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Dante's Inferno is a video game
Hell is not a story but an experience
By Dante Alighieri
Translated by John Ciardi
New American Library
When I think of Paradise Lost, I think of the word “cinematic.” In the war for Heaven, the fallen angels go on the assault, in the air, on the land, and under the land. They dig metal out of the ground and build massive cannons. As the immortal angels chop each other, their limbs regrow. The chariot of the Son of God flashes with light. The camera is constantly panning, taking in this massive action sequence filled with special effects. It’s a sequence worthy of Marvel.
In contrast, as I read the Inferno I kept imagining it as a video game.
Hell is divided into levels. There is no drama to the Inferno, really. They simply have to get through the levels. The mission, as I understand it, is to get a full view of the universe in order to heal Dante’s soul. Dante has to get his fill of it. So it’s an open-world exploration game, though the ending is fixed.
The levels of hell have a variety of environments—hot, cold, icy, waterfalls, sand, woods, etc. There are high promontories, deep ditches, long bridges, ruins to climb, caverns to soar down. There’s a lot of material here for a run-and-jump adventure.
The heroes must complete all the levels by a certain time. They start their journey on Good Friday and they have to make it through Hell by Easter. At various points Virgil urges Dante along. This somewhat arbitrary time constraint is also a common trait of video games.
Dante and Virgil are the player characters who spend a good amount of time running, jumping, flying, etc. Virgil also acts as the tutorial and can sometimes be ridden as vehicle. In addition, Dante and Virgil have different properties—Dante is physical, Virgil is spirit—so they interact with the environment in different ways.
The damned are NPCs. It seems like Dante must talk to at least one sinner from each level, most of the time. The lost souls are very NPC-like, in that they mainly wait passively (sometimes hollering out) for a conversation to begin. It’s mostly one sided, in which they share their tale of woe. Talking to lost souls must be an objective to unlock the next level.
The demons are the baddies and bosses. The monsters in hell are at least enough of a threat that Virgil must tame them, argue with them, avoid them, or run away from them. They are not entirely safe. There are periodic big monsters who function as large set-pieces, which are obviously the big bosses of video games. They are typically beaten by cunning (i.e. Reason i.e. Virgil).
There’s plenty of gratuitous gore, lots of nudity, butts, and farts. Dante hits the high school boy demographic in the bullseye. It’s dark, violent, and gross. I don’t know many video games in which tears, puss, and blood run together down someone’s chin—but I’m sure it would offer great word-of-mouth marketing.
I saw among the felons of that pit
one wraith who might or might not have been tonsured—
one could not tell, he was so smeared with shit
Satan (Dis) is the ultimate payoff. The story gets darker and more horrifying by each level. Once you get to the end, the punishment of suicides (trapped inside trees and picked at by Harpies) near the top of hell sounds downright pleasant. The final boss – Dis – is massive, with multiple faces and wings that beat three winds into a storm.
Like a whirling windmill seen afar at twilight,
or when a mist has risen from the ground--
just such an engine rose upon my sight
Stirring up such a wild and bitter wind
I cowered for shelter at my Master’s back,
there being no other windbreak I could find.
Put it all together and you have a multi-level parkour-style game in which the player plays Dante, running after Virgil, collecting names of dead sinners and avoiding demon-monsters in a race against time—all with a shadowy, horror, gross-out aesthetic.
The Inferno would make a bad movie. OK. But why should it make a good video game—and be written in such a different way from many other works of poetry before it? Sure, heroes going into the underworld is a classical trope. But they are usually trying to rescue someone. They are on business in which the underworld is the backdrop. The Inferno is surely something different. Dante is the one that needs rescuing.
For some reason, it’s important for Dante’s redemption that he experience Hell, physically and emotionally. He feels it in all five of his senses. He is frequently shaken by his emotions. And, of course, through his visceral descriptions, the reader shares in his experience.
My lungs were pumping as if they could not stop;
I thought I could not go on, and I sat exhausted
the instant I had clambered to the top.
Video games are ultimately about experiences. Not simply watching or hearing, but interacting with an environment. Dante wants to give you the medieval equivalent of virtual reality. Although it is highly structured, Dante’s universe has an openness to it. And that seems to be the point.
The next stage, Purgatory, seems like it will continue this theme. The only way to Paradise is to physically exert one’s self. But it’s not just about putting in effort; it’s also necessary to inhabit, to be present in, and to fully absorb the whole of human experience and the universe. The moral and theological project is also a geographical, astronomical, educational, and scientific project. And Dante wants to take the reader on this journey—body, soul, and mind.
Virgil, when he felt himself so grasped,
called to me: “Come, and I will hold you safe.”
And he took me in his arms and held me clasped.