Playing the Poem: a tour of Dante's Inferno, part two


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In part one of our examination of Dante's Inferno and how it compares to its source material, Joseph Leray, Benjamin PerLee and I took on the first three Circles. We've talked about dead babies, giant phallus towers and excrement. We're off to a rip-roaring start but a start is all it is. We have to go all the way baby. All the way home.

Those first three sins are for chumps. They're barely even part of Hell, practically a suburb. Read on as we continue into Greed, Wrath, and Heresy.

Conrad Zimmerman on Greed

In Greed, we once again see the Visceral team taking a few elements from the poem and then integrating those into a level which otherwise barely resembles the text.

The poem's fourth Circle has the damned broken into two camps, misers and the wasteful. The two are locked in eternal combat with each other, advancing on each other while pushing weights with their chest until they collide and turn back to start the process over again. All of this is watched over by Plutus, the Greek God of wealth. Despite Dante's desire to learn whose lives led them here, Virgil points out that any distinguishing features are gone from these souls.

Not a ton to go on, but it's certainly something. And, at least in this situation, the damned coming into conflict with Dante would make a whole lot of sense. I would have loved to see a gauntlet of damned running at each other with boulders on their chests for Dante to have to run through. Sadly, such an opportunity is never capitalized upon.


Gustav Doré, Virgil silencing Plutus (1890)

Only Plutus makes the jump into the actual level, appearing as a gold statue. Instead of appearing at the entrance to the Circle, Plutus can be found in its center. Though inanimate, he does make his proclamation, "Papé Satàn, papé Satàn aleppe."

GreedWith the relative freedom that the poem continues to provide thus far, Visceral demonstrates greed in a context that modern society can instantly identify: industry. This Circle is like a great machine with gears turning and chains pulling. Molten gold is ferried to and fro and damned souls drown within it. Bit of the modern social commentary that the play is known for? Possibly, but it's never explored further than basic depictions of these things being a part of this place.

Interestingly, a passing mention by Virgil of Fortuna (Greek Goddess of Fortune) in the poem manifests into its own chamber in Greed. Depictions of the Fortuna and her Wheel are not uncommon in works from the time period when Inferno was written, but what's here is more involved than the throwaway line would suggest. The final room before encountering the Circle's boss is dominated on one wall by the "Wheel of Fortune", an object you must move past to proceed. The disc is ultimately pushed off of its mooring and becomes the surface on which the stage's final battle commences.

 Fighting on Fortune's wheel could be an interesting concept and combat on it could have all sorts of possibilities. Unfortunately, there's no such thing at all. It's a flat disc on which you fight, nothing more and nothing less. There's still some symbolic value there, I suppose, but it feels flat and a waste of potential.

Speaking of that encounter, Greed is far more important level for differentiating between the two stories in that it gives us the first face-to-face introduction with an original character not featured in the poem, Dante's father, Alighiero. The scenes which feature him raise questions regarding the role parents play in enabling -- even teaching -- children to sin. Dante acknowledges his similarity to the monster he now confronts in Hell, but the game stays true to a central theme of Inferno, that of personal responsibility.

No man can deny his sins and be redeemed. In confronting his father, Dante takes the first real step towards accounting for his own.

Joseph Leray on Wrath

The last time I was blogging philosophic about Visceral’s Dante’s Inferno, I mentioned that Visceral took a “thematic” approach to level design: instead of re-creating Dante’s original environments, they settled on imagining their own, each one linked metaphorically with the original subject matter.

This method gets kicked to the curb during Wrath (and more or less stays there through the end of the game): sticking the Wrathful in the marshy swamps lining the Styx, Dante describes his vision in concrete aesthetic detail. All Visceral had to do was run with it.

And so, even though Wrath may very well be the second weakest level in Dante's Inferno -- the dubious honor of Worst Part of the Game goes to Fraud -- it marks a shift in the way Visceral approaches level design. This, in and of itself, is worth thinking about.

Gustave Doré, Virgil pushes Filipo Argenti back into the River Styx (1890)

Even though it wasn’t as entertaining as some of the other levels, Wrath was the first time that Visceral really sold the idea of their Inferno to me. Visceral’s fidelity comes with its own pitfalls, though: they were selling me a version of the Inferno, but I'm not buying.

Hell’s supposed to be a crowded place, but Visceral’s seems relatively barren compared to lines such as this one from Dante’s Canto III: “an interminable train / of souls pressed on, so many that I wondered / how death could have undone so great a number.” Technical issues notwithstanding, Dante’s Inferno too often feels like a particularly brutal action game instead of a living, breathing re-creation of Dante’s hellscape. The walls of the damned -- complete with circle-appropriate lamentation -- are a nice touch, but I would’ve liked to see a little more contrapasso. The fact that Dante can punish or absolve only certain sinners scattered throughout each level just reinforces the fact that he spends most of his time stabbing things in the face instead of really exploring the idea of “Hell.”

Priamo della Quercia, Entrance to Dis; Devils and the Furies (1444-1452)

In any case, after Dante traverses the Styx, he’s technically out of the Fifth Circle of Hell. The Pals Poetic round on the city of Dis, which marks the division between the sins of flesh and sins of malice. In the Divine Comedy, a group of Gorgons blocks the entrance into Dis; Virgil summons an angel to open the gates for them, using the downtime to shoot the shit with Dante. In Visceral’s version, no angel is forthcoming, and Dante has to scale the city walls on his own.

The difference is significant: it highlights perfectly the thematic differences between the Divine Comedy and Dante’s Inferno, between literature and videogames. Visceral’s Dante is on his own here, ostensibly forsaken by a God in whose name his entire (after)life has been ruined. Having God on your side kind of takes the fun out of stabbing demons in the face, and the moment reflects some of the bigger thematic concerns of the game, particularly in terms of agency and free will.

Gustave Doré, Celestial Messenger dispersing the devils (1890)

And, perhaps in apology for the lackluster level of Wrath, the Gates of Dis are one of the strongest areas of the game. You’ll remember that in both versions Phlegyas ferries Dante across the Styx; and the boatman is understandably miffed when, per Visceral's interpretation, Dante tries to kill him. So, scaling the Gates of Dis becomes a two part affair: you’ve got to take out your boilerplate enemies without being crushed underfoot by a four-story Balrog.

Dis' central conceit is that Phlegyas, in his rage, can be tricked into knocking walls down which, conveniently, allows Dante to keep moving. It'd be simple enough except that waves and waves of enemies are also trying to kill you at the same time. This two-pronged threat creates a very real sense of despair and dogged determination and, while I found the aesthetics of Violence more interesting (more on that soon), the half-hour it takes to scale Dis is the best pure gameplay to be found in Dante's Inferno.

It’s perhaps the most unrelenting level in the game -- the only reward for taking out a platform of monsters is that you’ll be greeted to a new platform full of monsters. And, as if to really reinforce the idea that Dante is so fucked, the level ends as Dante makes his final approach towards the lower levels of Dis: the camera zooms out impossibly far, revealing the full, terrifying scope of the Inferno. You’ll watch as Dante becomes smaller and smaller, ultimately lost against the grandeur of Hell.

There are some memorable moments in Dante’s Inferno, but few of them compare to Dante’s assault on Dis. It speaks to Visceral’s ability that one of the best levels in the game doesn’t really have an analogue in the Comedia -- this is Visceral on it’s own, taking inspiration from, but not copying, the Inferno, and it makes me wish that they had strayed even further from the source material. Of course, I also wish the game was called Crusaders Ruining the Shit out of Some Demons with a Giant Scythe instead of Dante’s Inferno, but that’s an academic polemic for a different article.

Benjamin PerLee on Heresy

How appropriate that I would be tasked with analyzing Heresy, considering many would complain that Dante's Inferno is itself heretical. There are plenty, after all, who consider the poem to be one of the most important works of Western literature. 

So when we look at a game like Dante's Inferno, what in the world is Heresy? Heresy is hard to pin down, since it is typically defined by those accusing others of the act. Within Christian theology, a heretic oftentimes was someone who outright denied the divinity of God and Christ. Pagans and atheists would be placed under this designation, but it could mean more. 

It could even be a change in beliefs from the standards and norms of the day, so this is why even people within the same belief systems might accuse each other of heresy. It's a very fluid designation. In Dante's day, the life and times of powerful popes, the designation of Heretic could be defined by a more political standard. Alighieri himself was banished from his hometown in Florence, for example, and considered a heretic by many.

So we get to Heresy in the game. After a ride on a massive and colossal Phlegyas, a Greek demigod sentenced to hell for burning down Apollo's temple in Delphi, Dante is now past the river Styx and entered the City of Dis. While the name of this “city” comes off as a little weird, in truth it represents the lower circles of Hell, those places where the sins are not sins of the flesh, but sins of the conscious mind. These are considered much worse than the other fleshly sins, unfortunately for those condemned. It is a thrilling dark and fiery place, filled with the screams of the condemned as we enter the horrors below. Dante readies his scythe to destroy what evils will attack him next.

Then we enter Heresy itself. While the game is a vast pit of boxes crammed with people screaming out in pain from the flames that burn them for eternity (as well as burning upside down impaled upon crosses), the poem is much more like a graveyard with fiery tombs. We see a figure called Farinata, a Florentine politician who acts in contempt of those that surround him. The leads to an odd element of Heresy in the poem: it's very political. 

William Blake, Dante conversing with Farinata degli Uberit (1824)

While Alighieri argues as his definition as Heresy is basically the denial of the soul's immortality, the people that we see here are all members of political entities that cause splitting and division. Guy Raffa, who contributes to the fantastic Dante World website, mentions that this political splitting is a reminder of the splitting of Christ's robe at the base of the cross. Heresy, for Dante Alighieri, is all about the splitting of people from truth to falsities. There are the warring political groups, the Guelphs and Ghibellines, the emperor Frederick II, and Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti. This last figure is odd, a member of a rich political family, and he recognizes Dante. 

Cavalante is the father of a good friend of Dante, and he's very much concern over the fate of his son, Guido. Apparently the shades of Heresy can see the future, not the present, and Cavalate cannot understand why Guido isn't there. There is a little confusion over the living status of Guido, yet he is still in fact alive, but it is expected that he will be dead soon.

I find this reference to this son Guido to be decent foundation for the character of Francesco Portinari, who in the game is Beatrice's brother. This character, who takes the blame for the actions of Dante, we will look at in our study of the Circle of Violence.

Gustave Doré, The Heresiarchs (1890)

Ultimately, the problem with Heresy in the poem is that it is not very long, just one canto. This is both good for the developers – it leaves a lot open to expand upon – but it also means there is not much to work with. Instead, Visceral creates a level that is based upon a lot of the fiery images. There are pillars of fire to dodge and deal with, and horrific beasts that represent pagans that exemplify the best (or, I suppose, the worst) in heretical beliefs.

What I find most interesting is the usage of the personage of Abraham as a statue that Dante must raise up to exit the circle. This is one of the strongest religious figures shown in the game, a huge figure in Jewish, Christian and Islamic beliefs. Abraham was a holy man, but a man that Alighieri considered a "virtuous pagan" who must still be condemned.

It is funny because it is the circle of Limbo (also known as Abraham's Bosom), that is traditionally the resting place of Abraham and other important Genesis figures. Dante's Inferno, the game, argues that Abraham was in the circle of Heresy, and that when Christ came to redeem these figures, it was in Heresy that Christ had to enter. Dante the poet actually says Christ returned to Limbo to save Adam, Abel, and all those important men of Genesis, not Heresy, so it is interesting that Visceral would choose to follow this path for this circle.

[Join us soon for part three as we delve into Violence, Fraud and Treachery]

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Conrad Zimmerman
Conrad ZimmermanMoustache   gamer profile

An avid player of tabletop and video games throughout his life, Conrad has a passion for unique design mechanics and is a nut for gaming history. He can be heard on the comedy podcast ( The mer... more + disclosures


Filed under... #Action #Dantes Inferno #Destructoid Originals #Visceral Games



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