Friday, February 11, 2011

Liberate Me Ex Inferno

Dante vs. a Rancor. IT'S IN THE POEM, LOOK IT UP.
Because it’s apparently Catch Up On Mediocre Games You Missed In 2010 Month at Infinite Lag, I went against the advice of Mitch Dyer and popped in my latest library rental, Visceral Games' Dante’s Inferno, last night.


Like everyone else with a moderately-developed sense of decorum, I was perplexed by the over-the-top marketing campaign for this game. Lost in the bewildering reports of "lust contests" and $200 checks sent to journalists was any idea of what the game actually was.

Turns out it's a brawler. And, at least a few chapters in, not a very good one.

Generally, there's nothing like intentionally idiotic PR to cool any interest I might have in a game. But I eventually became interested in Dante's Inferno for a few reasons. 

The game had stayed off my radar until a few months ago, when one of my favorite critics, L.B. Jeffries, praised it in his year-end ranking for Kill Screen. "Dante's Inferno gets top marks," he wrote, "for having the audacity to focus on creating an artistic space instead of a spiffy plot or anything but familiar gameplay." Back in March, he'd written a PopMatters column called "The Literary Merits of Dante's Inferno," where he described a number of connections between the poem and the game and explained how certain game mechanics - like absolving or damning characters from the poem - reflect the themes of the Divine Comedy. As a game, he implies, Dante's Inferno is not that great; but with a copy of the poem nearby, there are a lot of cool flourishes to look for and find. (This is true: Mrs. JPG enjoyed trawling Wikipedia for info on each of the poor souls I encountered, and helping me determine how to judge them for their sins.) Jeffries concludes with this piece of irony: Despite its emphasis on mass appeal, "the only people who will really enjoy the game are fans of the poem."

Having been a lit major in college, I was appropriately scandalized when they turned Beowulf into a shitty CG action movie, and I didn't even like that text. The idea of a videogame adaptation of the Inferno, which I had loved, certainly rankled at first. (The PR nonsense didn't help.) But as I read Jeffries' piece and reflected on my own experience with Deadly Premonition, another game with a rich setting and lousy mechanics, I thought: what the Hell. Maybe they've done something creative. After all, Dante's language is incredibly visual; the Inferno could be fascinating territory for world-building.

Instead, in the first two hours of the game, I got the following:
  • An extravaganza of inexplicable button-mashing combat
  • A duel with Death Himself that somehow did not involve Battleship
  • Tedious platforming sequences remixed with insipid puzzles
  • Incongruously-styled motion comic backstory cutscenes
  • Tits
  • More tits
  • God of War Lite boss battles
  • More QTEs than you can shake a scythe at
  • Glitchy Virgil
  • Space Marine Mark Antony
  • Blade-armed Hellbabies spilling out of MegaCleopatra's nipples
  • Vagina demons/penis pillars
  • The Power of Christ Impales You
"Best three out of five!"
And in the latest edition of OMG What Have I Done To My Wife, this choice quote from Mrs. JPG:
  • " is this game not Japanese?"
Facetiousness aside, the biggest issue with Dante's Inferno so far is that Visceral just picked the wrong genre. Nothing about the poem recommends itself to a hack-'n-slash more than to, say, an adventure game. The sacrilege here is not appropriating a literary masterpiece for a videogame, or even reformulating the plot and characters. It's appropriating this particular masterpiece for this particular kind of game.

Witness the following statements from creative director Jonathan Knight, who spoke to Gamasutra in this pillow-soft interview:
Again, it's an action game, and it's a game in which you do a lot of combat, and that combat is the heart of the game; that's what it is, first and foremost, and that's why it's entertaining, is that the combat feels so good.
And so, we absolutely had to craft a narrative around a very aggressive protagonist with supernatural weapons, and the ability to break into Hell and fight through the nine circles. So, knowing that that's what video games are, and that's what video games are going to be, we definitely had to craft a narrative around that.
Not sure that Dante's Inferno's combat actually does feel good, but regardless, I understand the idea. If you're making an action game, it's common practice to feature a badass power fantasy protagonist. And it's okay, then, to stretch the boundaries of the fiction in service of fun gameplay. Got it.

The fact remains that none of this preposterous stretching - the slaying of Death with his own magical scythe, the slaughtering of endless identical minions, the use of collected souls to upgrade combos, the health-restoring fountains found all over Hell - would be necessary if they had not chosen to make a damn action game. Visceral designed themselves into a corner. This, more than the marketing campaign, was the real bonehead move.

I agree with Jeffries that there are some interesting things going on in the environments, especially with how the designers chose to represent certain characters and locations visually. I actually liked their version of Cerberus as a bizarre H.R. Geiger sandworm alien, with its hundred chomping mouths, guarding the entry to the Gluttony level. That makes sense thematically, if not narratively.

But what makes the bulleted list above so silly is that so many of the elements in Dante's Inferno appear to have been inserted explicitly for action-game shock/coolness value. Killing babies! Giant wall-mounted genitalia! Blood! Boobs! Regardless of whether we'd seen them before in the God of War series, there's no consistent thematic or symbolic value there, as far as I can tell thus far. Dante's set of interactions is limited to looking at things, climbing over/around them, and killing them. The player's set of responses is limited to "Ugh!" or "Sweet!"

By their nature, action games are, with rare exceptions, intellectually lean. The Divine Comedy is not. Imagine how much richer the experience would have been had Dante's Inferno followed suit.


  1. Okay, "best three out of five" is an absolutely brilliant picture/caption pairing. Bravo.


  2. Yikes. I'm glad I hadn't read the Jeffries piece before. It's a siren song steering you right onto the rocks.

    I piled on this game a while ago, taking the exact opposite tack (experience of poem ≠ experience of game), but I was admittedly doing so without having played it. The Gamasutra interview was what convinced me there was no need to. I got a comment from a woman who claimed to like both the game and the poem, but who then went on to recommend that I read a "better interview with Jonathan Knight...or check out his intro to the new paperback release of Inferno." She was not PR flack (she has a real blog about a different profession), so I'm convinced she must be a close friend or relative.