Dante’s Inferno — A RetRose-Tinted Review/Re-Examination
Recall — “Be filled with hope, ye who share my journey”
I was not, by any means, an amazing student in high school. My constant zoning out to write, coupled with frustration in tacit “why we even have to learn this” did not make me a model academic. But when I was interested in whatever we were teaching, I was tuned in. It mostly only happened in English classes: having creative reign over an assignment (giving way to my long-standing series in 9th grade, The Priest, the Rabbi, and their Adventures in Hell), or reading a particular story that just resonated with me (Shakespeare didn’t click until Othello), when I got invested, all bets were off, and I would dig in.
Similarly, did anyone else have that fun phase in high school, where they hyperfixated on something so hard that it became part of their personality? Probably. Mine was the afterlife, namely the underworld and Hellish side of things. I’d gone in the complete opposite direction as when I was a child: instead of being terrified of what happened after death, I became fascinated with different cultures’ and religions’ beliefs of What Came After. It was probably a coping mechanism, the more I think back on it, trying to understand what I didn’t, or at least having a familiarity over its concepts. Chief among those fixations was Dante’s Divine Comedy, specifically Inferno.
In 12th Grade, from 2009 to 2010, two things happened. One, in my World Literature course, taught by the still-deified-in-my-mind Mr. Barnes, we read a translated Inferno, and I killed it. Knew answers to the questions, broad and minute. I was passionate, engaged in a story I knew of so deeply, even though I was only properly reading it for the first time. I was in my educational element, to its highest degree. And two…they were releasing a video game based on Inferno. And my seventeen-year-old hummingbird heart was amped.
As a gamer, this was great! This was in the heyday of the original God of War trilogy, and between my lack of Playstation consoles and distaste for how the series handled interactions with female NPCs, I wasn’t interested in the source materials. But heavily-inspired-by properties were a different matter entirely! Source material aside, did I care why Dante was suddenly 1.) buff as heck, 2.) not a poet, 3.) wielding a giant scythe, or 4.) literally blasting demons with divine Christian light? NO. It looked SICK. I wasn’t about the mishandling of female NPCs in video games*, but I was about violence and literary parallels! And there was violence in spades. To this day, I’ve never known a character so angry that, not only would they refuse to die, but they would beat the shit out of Death for suggesting they do so. Death, mind you, is the tutorial boss, and it didn’t let up the gas the whole way down.
I remember being particularly excited for the old “red or blue” morality that games like Bioshock popularized in the era. Having the ability to absolve or condemn various historical figures scratched that itch…even if it didn’t have any impact on the narrative. But it did make my divine, exploding cross even more explosive, and my giant scythe even more slashy! So, really, I still walked away a winner.
The gameplay was engaging enough, but the visual manifestation of Hell was enamoring. Not just being able to see, but being able to explore Hell, to climb its walls, to battle its minions…you know, within the confines of corridor-based, forward-momentum combat. But it was realized, and it was gruesome, yet another tapestry to hang from my high school self’s lexicon of afterlives.
Despite its simple design, its nauseating ad campaigns, and the sheer liberty it took with the source material…Dante’s Inferno was still an adaptation of literature into game form. It was the first of its kind I’d personally known and played. And that was enough, shortcomings be damned. And now, as long as it’s been since I’ve played it, it is as much a nostalgic point as it is a formative point, showing a young, hyperfixated Mike the possibilities of a medium he had barely scratched the surface of. It gave me so much hope for the future of games as a form of storytelling, both original and adapted…and it also, I cannot stress this enough, let me beat the tar out of Death with their own scythe.
I wonder if it holds up.
Revisit — Familiar Gameplay, Deep Meaning, and Simple Words
Spoilers littered throughout, so, you know, “abandon all sense of narrative mystery, ye who enter here”
As a Game
As a game, so much of Dante’s Inferno made me feel like a Crusader-era Doomguy (from the Doom video games), barreling through Hell on my one-track mission. Killing Death still feels amazing. As a pure action game, it would have sufficed, exploding cross in one hand, Death’s scythe in the other, as players waded further and further into Hell.
In an era (the late Aughts and early 2010s) of binary morality, there is Absolving and Punishing (finishers with the cross and scythe, respectively). Players are forced to balance their playstyle with both what they want to be stronger in, and what they need to fulfill perk prerequisites. Hell’s forces scale as players descend further and further, so players need to be prepared to meet them at their strongest.
Playing Dante’s Inferno with headphones was oppressive. The screaming, the wailing, the crushing noise, all of it painted a horrifying soundscape of Hell. Naturally, it was at its strongest when the noise suddenly faded, and then stopped entirely. But in a journey with no breaks, it worked extremely well to create that sense of underworldly pressure anxiety.
In that journey with no breaks, Dante’s Inferno truly excels, and I remember appreciating that element back in high school, too: it is neither too long, nor too short. It keeps players on a forward momentum throughout, limiting exploration elements to a bare minimum, constantly ferrying players from overwhelming battle to anxiety-inducing puzzle. There are no breaks in the punishments eked out in Hell, nor are there any breaks for the fools who traverse it.
And then there’s Virgil, the Roman poet who guides our slash-and-blast Dante through the circles of Hell…but only if players want him to. He’s there, popping up and open to talk, but if players just want to blow right past him and keep on the rampage, they can. Virgil’s presence and speaking parts are among the most source-material-adjacent parts of the game, concretely explaining what punishments are being doled out, and why. Those little conversations are as much of a break as players can hope to find, assuming they stop to talk at all.
It’s not all good. At this point, I’m uncertain if some elements have aged poorly, or if I’ve just aged. The sword-hand babies (or, officially, Unbaptized Babies) are unsettling in battle, concept, and execution. Lending to the din of battle, having demonic child noises interposed over Hell is just inherently unsettling, coupled with Hell’s already-pounding soundscape. The concept of infantile damnation has already been at the center of years of theological debate, and the execution leads to a hollow excuse to fight swarms of babies on your way through hell. Or maybe I’ve just grown soft in my old age.
Additionally, in the treatment of female characters, in the name of the Circle of Lust, I am a hypocrite. Seems I scorched out a lot of memories of the Circle of Lust in the last many years, and God of War may have been the less-extreme example. Between splaying the femme breast around every chance it gets (both above-world and in Hell), the terrifying vagina-tail spikes used by Lust-centric enemies, Cleopatra’s character design, plus her final, hypersexualized quick-time-event “boss encounter” (it’s a seduction scene that ends with a very pelvic stabbing)…it’s a lot, even for a game about Hell, in a section about Lust. Again, might be I’m assigning my old man sentimentalities to it, instead of that of a game designer. But damn.
Most telling of its time is that Dante’s Inferno ripped straight from the Call of Duty playbook: quotes upon death…or, as my notes say, “F***in COD trope of quotes on death.” If the forces of Hell fell Dante (or, more likely, he plummets into one of the various death-pits), players are blasted with a quick quote from the translated Inferno. They are neither level-appropriate nor fitting for the area, they’re just quotes. Some of them are more classic, recognizable, or salient than others, but they’re on-screen for just long enough to read, not comprehend, before players are thrown back to a checkpoint to try again.
So, as a game, yes, Dante’s Inferno stumbles in a few subjective ways, but it is unabashedly fun. Finding a rhythm in combat, descending at a constant pace, it can be a fun way to burn through a few hours of gameplay, no question.
As an “Inspired-By”
Dante’s Inferno felt pulled in two directions: source material, and wide appeal. Sometimes, they line up, but other times, not so much.
The constant forward momentum is just as the story in Inferno was, and just as Dante’s Inferno feels: on the move, ever-downward, no lingering. While the poem is more concerned with getting Dante to see everything, the game introduces the simple objective of “Save Beatrice” (more on that later), pulling players, and Dante, further and further downward. Similarly, Virgil’s existence as a guide, whether players stop for him or not, is a direct pull from Inferno: equal parts informative, ominous, and human. The information he presents is, as mentioned, the most closely-related to the text, and his exchanges with an ever-befuddled Dante (whether he be a poet or crusader) are some of my favorite elements of the story.
The mechanic of absolving and punishing gets a little wild with the source material, too. On the one hand, yes, skill points and strengthening respective weapons, but also, there are nonviolent shades scattered throughout the nine circles of hell. These shades are all historical figures (with some fictional exceptions), ranging from Pontius Pilate to Attilia the Hun, Orpheus to Mordred. Dante (and players) have the opportunity to absolve them of their sins (giving them a one-way trip to Paradise) or punishing them (sealing their souls in Hell for eternity).
Some (many?) players would look at this as a chance to boost certain weapon attributes, but I like to look at it as the story giving players the same liberties Dante (Alighieri, the original author) took with his poem, writing in who was damned and who was saved based on his understanding, his experience, and his faith. Even in a binary, players are also given that choice to decide if some of these sins were worth eternal damnation from their perspective: my boy Orpheus got a fast-pass to Heaven on-contact, because he’s suffered enough; anyone who did what they did in exchange for money (if God didn’t like it, He shouldn’t have let capitalism do its thing); Boudica for her (rightfully) vengeance-fueled razing of Rome; others for the “sin of sodomy,” and the mere existence as an atheist, all got a pass. It was rare that I felt like there was enough reason to condemn someone to eternal torment, when the chance for redemption was availed to a character as horrible as Dante.
Speaking of how horrible Dante is (in the game, I’m sure he was fine in reality), there is a lot of female blame in this game, and not enough male responsibility. Product of its time? Mass appeal to a perceived male population of God of War-adjacent gamers? Maybe. But only female-presenting Lust demons being conscripted to fight Dante? One-sided. Beatrice’s character being shamed, and feeling shame, for wagering Dante’s faithfulness in the crusades, but not Dante for, you know, committing that adultery that kickstarted this whole fiasco? Dangerous standard-setting, at best. Moreso, shaming Dante’s mother for not doing enough to stand up to Dante’s (objectively terrible) father and seeing suicide as her only way out, but not shaming Dante’s (objectively terrible) father for being objectively terrible…problematic, no matter how far back you want to spin the chronological dial of standards.
Additionally, while the game is, yes, trying to gamify a theological exploration poem, it does so at the expense of Beatrice’s autonomy and importance. In the poems, Beatrice is the one who intercedes to save Dante from spiraling further and further into sin. She shows him the afterlife and what awaits him, whether he continues as he is or chooses to repent: Beatrice saves Dante. In the game, Beatrice is reduced to a damsel to be saved after being taken advantage of or possessed by male figureheads, be that Lucifer or Dante himself. She is neither muse nor paradigm, she is an object: Dante saves Beatrice. All to say, the game really drops the ball when it comes to its female cast.
The game tries to be a tale of redemption and growth for Dante, same as the poem was…keyword “tries.” Dante is on a constant bend of redemption throughout the poem, as his knowledge of and closeness to God increases. But game-Dante seems to have gone through the entire redemption arc by the time he arrives at the foot of Mount Purgatory, having been absolved of every single sin he’s committed…and he’s a Sinémon Master, having damn near caught them all. But the redemption feels forced, rushed, and nonsensical by the time Dante claims he’s there. He faced his sins by beating the tar out of them, or otherwise having spasming flashbacks to how hard he’s messed up during the Crusades. He is absolved out of a seeming Deus Ex Narratione, because it simply needed to happen…because how else are we going to set up the sequel game that never came to fruition?
But through all of this, I recognize the inherent differences of the medium, of the era, and of the purpose of the works. The Divine Comedy, and Inferno, is an allegorical poem as much as it is a historical and moral snapshot, and a literal account of Dante’s own life, experience, and perspectives. Dante’s Inferno is an action game where, above all, players tear their way through a gruesome iteration of Hell in pursuit of Plot. They can both exist, share namesakes, and be their own works, both together and independent of one another.
As an Inspiration
So, with both works on the table, where does that leave us? For the player who’s never read the source material, Dante’s Inferno serves as a font of tangential learning: a gate pushed ajar, with sprinklings of information and context that could get players interested in The Divine Comedy or other allegories, faith-based, afterlife-based, or otherwise. Maybe it serves to have players examine, or reexamine, their own spiritual beliefs. I know, both in my angrier youth and my more tempered Now, experiences like Dante’s Inferno, and organized religion as a whole, speak more unkindly on God than on His people. The more we understand, treat, and help those around us, the less convinced I am that any kind and loving God would spit His people into a place like Hell, when redemption and absolution are so within their power.
Something like Dante’s Inferno blew the door off its hinges for me: an opportunity to look at a story I knew through a different lens. Just as Joseph McCarthy popularized the Hero’s Journey, and how scholars might say we’ve already told every story that needs to be told (yuck), there is something to be said for twisting around source material to make something ‘the same, but different.’ Dante’s Inferno, the game, remains simultaneously as thought-provoking as players would let it be, just as it is fun to play as it can be.
The game begs the questions, is the narrative anti-feminist, based on how it treats and personifies its female characters? Hypermasculine, for the exact opposite reasons? Is it a portrait of how the developers and game designers hold some sins to be worse than others, based on how they designed the different Circles of Hell? Can it be read as pro-Christian for its assigning the Christian perspective of sin onto its characters and world? Can it be read as anti-Christian for giving players the chance to excise souls from Hell, as only God did before? Is it anti-Christian for giving the option to begin with? Who are we, after all, to stand against the decree of the Almighty, as players or characters?
Or…is it just an action game, loosely based off of a 14th century poet’s spiritual and theological fan fiction? Maybe a bit of everything. But for an underworld-obsessed high schooler, it was a hell of a stepping stone.
All images, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of MobyGames