Dante's 'Inferno' Makes A Hell Of A Video Game

Inferno: Screenshot from 'Dante's Inferno' video game.

hide captionWhat The ...? Dante's Inferno is now a video game. Though some scholars bristle at the idea, producers at Electronic Arts say the 14th century poet's description of hell was the perfect groundwork for a game.

Electronic Arts

An epic journey through nine circles of a fiery hell filled with monstrous beasts and condemned souls — Italian poet Dante Alighieri didn't know it at the time, but 700 years ago, he mapped out a pretty sweet video game.

"He fundamentally mapped hell with this poem," says Jonathan Knight, the game's executive producer. "He's created a visual topography, and there's a tremendous amount of structure, geography, weather — and monsters."

If you don't remember the epic poem from your college classics course, here's the Cliffs Notes version: The Inferno is a 14th-century poem in which Dante is guided through hell by the Roman poet Virgil.

Each circle of hell laid out in the poem has souls guilty of a particular sin — lust, gluttony, greed, you name it. The punishments are symbolic of the sins; gluttons, for example, must lie in slush because of the garbage they made of their lives on Earth.

Illustration of Dante Alighieri i i

hide caption... Hath No Fury Like A Poet Scorned? It's hard to say how Dante would have felt about his epic poem being turned into a video game. Some scholars are bothered by the liberties the developers took with the plot, but game producer Jonathan Knight says that, just like Dante writing in Italian, this video game communicates using the vernacular of the time.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Illustration of Dante Alighieri

... Hath No Fury Like A Poet Scorned? It's hard to say how Dante would have felt about his epic poem being turned into a video game. Some scholars are bothered by the liberties the developers took with the plot, but game producer Jonathan Knight says that, just like Dante writing in Italian, this video game communicates using the vernacular of the time.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

By the end of the poem, Dante has a deeper understanding of the Christian idea of sin. But to turn the poem into a video game, producers felt that the main character needed to be more active.

"Our reimagined version of Dante is as a warrior," Knight says. "He's a fallen crusader, and he's fighting his way through hell."

In the video game version, he's doing it all for love. Beatrice, a love from the real Dante's life, becomes the fictional Dante's reason for going to hell — he must rescue her from the clutches of Satan.

These plot twists are a far cry from the poem, which is woven with philosophical discussions and monologues about life and death.

But Knight believes Dante might approve of a video game translation of his work, because the Italian poet was trying to reach out to ordinary folks with his writing. In the early 14th century, Italian literature was written in Latin. Dante wrote his Inferno in Italian, using the vernacular of his time.

Still, some Dante scholars bristle at the liberties the game takes with Dante's story. Then again, maybe those Dante scholars just don't play video games. So we found Jonathan Combs-Schilling, a 30-year-old graduate student in the Italian studies department at the University of California, Berkeley, who loves Dante and loves video games.

Combs-Schilling says he found some parts of the game "exhilarating." He was impressed by the renderings of the river Styx that Dante must cross to enter Hades. But he doesn't think you can really compare a game to a poem.

"Fundamentally, it's not a narrative in the way that a movie or a text or a work of literature is," he says.

Phlegyas: Screenshot from 'Dante's Inferno' video game. i i

hide captionHell Or High Water: The river Styx is guarded by Phlegyas, who ferries Virgil and Dante into the underworld.

Electronic Arts
Phlegyas: Screenshot from 'Dante's Inferno' video game.

Hell Or High Water: The river Styx is guarded by Phlegyas, who ferries Virgil and Dante into the underworld.

Electronic Arts

Although there are plenty of interpretations of The Inferno in other creative mediums — such as Gustave Dore's famous illustrations — Combs-Schilling thinks it might be easier to compare a video game to a musical interpretation, such as Franz Liszt's Dante Symphony.

Still, he has his reservations about the game. "The way the game is structured, you feel OK doing the abhorrent things you do," he says.

Despite the game's departures from Dante's original work, Combs-Schilling isn't worried about the future of Dante's epic poem. After all, he says, it's lasted 700 years already, and it's doing just fine.

The video game producers are also releasing a print edition of the poem illustrated by pictures from the game. They hope it will encourage a new generation of gamers to read Dante's original work.

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