more naturally fitting genre, like an RPG, they’ve decided to turn it into an action-packed, gory, “God of War”-style button-masher.

In the words of the Apostles: “Jesus H. Christ…”

I can’t tell you how much I hate this game. It gives me the same sick feeling that I got when the trailer for “Star Wars: The Old Republic” ran– yes, everybody and their Prequel-hating mother will think it’s the bee’s knees, but for goodness sake, it’s just plain wrong. When you take on a material, there are certain things you just don’t do– when you make a video-game out of “The Divine Comedy”, you don’t turn Dante into a Catholic version of Kratos, just like when you make a trailer for a “Star Wars” game, you don’t add fucking bullet-time slow-motion when somebody tosses a lightsaber. It’s not just not-kosher– it’s anathema. It’s blasphemy.

And hey, it’s not like I have anything against these types of games. I enjoyed “God of War” once I got over with how it screwed mercilessly with Greek mythology. I’ve never played the “Devil May Cry” series, but I’ll admit that it looks fun in its own cheesy way. But it’s one thing to name your action-adventure heroes after Dante and Virgil– it’s quite another thing to turn those poets into action-adventure heroes. However, are these characters even Dante and Virgil? I know there’s a Beatrice in the game, but is it the same one that inspired Alighieri to write “Vita Nuova”? If you’re going to make a game about a troubled Crusader journeying through Hell for his lost love, that’s all fine and good, but you don’t have to slap the name “Dante’s Inferno” on it.

Seriously, is it worth bastardizing one of the classics of Western literature just for the sake of some slight name recognition? There’s a reason that Dante’s work has never been adapted for any medium other than Gustave Dore’s engravings– there’s not a whole lot that’s readily dramatic about the story of two poets wandering through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. It makes for fine literature, yes, but if Alighieri’s work made such an easy transition from one medium to the next, we’d have seen Dante’s works being turned into a few more plays, operas and films long before game-designers got into the mix. Nobody in those respective mediums thought to adapt “The Divine Comedy” by adding action, even though it might make it more theatrical or cinematic– why is it acceptable for Electronic Arts to do so in the hopes of making the material more ludic?

Now, like I said, I believe Dante’s work can be adapted into a game, just as I believe it would work on the stage or screen. You’d just have to accept the fact that you have to tell the story 0f a rather inactive protagonist. Dante’s role is more or less to stand in for the audience, allowing them to observe his wildly detailed imagination at work in building a harrowingly convincing glimpse at the world hereafter (according to the Medieval Church, anyway). There’s plenty of sex and violence on display throughout “Inferno”, it’s just that our hero never participates in it himself, except to run away from rogue demons– just enough danger to spice up dramatic tension, cinematic suspense or gameplay challenge. The rest of the time, all you should be able to do is interact on a personal level, simply speaking to souls like Paolo and Francesca, asking them questions and letting them tell you their stories. That’s what my games can do. That’s what all good IF writers aspire for. In the end, that’s what “The Divine Comedy” can be, with or without graphics– interactive fiction. It doesn’t have to, nor should it be, something this gaudy and superficial. If that’s what EA wanted, they should’ve tried making a game out of “Song of Roland”.

But hey, it’s not all bad. If anything, this has strengthened my resolve to one day make a proper game out of Dante’s work, even if it’s just another cheap Flash walk-and-talk platformer of mine. It really wouldn’t take that much to make a more faithful adaptation than what the travesty that EA’s pursuing. At any rate, though, that’s going to do it for tonight. Tune in later this week, when I’ll offer my last thoughts on E3 by revisiting the trailer to Fumito Ueda’s next game, and offer up some thoughts on the poetic solitude of so many games. Until then, pleasant dreamers, remember to say your prayers…

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One Response to “What Kind of Week Has It Been? Part Two: Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here…”

  1. > There’s a reason that Dante’s work has never been adapted for any medium other than Gustave Dore’s engravings

    Really? I thought Tom Phillips did a nice job on them:

    See: http://www.amazon.com/Dantes-Inferno-Divine-Comedy-Alighieri/dp/0500013624/

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