Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Adapting Literature, According to Visceral Games

by Daniel Bullard-Bates
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

-The first lines of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, Longfellow Translation

When I was still young, but had enough life experience
To be a brooding badass, I was in some freaky place with
Demons and shit and I killed them with a scythe.

-The first lines of Dante’s Inferno, by Visceral Games, Bullard-Bates hypothesis
When I read that the first section of Dante’s Divine Comedy was being turned into a video game, I responded with cautious optimism. Dante’s Inferno paints an impressive, terrifying vision of hell, and a game set in that world could be compelling. The epic poem was mostly descriptive in nature, so I figured they would have to change a few things to make a more exciting interactive experience. From the first trailer, it looked like they were going to invent some warrior character to go on a quest through hell. It wasn’t too clear.

With each new piece of information that drips out of the offices of Visceral Games, my hopes for the game have dwindled. That warrior from the first trailer, as it turns out, is actually Dante, who is not a 14th century poet but a badass crusading knight. Beatrice, Dante’s dead love in the poem, who serves as a kind of ideal beauty and his guide in the realms of paradise, is captured by the devil and dragged into hell for the sake of the game. Oh, and Dante stole Death’s own scythe, and uses it as a weapon.


I’m not sure what about this disturbs me the most:

1) The people at Visceral Games have taken dramatic liberties with a classic piece of literature to turn it into a generic action game with particularly gruesome backdrops.
2) They could have just as easily made almost the same game without so thoroughly flaying the original by making the main character some invented figure who was not Dante, pursuing some invented figure who was not Beatrice, and leaving out the nonsense about Death’s scythe.
3) If they make any sequels, we might soon see Dante striding into heaven and tearing angels asunder with the horns of Satan, or whatever other silliness they might come up with.

But instead of gripe and complain, I thought I might offer up a few other adaptation ideas for Visceral Games, just in case they ever decide to take a stab at another piece of classic literature:

Shakespeare’s Hamlet

In this brutal action-platformer, you take the role of Hamlet, prince of Denmark and heir to the throne. After his father is murdered by a demon that takes the form of his own uncle and claims the kingdom for himself, Hamlet sets out for revenge. Help Hamlet climb the towers of an ancient castle, reclaim the blade Excalibur, and kill the zombie minions of the demon king Claudius!

Milton’s Paradise Lost

After falling from grace, Satan swears revenge. This bloody strategy game pits angel against demon in the struggle for all creation! Mine the pits of hell for the resources necessary to build a demonic army and march on heaven. Build hellish units like the devastating Beelzebub Bomber, stealthy Succubus Assassin, and imposing Legion of Lilith. Once you complete the main storyline, take your game online in a variety of multiplayer modes! Better to reign EVERYWHERE than serve in heaven!

Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment

This first-person shooter stars Rodya, a young russian man with a dark past. Having killed a woman to escape his debts and then discovered that the woman was his mother and left him a fortune in her will, he decides to use his newfound wealth to stamp out injustice wherever he finds it. Using technologically-advanced weapons acquired through the time machine he invents and the supernatural powers which previously lay dormant in his bloodline, Rodya is ready to punish the guilty.

The New New Testament

Jesus was sent by God to kick ass and redeem humanity, and he’s all out of redemption. Jesus returns to earth to find it populated by godless sinners and warmongers, and decides that a second flood might be necessary: a flood of BLOOD. Using the cross he was killed on as a weapon and summoning holy spirits to possess his enemies, he’s going to kill everyone who’s ever sinned. This time, instead of loaves and fishes, Jesus is handing out PAIN.

Feel free to leave your own adaptation ideas in the comments! I look forward to it.


  1. Go-Go Galápagos

    Mankind may be doomed to extinction, but that’s no reason to frown when you are playing the latest creature Sim from Maxis. Using the famous Spore engine, this zany game takes place on an island which is home to the last vestiges of humanity. Follow the steady de-evolution of our species and tack on all sorts of wacky mutations using your in-breeding points, we’ll all be laying eggs in no time!

    Great Gatsby Grand Turismo

    A racing game where you haul ass toward that single green light, minute and far away in a bad ass roadster. Your ill-gotten bootlegging money may not bring you any happiness but this petal-to-the-metal ride through depression stricken New York is sure to get your blood racing. The cops may turn a blind eye, but watch out for Myrtle!

    Cuckoo’s Nest 2: The Revenge of Ratched

    Jack McMurphy thought death was the perfect escape, but there’s no escape from madness. Resuscitated alone in the basement of the abandoned Pendleton insane asylum McMurphy must piece together his past and find away to escape before the blood drenched orderlies and Ninjitsu nurses under the command of his old nemesis find a way to put him in solitary, forever.

  2. While the game does look quite immature, I still find it hard to see what the real difference between what Visceral games are doing with The Divine Comedy and what Santa Monica studios did with greek mythology. Should artistic efforts and creativity be restricted by the original content? Although, I'm not sure if Dante's Inferno will be considered as artistic, but you can see where I'm coming from.

  3. The difference to me is that Kratos and the God of War games seems consistent with greek mythology: greek mythology is bloody, brutal, sexual, and so on.

    The Divine Comedy is a slow, thoughtful, and reflective poem, about a poet. The imagery is violent at times and disgusting at others, so I don't begrudge the developers their level design. My objection is mostly to the liberties they've taken with the characters and storytelling. Dante is just not a badass knight who killed Death and wields his scythe. He is a poet who, in the story, walked through hell and did not get involved.

    If you want a badass killer fighting his way through hell, fine. But not Dante. And part of what made Beatrice so special and beautiful was her perfection! She'd never end up in hell, so how would Dante go to rescue her there?

  4. That's a fair point.

    I think the negativity towards this game is quite interesting though, given it hasn't even been released yet. What everyone is judging it on is marketing and opinion pieces. I find it kind of discouraging.

    I often strongly shy away from any kind of adaptation or remake if it doesn't offer anything new to the original piece, and this is especially the case across different formats. Personally, I'm kind of glad that Visceral Games aren't making a game that is an adaptation of The Divine Comedy. I don't think a game of that kind could improve the original source material, and here they are clearly giving a different experience.

    I think the real question for me is, will it still have any value as an experience despite of it's dressing? Ultimetely, I don't think it matters that it's Dante and Beatrice, because it's doesn't look like they are going to be the same anyway.

  5. I agree with the premise that you're presenting: They aren't making an adaptation of The Divine Comedy.

    I just wish that it were clearer, from their developers videos and press releases, that they believed this to be the case. It pains me to see one of the team talking about the importance of the source material, and then a quick camera cut to another guy talking about the importance of gore, violence and boobs.

    Of course, I haven't played it. It might be so earth-shatteringly awesome that I'll toss aside all my concerns.

    Another question is this: Why, if they don't intend to make it about the source material, is the game even called Dante's Inferno? It's not as if this is a name which will move units out the door come the game's release. I don't exactly think of Dante's 14th century poem as a licensed product that will mean a lot to the average consumer. Why not just make this an epic game about fighting through hell? I just don't see the advantage to taking this piece of literature, changing it entirely, and slapping its name on the cover of an action game.

  6. Yeah I'm totally with you on this one Daniel.

    I'm willing to bet that this game at one point, when it was first proposed, was supposed to become a very different creature than it has turned out to be. A friend of mine, 2 years ago mind you, said that he always thought the Divine Comedy would make great material for an exploration-based survival horror game and I thought it was a cool idea. We were both pretty upset that someone had had the same idea but had chosen to make a GoW clone instead. Probably the person who initially had the idea and proposed the project was seeing something slightly different in their mind's eye. But big hungry video game companies have a way of reshaping games to meet what they see as a more appropriate and profitable image.

    Or maybe I'm giving them too much benefit of the doubt and it was just a bad call from the get go.

  7. It's actually pretty funny to watch some of the developer diaries, because there's one guy on the team who seems to cling with a steadily encroaching sense of dismay to the idea that they are basing this on a real literary work and that their game holds some deeper value. And then they always cut away to someone else on the team who takes about how awesome the blood splatter and huge boss fights are going to be.


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