Dante's Inferno: The Book based on The Game based on The Poem based on the Theology

In the introduction to the EA Games-approved, Del Rey Books-published edition of the classic epic poem Inferno, Visceral Games Executive Producer Jonathan Knight asks a question about the video game Dante's Inferno that many people think they already know the answer to: "Is Dante Alighieri Laughing, or Rolling, in His Grave?" Plenty of game journalists, commentators, and fans who have seen the game's promotions and advertising would probably answer, "Of course he is!" but Knight lays out a reasoned and well-argued case that Visceral's new game follows in a long and esteemed tradition of interpreting Italian literature's most famous work. It may or may not change your mind, but Knight's position is definitely worth consideration.

Left: Sandro Botticelli's "Portrait of Dante" (1495) / Right: "final prerendered version of the video game hero" (2010)

EA made an interesting move by deciding to release a new edition of Dante's Inferno that includes a section of color plates pairing art assets from the video game with classic images from Auguste Rodin, Sandro Botticelli, William Blake, and Gustave Dor. It puts their game in the ring with some of the most famous artists in history; in contrast, most of the game's previous promotional efforts haven't been anything one might call classic, or even classy. From staged protests by fake outraged Christians at E3, to an achievement based on killing unbaptized babies, to their weird Mass: We Pray fake game trailer, to "pretending" to bribe game journalists, classy is not the first word that comes to mind when you think about Visceral's Dante's Inferno.

By producing a copy of the actual source material with a video game cover on it and the complete text of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translation and notes inside, EA does earn itself some much-needed cred for trying to incorporate an educational component into the game's launch. The argument can now be truthfully made that it's doing something to get the original classic poem into the hands of gamers who might not otherwise read a single verse.

EA does earn itself some much-needed cred for trying to incorporate an educational component into the game's launch.

But in his lengthy and interesting introduction to the book, Knight strives for something even more – he argues that the new game belongs with an old tradition, that they're not only bringing Dante's poem to new readers but also trying to raise the bar for video games as a whole. He writes, "I felt our medium had evolved beyond just borrowing a few names and ideas and could truly do justice to the original vision of the author." Dante's original vision is certainly a high bar for any artist to set for themselves.

Knight clearly has a deep familiarity with, and appreciation for, Dante's poem and the artistic endeavors it has inspired in succeeding centuries. He gives a detailed account of the artists that have interpreted Inferno, starting with famed Renaissance painter Botticelli's biography of the author and the portrait he painted of Dante. The laurel leaves Botticelli places on Dante's head served as the inspiration for the video game Dante's helmet. Knight guides us through art history, rhapsodizing about the copy of Rodin's Gates of Hell statue on the campus of Stanford University that appears as the actual gate to hell in the game. We see side by side comparisons of how illustrations by William Blake and Gustave Dor served as concept art for specific elements in the game. He goes on up through modern times, and the work of Wayne Barlow, who previously did his own Inferno illustrations and was hired on as a concept artist for the game. It's an interesting read and it works to raise my appreciation for the game and its use of the source material.

Whatever other faults the game might have, it clearly was made with awareness of, and careful attention to, the source material. Knight rightly points out that many great works of art borrow heavily from other works (he cites Shakespeare's Hamlet at length as a case in point) and says, "...we have adapted and reimagined Dante's great work for a new medium and a new generation, while maintaining the core idea of a man's journey through the afterlife to find the love of his life, even as he contemplates his own mistakes and transgressions." This classy tactic works on its own merits and printing this edition of the books is a fine idea. But it also raises expectations for the final products having some educational or artistic value – it's being put in line with Botticelli, Dali, Doré, Delecroix, and Blake – and Longfellow for that matter. Can this video game hold up under such comparisons? One wonders though, how many players who buy this edition will actually read very much of it. On why they chose to re-print the 1867 Longfellow translation, Knight writes, "It is generally regarded as the most well-researched and faithful English translation to date and the one to which most genuine Dante enthusiasts will eventually gravitate."

Longfellow's a great poet, but it's certainly not what you'd call accessible.

Dr. Carrie Benes, a Professor of History at New College in Sarasota, Florida disagrees. "Longfellow's a great poet, but it's certainly not what you'd call accessible," she told me in an interview. "I would've imagined they'd want the Pinsky translation, the whole point of which is that it's contemporary. With Pinsky, you're experiencing Dante's words as his contemporaries would have experienced them, which is in very un-academic, accessible language. Dante's living right at this point where the vernacular is challenging Latin as a suitable language for lofty ideas. This is the first poem that really proves that you can deal with ideas like this in what had been considered rough and rustic street language. And in fact the man was right. Within five years of it being circulated, The Divine Comedy was getting a lot of scholarly attention.


Poet Robert Pinsky discussing his translation of Dante's Inferno

"Even at the time he wrote it, Longfellow was being consciously archaic. As a Victorian, for him a poem was an ethereal, intellectual experience. This kind of archaic language was very common in poetry, but it certainly wasn't the vernacular of the 19th century. Longfellow didn't talk in forsooths." Benes posits that perhaps EA chose this version not for its accessibility, but because it (and its notes) are in the public domain and thus free to publish. Looking at the lengthy explanatory notes in this volume (there are about 150 pages of them), she says "they would be really useful to a well-educated Victorian of Longfellow's day, but not necessarily what a modern reader would need." For excellent notes she recommends the Durling translation.

Visceral producer Knight brings up another point that raised an eyebrow for Prof. Benes. He writes, "Certainly The Divine Comedy has political, ethical, and spiritual messages and themes that define it. And the game absolutely asks those more overt messages to take a back seat to action, drama, and gameplay." Everyone can agree that the Dante of the poems would make a terrible game hero – he's constantly fainting and is almost entirely incapable of taking any action to change events. Knight's no doubt correct that cleaving to the source material's original point wasn't a tenable plan, but in making an action game at all, Visceral is actually sending the exact opposite message that Dante was promoting with The Divine Comedy.

"The whole point of the Divine Comedy, insofar as we understand his intentions, is conversion of the self," says Benes. "It's not about the places per se, it's about how Dante himself changes when he is shown these things and has these experiences. As a character in the poem, Dante's ability to interact is very limited. By turning it into a video game you're undermining the message of the poem. Making him able to interact, it's entirely heretical to Dante's theology. The whole point is that Dante doesn't have that power. Only God has that power. Dante can only observe. Visually, yes, they can position themselves in the long artistic line. That's what they're doing. People have been re-interpreting Dante's vision ever since its publication. Obviously this concept really gets people. But this isn't faithful to Dante's message."

EA and Visceral's attempt to claim the cultural high ground with this edition of Inferno seems a step in the right direction. Knight makes good points and backs up his claims that the original poem did heavily influence the game's development on multiple levels, particularly with settings and level design. But taken in the context of the other promotions and what we've seen of the game itself in demos and previews, all this book does is muddy the waters with mixed messages. The game's "Go to Hell" tagline coupled with its over-the-top action mechanics and "hardcore" storyline seem ill-matched to Dante's thoughtful (yet gruesome) poem. It can't be "just a game" and be based on a literary cornerstone of Western Civilization. At the very least, it's "just a game about one of the greatest poems of all time." Imagine a game of T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland that's just another post-apocalyptic beat 'em up. April is the cruelest month... for kicking ass!

We're left with questions that seem to have contradictory answers. If this game is part of a noble tradition of interpreting Dante, why the tasteless and crass promotions? If you're mainly using Dante for his evocative and terrifying setting, why attach the names Dante and Beatrice to characters that bear no relationship to their namesakes in the poem? If you're using nudity in the artistic tradition of Rodin and Michelangelo, why does it seem to be mostly bare breasts and not male figures? (Grand Theft Auto did it!) And why publish an edition of the poem fraught with archaic English that's bound to stymie rather than encourage modern readers?

In the end, this book's main attractions are the 16 pages of art and Knight's introduction, both of which should have been front-and-center in EA's promotion of the game if they wanted to take the high road. As is, the Longfellow translation is not the best choice for new readers and is, in any case, widely available for free online. If you'd like to buy a copy of The Divine Comedy, I'd second Prof. Benes and recommend the Pinsky translation.

Many have compared Dante's Inferno's game play to God of War. I'd like to add an additional comparison. When the first God of War came out, a friend's teenage son was enthralled with it. Over dinner with his parents, he regaled me with tales he swore were from Greek Mythology but in fact were some of the more outrageous moments purely from the video game. I can almost weep for all the high school English teachers who're going to have to use their red grading pens in critical slashes as sweeping as the scythe Dante stole from Death in the beginning of The Inferno so he could save Beatrice from The Devil. Of course by publishing this edition, EA immunize themselves against this exact criticism. Maybe that's the true genius of it.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.