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.