Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Literary Merits of Dante's Inferno

The first person to actually get me interested in Dante’s Inferno was Simon Ferrari, though I don’t think he intended his breakdown of the game’s offensive and bizarre PR campagin to have that effect. Back before anyone knew much about the game, Ferrari theorized that EA was covering up for a mediocre brawler by having an outrageous series of campaigns that would get the gossip blogs talking. That caught my interest because that wasn’t my understanding of what a major publisher did with a game it did not believe would sell. They usually just throw it under the bus. I mentally filed the game under the ‘Odd Behavior’ folder and moved on. I wonder if, looking back now, they were instead trying to cover up the game’s literary aspirations. Nothing says fun to kids like old books, after all.

The people who made this game did their homework. They knew that the best literary adaptations in video games ditch the original book’s plot and keep the setting. To make sure this happened they borrowed from every great artistic depiction of the poems and recreated many of them in lush 3-D landscapes. They knew that the best design for creating a sense of place is a third person game, one where you can see your avatar interacting with the space so that we experience the world’s limitations vicariously. They understood that the appeal of The Divine Comedy is hearing about all the grotesque punishments Dante conceived of and debating who deserves to go there. They brought out all these elements with visuals and clever design quirks. While playing this game I kept a ragged, heavily marked up copy of the poem next to me at all times and had a blast. Finding this little bit of trivia or figuring out where they were getting a particular line from became a kind of weird literary treasure hunt. I think there was some brawling in there but I don’t remember much about it except that I watched the ‘Pillar of Death’ attack more than any person should have to.

I mumbled on Twitter a few months back that I thought Dante’s Inferno was going to be one of the most important video games of 2010. Like Far Cry 2 it is divisive, difficult to play, and flawed. Like FC2 it is bland when it emulates the traditional norms of game design and like FC2 it is uncompromisingly bold when it strikes out into new territory. As a brawler it is not particularly impressive and bears the marks of a genre that has yet to significantly evolve in ten years. As a game with aspirations to recreate a famous place from a literary work through interaction, set pieces, and meta-narrative it is possibly the best game of its kind.

If only because it’s the only game of its kind.


Jay said...

The old C-64 RPG version of "Neuromancer" is the only other game I can think of from this particular 'genre' and I also think it did the job about ten times better.

L.B. Jeffries said...

I dunno, never played it.

Simon said...

Hey Kirk! I read the article over at PopMatters when it came out, but I didn't notice this post until now! I meant to tell you that the article has inspired me to at least give a rental, but I also want to play GoW3 next... and it seems like it'd be a bad idea to play this after GoW3. I guess this is what the summer is for.

L.B. Jeffries said...

No worries man. Either game has its ups and downs. GoW 3 is maybe one of the most uninspired games I've ever played. I mean, it's gorgeous and the combat is the exact same as the other games (a.k.a. fun and easy) but I think Penny Arcade summed the game up pretty well. Fun to play, please never make this again.