Monday, January 25, 2010

Dante’s Inferno: A Failure on Two Fronts

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

When I previously wrote about the video game version of Dante’s Inferno, my perspective was colored by the fact that I had not actually played any part of the game, merely watched a few videos, trailers, and developer diaries. While I felt that I could glean the general plot and themes of the game, I had no personal experience on which to base my assumptions. Having played the demo, I believe that I can now speak with a great deal more authority when I say the following: This game is total bullshit.

I’ll elaborate. It becomes abundantly clear within the first few moments of the Dante’s Inferno demo that this game has two major sources of inspiration. The first spoken words are a few lines from the actual literary classic Dante’s Inferno, leading the player to believe that it has something in common with the poem that shares its title. The first moments of combat are almost directly taken from God of War, using the same buttons for the exact same types of attacks used in Sony Santa Monica’s Greek mythology-based epic. Despite drawing on one of the great pieces of literature and one of the modern pinnacles of action gaming, Dante’s Inferno feels clumsy and lifeless. This is because it is a failed adaptation of both of its source materials. It is a disgrace to the poem and a debasement of what made God of War such an excellent game.

Essentially, Dante’s Inferno, the original, is the story of a poet travelling through hell with another poet he admired as a guide, pining for his lost love Beatrice, a pure and holy woman. The game, on the other hand, has Dante as a murderous badass crusader with a bloodstained past, chasing the corrupted Beatrice into the depths of hell to save her from both of their sins. On the way, he kills Death, steals his scythe, and then cuts his way through the demonic hordes, either redeeming them or condemning them to (even more) torment. This entire storyline could have at least been made consistent with the original by removing the façade that the main character was Dante and the romantic interest Beatrice. Why not just place new characters in the hell that Dante envisioned, and avoid the cries of literature snobs everywhere?

But what really surprised me about the game was how completely the developers failed to learn anything from their other major influence, God of War. When Visceral Games was about to release Dead Space, they listed their influences as movies like Alien and Event Horizon, and games like Resident Evil. I thought that sounded like a good list, but remained skeptical until I saw the excellent final product. These seemed like people who knew their way around an adaptation. It was clear, at the time, that they could learn lessons from the video games and entertainment properties that came before. This makes the complete failure of Dante’s Inferno even more striking.

There are some basic mechanics that Dante’s Inferno somehow failed to purloin from its inspiration. The quick-time events, requiring a player to push specific buttons quickly when they flash on screen, made their way into Dante’s Inferno, but they managed to make them considerably less intuitive and fun than they were in God of War. Considering that this is one of the most maligned mechanics of God of War, the fact that they adapted them and made them even worse is incredible. In God of War, the button you are supposed to press appears on the screen, right where the action is taking place. It’s directly in your line of sight, helping you to clearly see what is required of you. In Dante’s Inferno, for some unknown reason, the button is placed at the top of the screen, out of the way of the action. It’s essentially a distraction from the actual action of playing the game, and entirely counter-intuitive. I understand their desire to get the button prompt out of the way of the action, but they should have attempted a solution more like the one seen in the God of War 3 demo, which also moved the button prompt to the edge of the screen, but did so on the edge of the screen that matches the placement of the button on the controller. Instead of having to look at which button is being indicated, you can just press the button on the right hand side if you see a button prompt come up on the right. This may seem a minor difference, but in a hectic action game, little changes make all the difference in the world.

Another small but important departure from God of War is the frequency with which Dante’s Inferno doles out said quick-time events. In God of War, large creatures and bosses often involved quick-time events, but Dante’s Inferno has a quick-time event in place for every single time Dante performs a grab attack on any enemy in the game. Even worse, it layers a slapdash morality system on top of that: Players can choose to redeem or punish the souls of the damned through button presses. If you choose to redeem, and wish to reach the maximum level of redemption, this means that combat will consist mostly of jamming on one button over and over again every time you grab an enemy. This is quick-time overkill, as well as an over-use of the moral choice mechanic. In Dante’s Inferno, every enemy presents the player with a hackneyed, black or white moral choice which adds nothing to the gaming experience and slows down the action considerably.

Most damning of all, combat in Dante’s Inferno feels clumsy and unsatisfying. Dante’s attacks are heavy, inaccurate, and graceless. If there was one priority that Visceral Games should have put above all others while pilfering from God of War, it would be accurately capturing the weight and rhythm of combat. In God of War, combat is fluid and filled with natural patterns of attack and defense. Although Kratos himself is a brute, his combat feels almost dancelike and elegant, with his whirling chains beating out a rhythm of death upon his enemies. Dante, by comparison, seems oafish. His attacks are dull and his timing feels off. His dodges come just a little too slow, and neither Dante nor his enemies understand how to move and signal. If great, satisfying combat is a dance, Dante would step all over his partners’ feet.

But the problems with Dante’s Inferno go well beyond the mechanics of the game. Another thing that Dante’s Inferno should have learned from God of War is the latter’s ability to stay thematically consistent with the mythology it was using. Sure, Kratos wasn’t a character in the Greek myths, and he never slew any gods or fought any of the mythical monsters he fought in the games. But God of War manages to maintain an authenticity of style: Greek mythology is just as bloody, sexual, violent and enormous as the God of War games make it seem. Dante’s Inferno, on the other hand, attempts to use Christian mythology as a source, but treats it as if it’s exactly the same as Greek mythology. Christian mythology can be sexy, certainly (see Song of Solomon if you don’t believe me), but it is not as overtly and graphically sexual as Dante’s Inferno depicts it, with nudity in almost every frame of its opening sequence, and vagina monsters galore in some of its later stages.

Inconsistencies like this are nothing compared to a few elements which display complete ignorance of the religion they are adapting into a video game. There are some glaring problems with the Dante’s Inferno game that anyone who had done an hour of research could have pointed out, the most obvious of which is that the personification of death in Christian mythology is typically an angel, not a malevolent, evil entity (though some specific sects of Christianity differ on this point). Also, as mentioned earlier, the main character is given the power to redeem the souls in hell, which makes Dante Alighieri, the poet turned ham-fisted warrior, more powerful than God from the first moments of the game. What’s going to challenge the warrior who can kill Death and subvert the judgment of the Lord Almighty? How is the player ever meant to suspend their disbelief?

It seems that Visceral Games has truly missed the mark on this one, taking an odd assortment of ideas, stories, and video games, and slopping them together into an incoherent, bloody mess of a product. I hope that the gaming public won’t be fooled into thinking there is a story or a game worth experiencing behind all the blood, guts and breasts. They’ve taken a piece of the most important literature in centuries and some of the most satisfying gameplay in decades, ripped them to shreds, and reassembled them into a sick parody of their former selves. Like it says on the gates of hell: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”


  1. Someone, somewhere at Visceral probably started out with a good idea. But yeah, this is what happens when video game companies are owned by much larger companies that are only interested in upping their sales numbers. Good ideas tend to be smashed or chipped away at by profit and timing deadlines, and demands for popular themes and systems from other games to be incorporated because that's what's selling and thus what is the most valuable. Sigh... Definitely not playing this game.

  2. When I heard they were making a Dante's Inferno game, I was excited. I loved the idea, and had read the actual literature multiple times.

    Then, I found out that they were completely screwing up everything I had envisioned.

    Saved me sixty dollars.

  3. The first five minutes of the game also creates a pretty amusing loop of logic. If I kill Death (who looks like he was heading toward the next Castlevania game) and grab his scythe, how in Hell is anybody supposed to die?

  4. I'm not quite ready to write this one off just yet. The EA edition of the poem has a long foreword written by the creative director and he makes a pretty good argument for the game.

    Every single film adaptation and artistic breakdown of the Divine Comedy has meddled with the plot. So much of the text requires footnotes to even be comprehensible now so that there isn't much point in trying to stick to it perfectly. Some films have emphasized Beatrice far more than the book since technically she never even appears until Purgatory, others have left it out entirely. The first book of the Divine Comedy, the parts people want hear about, is the story about the citizens of Hell and what to make of them.

    Whether it's William Blake's paintings or Gustav Dore's ink sketches, seeing this depicted has always been fascinating. The lines change, the plots adjust, but really it's just about walking around seeing the punishments in action. The game mostly seemed to stick with this, both in the demo and in the art I've seen for it so far.

    I dunno how it will hold up on the design end. A third person brawler is probably the best choice for getting the player to notice the citizens of Hell and their quirks, but it's not going to be very good for delivering content. Whatever the case, I think Dante's Inferno is going to change the way we talk about games one way or the other.

  5. I dont see why they used this piece of literature in the title at all. If what they wanted was a gruesome action game set in hell than id like to believe there is enough creative talent to come up with something original

  6. until I heard the game was coming out I had settled on a wikipedia overview of the inferno (which turned out to be inaccurate). having heard and seen the inaccuracies of the video game I finally picked up the book (not the EA edition). I finished it and am currently reading purgatory.

    so I have EA to thank for getting me into the inferno. that said, the book already seems better and has deterred me from buying the game.

    maybe me and friends will get together to take turns playing the game. who knows, maybe I will be reading (or finished reading) paradise by then.

    THAT is irony.

  7. Very well written article. I especially love your point about how they could've easily avoided a ton of this negativity were they to remove the weak tie-in to the poem. I think that there's definitely a great experience here; going through the 7 Circles as influenced by the medieval idea of what they were. And sure, it would make a great action game. But it has nothing to do with the literature. Honestly though, I don't mind it that much - I only read Dante's in school, in an advanced lit class. I was not entertained, so it doesn't mean much to me personally. I don't really care WHAT EA does with it.

    That being said, I disagree with you on the grounds of the God of War influence. I played the demo, and felt that the combat handled okay. It's clearly reminescent of God of War (downright rips it off, 80% of the time), and it's definitely clumsier (very valid point, that example with the QTE's), but it still feels like a satisfying game in the same vein. I read a review somewhere - Game Informer maybe - that Dante is still in that top tier of action games. Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, Ninja Gaiden. It's at the very bottom, but it's better than the second tier action games; Genji, No More Heroes, Onimusha, etc. And that much is true.

    I felt it handled fine, though it clearly isn't as good as God of War. Nor is it as unique as something like Darksiders - a game which gets unfairly pegged for ripping off GoW, ironically. I love Darksiders, and can safely say that the rhythym of its combat is very unique. The blocking/countering sucks in that game (it won't cancel your current attack, so it's quite unresponsive), so you end up dashing around a lot. The focus on defense and mobility lends that game a feel more along the lines of Bushido Blade or Power Stone distilled into an action adventure, which is pretty unique. You play it like GoW, you'll get killed and fast. Play Dante's Inferno like that though, and you'll win.

    Still, well written article. I suppose I'm not going to try to defend Dante's really - with Bayonetta, Darksiders, God of War 3 and really Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 coming out around it in the release calendar, it's clearly the worst game of the bunch, and very unecessary -, I suppose I just feel that another viewpoint must be heard. Not everybody cares about the tie-in to the literature, and how badly they fail at it, that much - even people who read the whole damn thing and recognize its significance.

    Still, excellent article. Glad they mentioned it on Game.Set.Watch.


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