Dispatch February 2010

Dante Alighieri: Epic Poet, Ass Kicker

Will the new video-game version of Dante's Inferno prove the perfect model for introducing readers to difficult classics?
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It's been more than seven centuries since the Italian poet Dante Alighieri first took readers along for his personal journey through hell, but the power of his words hasn't dimmed one bit. "You're traveling through a series of levels, deeper into the center of the earth," says Jonathan Knight, executive producer at the gaming company Electronic Arts. “Reading the poem you realize right away, this would make a great video game.”

It’s not just the episodic architecture of sin that makes the poem a good fit for a video game: "Each circle has a theme and its own unique set of monsters and challenges,” Knight points out. What’s more,  “The hero is pursuing a woman, Beatrice, who needs his help." And as enthusiasts know, from Donkey Kong to Mario Bros to the Legend of Zelda, a damsel is the quintessential gamer's goal.

Knight is the man behind Dante's Inferno, a third-person action game being released this week and heavily promoted on, among other places, yesterday's Super Bowl. Of course, the poetic protagonist needed a little tweaking for his digital incarnation. "One of the conceits of the poem is that Dante is always fainting," says Knight. "That wouldn't work for an action game." Hence, Electronic Arts’s updated version of Dante: a heavily armored crusader, giant scythe gripped in one hand, six-pack abs rippling.

The game's creators were keenly aware of the challenges involved in adapting such a revered text. “We definitely have had some people say this is something EA shouldn’t be doing—that we’re desecrating the original poem,” says lead designer Steve Desilets.  “[But] we’re not going to [take liberties and] create a new circle of Hell called jealousy, or you know, shoplifting.”

Some do, however, point to this buffed up version of the bard as yet another example of how video games are coarsening our culture.  "I wouldn't even call this an adaptation," says Professor Arielle Saiber, a classics professor at Bowdoin College. In the original poem, "Beatrice saves Dante,” she points out, “not the other way around!"

While preparing to market the game, Electronic Arts conducted a survey to assess what people knew about the classic poem. While a lot of people—83 percent—said they had heard of it, fewer than 20 percent could remember what it was actually about. Because of this, some fear that the action video game may become all many people know of Dante’s Inferno the poem. And such fears are not unfounded: the image of the poet as a battle-scarred crusader is now the top search result for Dante on Google, Youtube and even Amazon Books. For anyone casually searching out the Inferno, the digital Dante has displaced the original.

But in a world where the average teenager now spends eight-and-half hours a day in front of a screen, the video-game version of Dante's Inferno may in fact turn out to be a terrific model for how to introduce people to dense, difficult works of classic literature. “I wouldn’t say this project is damned from the get go,” says Prof. Saiber. “The hope is that the game will lead people back to the poem.”

As Guy Raffa, a professor at the University of Texas, observes, “teaching Dante, you learn quickly that students need to visualize what’s happening.” To help with this, he created Danteworlds, a multimedia companion web site to the poem that mixes illustration and audio with the original text. "I found that classes who used the website had higher quiz scores and that the discussion in class got to a higher level much faster."

The video game, then, could lay a similar foundation. It begins, as the poem does, with Dante entering Hell. At the midpoint on the journey of life, I found myself in a dark forest, for the clear path was lost.  "It’s a metaphor for mid-life crises, essentially," says lead game designer Desilets. "We took those ideas and did the video game version, casting Dante as a warrior who has made a lot of bad choices."

In the original poem, the narrative is peppered with some of Dante’s contemporaries. Farinata, the father-in-law of Dante's best friend, denied the existence of life after death, and so appears in the sixth circle, Heresy. Brunetto Latini, a fellow poet, appears in the seventh circle, Violence, for committing sodomy. By including his own peers, Dante wanted to make readers think deeply about the pervasive nature of sin. 

In the video-game version, it’s through action that players get to ponder their moral choices. "We created a game mechanic around the various damned souls," explains senior producer Justin Lambros. "The player is given a chance to Absolve or Punish them, and this action has a direct impact on how you upgrade your character." You can save a sinner, in other words, or simply hack him to bits, and your moral choice impacts the way you progress through the game.

Dante, a strict Catholic, struggled with the idea that the classic poets he admired so much were technically heretics, and thus condemned to hell. Gamers are exposed to this conflict courtesy of the Roman poet Virgil, who acts as guide, just as he did in the poem. Speaking lines from the original text, he explains why unbaptized babies and great figures from history appear in hell.  In this incarnation, however, Virgil delivers power-ups along with his commentary.

Ultimately, one of the most groundbreaking aspects of Dante’s poem was its accessibility: he chose to write it in the vernacular, rather than in the more formal, elitist style of Latin that was then typical of literature dedicated to grand themes. (The language of his poem became the foundation for modern day Italian.)

While Dante's Inferno the video game is certainly no classic, by updating the 700-year-old text into the vernacular of video gaming, it just might win over a new generation of readers. Indeed, among the game's more than 18,000 Facebook friends, many are expressing an interest in the original poem. “You should really read the literature before playing the game,” wrote one Facebook fan.  “It's an awesome story." Of course, the Facebook page also reveals how times have changed. “A world without video games,” wrote another fan, “now that would be like living in hell.”

Benjamin Popper is a freelance writer based in New York.
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Benjamin Popper is a reporter based in Brooklyn.

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