Gaming Features

Into the Inferno III: Divine Judgement

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A poor GOD OF WAR ripoff? A worthy trip through the Nine Circles of Hell? Or a messy adaptation of a literary classic? For the last several months, contributor Steven Porfiri has been playing, analyzing, and chatting with those involved in making one of the all-time greatest gaming flops: EA’s 2010 release DANTE’S INFERNO. Our final part of our three-part exposé on the game tackles the reception, promotion, and aftermath as we finalize our breakdown of exactly what made DANTE’S INFERNO one of the 2010s’ strangest relics. Read more about this Divine Comedy here and here if you haven’t already

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RECEPTION

DANTE’S INFERNO, at the time, seemed to largely scratch a collection of itches, and given the enormous hype campaign to promote it, it damn well should’ve. The first month of its release it sold around 240,000 copies for the Xbox 360 and 220,000 for the PS3. In comparison, the highly-anticipated GOD OF WAR 3 sold over a million copies in the first month of its release, so while DANTE’S INFERNO was more widely available, with combined sales it failed to make half the numbers of the game it sought to emulate. However, the original GOD OF WAR sold around the same numbers upon its release in 2005. Critically speaking DANTE’S INFERNO was received with mixed reviews and failed to garner the “universal acclaim” achieved by the God of War Franchise. According to Metacritic it had almost as many middling reviews as it did positive, with a small percentage of reviews outright panning it. Most critics latched onto the gameplay as a solid reiteration of combo slashers, that while fun, didn’t exactly bring anything new and worthwhile to the table. Obsessed as I was with learning everything I could about the game and its development, when it didn’t exactly blow up the spot I mostly wrote it off.

Critics were split on the game’s imagining of Hell and its relationship to the original poem. While most applauded level design aspects such as the way the developers employed moving textures of sinners trapped within the walls of Hell and the rivers of blood, many of those critics bemoaned the repetitive nature of the design and felt that the last third of the game lacked all the imagination that initially hooked them. While in today’s post-AGONY paradigm it’s easy to write off edgelord aesthetics as simply that, these reviews demonstrate the paradox of designing games that include realizations of places that are supposed to be horrible enough to scare people onto the straight and narrow path, which is that a lot of people might just dismiss them for trying too hard. Unfortunately for these developers, these visualizations might not age particularly well, whether over the years or over the hours of gameplay.

Inferno Agony

Most AGONY reviewers concurred that after the 50th toothed-vagina-face demon going “ooga booga” from atop a pile of entrails, they had a pretty good idea what the game was trying to do.

Some of the more damning reviews touched on the spaghetti-in-the-dark aspects of the game, but the more positive ones took it in stride along with the similarity of the gameplay mechanics to God of War, actually listing those similarities as points in the game’s favor. Nick Chester of Destructoid said in the site’s review that if any piece of art is going to emulate another in the way that DANTE’S INFERNO does that they should do as well as their influence, if not better, and that “In that respect, DANTE’S INFERNO impresses.” More often than not the game is referred to as a God of War “clone,” but seems to still be pretty fun. And to be fair to the video game journalistic scene of 2010, despite what my experiences with the game were, being fun should be a pretty big component of what a game does.

As it turns out, “Like God of War but meh” was not enough of a ringing endorsement for EA to put their full weight behind a PURGATORIO and PARADISO follow-up to begin with, but the ensuing upheaval of the team meant that Dante would be stuck in Limbo forever.

PROMOTION

The hype campaign for DANTE’S INFERNO is about as legendary and devilish as the poem itself, and as others have commented, warrants an entire PR and advertising case study on its own. Electronic Arts hired Wieden + Kennedy—an ad agency that at the time had a hankering for viral marketing and in 2010 would win AdWeek’s Agency of the Year award—to push the game for around $20,000 per month. You may remember the commercial during the Super Bowl, which was a 30-second clip of Dante plunging into Hell that featured no in-game footage, but did feature Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” There was also a DANTE’S INFERNO Facebook game which offered freemium-style gameplay to recreate the major points and locations of the game. But the firm also had concocted a series of stunts and contests for each level of Hell that were deployed at various points prior to the game’s release.

Inferno guy

This got me hyped beyond all reason

After the game was announced, the content aggregate site Digg announced that they’d partnered up with EA to advertise DANTE’S INFERNO by offering up their own source code as ad space. Lo and behold that when the code for the site was viewed, there was an ASCII art image of one of the demonic unbaptized babies that would be found in the Limbo level of the game. Curious minds would soon find that several video game journalism outlets also had their source code renovated under their noses to promote the game. Passwords found in the code would lead to downloads of concept art, wallpaper, and other digital freebies from Visceral and EA. This would prove to be the most benign and least obnoxious stage of the campaign.

At San Diego Comic-Con fans were encouraged to “commit acts of lust” and record them on camera. While this sounds more like an entirely different convention, fans were told to take pictures with various “booth babes” at the convention and either post the pictures to Twitter with a special hashtag, or email them to a specific email address. Fans were encouraged to do this as much as possible in order to maximize their chances of winning a “sinful” night out with two models including dinner and a limo, ending the night with them in a penthouse that EA and W+K made sure to mention included a jacuzzi. This winner would also receive a chest full of limited-edition swag. In one of the best cases of ironic justice, a writer from the site Gaymer won the prize for posing next to a male booth “babe.” The writer would go on to write a scathing open letter about the contest. “While I’m not sure if it was intentional or not,” he wrote, “this stunt projected a view of your target demographic as lustful heterosexual males, when in reality a larger and larger portion of the gaming population are women and LGBT people.”

Inferno Sin to Win

Here’s a slightly better picture with clearer depiction of the contest rules, but I thought it was important to note the integration of a woman’s chest and cleavage into the ad copy

This wasn’t the only bit of shenanigans EA would get up to at a major convention. At E3 that year, protesters picketed outside the convention center condemning DANTE’S INFERNO and EA (“EA = ELECTRONIC ANTICHRIST” read an actual sign). It would later come out that these protesters were paid by Wieden + Kennedy to drum up controversy surrounding the game. In another twist of irony, the news of the fake protest caused an actual protest amongst Christian bloggers, particularly from the premiere source of video game criticism that pledged fealty to the Holy See at the time, CatholicVideoGamers. “Gamers of all varieties will buy this product if it’s, well, actually a good game,” they wrote, “So instead of engaging in a shamelessly anti-Christian stunt to promote your poor excuse of a product, maybe you ought to work on making this game, you know, something better than a blatant GOD OF WAR rip-off and make it, ya know, something worthwhile?” Oof!

Inferno protestors

To be fair, this is selling fundamentalist Christians kinda short in terms of protest slogans

Gluttony would end up being a little trickier, as sending food and drink to people is just kinda nice. In order to get around this, the marketing company would end up sending a cake in the shape of various limbs to the editor of Joystiq. But a simple leg cake would not do for a company named Visceral, oh no; the cake was also made entirely of meat. Kind of like how the Glutton enemies would consume shades and Dante, EA decided it’d be devilishly funny to offer Joystiq the same opportunity.

Starting around September 2009 checks were mailed out to several prominent gaming critics. Foreboding checks for $200 were sent in equally foreboding boxes with the explanation that they can either cash the check and be greedy, or refuse to spend the checks and be wasteful. In the game as in the original poem, these were distinctions among those condemned to the circle of Greed. “The checks are as real as the consequences that follow” the boxes warned. It’s unknown how many outlets spent the checks or how many ignored them, but certain outlets made a point of mentioning that their checks were donated to charity, while others like Kotaku posted videos of them lighting their checks on fire. These outlets also leveled criticism regarding the practice of openly bribing gaming journalists for better reviews as well as the eye-rolling aplomb the stunt presented itself with.

“Hoarding Filthy Lucre” sounds like something I have to pay a woman in a leather suit to say to me

In another critic-targeting stunt, EA sent out small wooden boxes to another group of critics, including Zero Punctuation’s Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw. The box, when opened, would play Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” because 2009 was a much simpler time and RickRolling was still fucking hilarious. The box, when closed, would not stop playing the music. The only way to stop it was to destroy the box using the included hammer and safety glasses. Once destroyed they would find a note inside condemning them for giving into the sin of Wrath.

The late 2000s, as one may recall, was when companies began to experiment with motion controls, most notably brought on by the advent of the Nintendo Wii. One day an announcement was made regarding a new way to get kids interested in The Lord and give families a way to go to church every day: MASS: WE PRAY was a game that among other things featured a massive crucifix-shaped motion-controller and offered all the thrills and salvation of your standard Catholic Mass, complete with kneeling, sprinkling holy water, and rosary-ing, probably (it’s been a while for me). This made the rounds on gaming outlets and content aggregates like Digg until it was revealed a few days later that the whole thing was made up by who else, but EA. In fact, if anyone tried to go to the website to purchase the game they’d be shown a short clip of them being denounced as a heretic and then sent to a site to either pre-order DANTE’S INFERNO or use an app to “damn” their friends via Facebook. I get what they were trying to do but if MASS: WE PRAY was “denounced” as Heresy, it has very concerning implications for the rash of Biblical games released in the early ‘90s, though I have a feeling this isn’t official Catholic dogma.

Pictured: The absolute depths of Sin

Finally a commercial began airing on various networks promising men (specifically men) tips on how to start dating or win the affections of their friends’ girlfriends. The company known as “Hawk Panther” would lead men to a page that would very suddenly tell them that for attempting to steal the significant other of their best friends they were guilty of the sin of Treachery, then encouraged them to buy the game.

There were also pretty benign things such as the Facebook game, as well as a series of developer diaries where those that worked on the game would discuss each level and what went into bringing it to life. But it was by far the stunts that aroused the most ire, and experts are still split on whether it worked. The sense of unwarranted severity and general crassness of the activations would put a bad taste in the mouth of reviewers and critics, who in articles would mention the game’s lack of imaginative gameplay and stark similarity to God of War. On the other hand, the game was being talked about and generating buzz, and as the saying goes, bad press is better than no press at all. Indeed, in an interview with Ars Technica, Jonathan Knight would reiterate that the similarities to any other game were a sign that the developers had done their job in making a game that was ultimately satisfying and fun to play, a point that Steve Desilets echoed. Knight also defended the the game’s creative liberties with the source material by giving anecdotal evidence of gamers, intrigued by the brutal nature of the game, that were picking up more and more copies of the original poem. But again, ultimately no matter how popular the game was, no matter which outlet was covering the controversy, it comes once again down to the fact that this article is only describing DANTE’S INFERNO, and not PURGATORIO or PARADISO.

AFTERMATH

After the game’s initial release it was supported by a few DLC releases. Many of these were additional costumes, including one giving Dante his “classical poet” appearance and another that gave Dante a massive afro and leisure suit entitled “Disco Inferno.” These also came with additional souls and a few new relics depending on which pack one bought. Visceral also released new story content, a prologue known as “The Dark Forest,” alluding to the forest Dante navigates before reaching Hell in the original poem. The DLC has Dante navigating the titular forest on his way from Acre to Florence, attempting to intercept his assassin from Acre before he can get back to Dante’s villa and kill his family. The Dark Forest introduced two new enemy types and incorporated the allegorical beasts that Dante encounters in the original Inferno: a lion, a leopard, and a wolf. It’s essentially another level and introduces the new enemies, as well as the concept of Virgil being sent by Beatrice. The DLC mentions St. Lucia as well, in preparation for the next major DLC release.

Inferno St. Lucia

Most Biblical contemporaries refer to her as St. Lucy but it really doesn’t have the same “Giant Scythe and Angel Wings” vibe

“The Trials of St. Lucia” gave players the ability to create arena levels similar to that of the Fraud level. The DLC shipped with about 20 “story” missions built by the developers that introduced players to the mechanics available to them. Players could select the arena they wanted, and could then load it up with monsters from the game in order to challenge other players online. In order to preserve the 60 frames-per-second rate the developers worked to maintain, players could only introduce a certain amount of enemies and traps to the arena at a time, in order to avoid bogging down the processors with 50 unbaptized babies.

Visceral also developed a brand-new playable character for Trials, the titular St. Lucia. Reimagined as an avenging angel with a scythe and Dante’s guardian angel, developers worked to develop an entirely new feel for her. Faster than Dante, she would float around the level, and could even glide for short distances for more aerial attack opportunities. She was also given limited optic blasts, because having no eyes means room for laser eyes. Her main drawback was that she had less health than Dante, and it would deplete faster than his.

The game found a decent audience, which proved to be a double-edged sword for the community, as for every meticulously thought-out and considered arena, there would be five levels with one enemy. This was because there were quite a few achievements in DANTE’S INFERNO that were attached to positive performances in these levels, and so naturally there developed a market of incredibly simple challenges designed to help players go platinum for the game. This interest would last until around the end of 2016, as players would take to forums to ask why they couldn’t access the servers. Explanations of poor server quality gave way to the news that the servers had officially been taken offline, ruining the platinum potentials of newcomers. All-in-all the DLC lasted around six years, which would prove to be a longer lifespan than the sequel to INFERNO, which as we know never made it out of development.

If you still need someone to give you a five-star rating on your arena I’ve got some bad news

According to Steve Desilets’ account, towards the end of the development process the INFERNO team was growing restless. Creative decisions were questioned, infighting was common, and the hours the team worked grew later and later. After the game shipped, most of the team started work on PURGATORIO, and by Desilets’ reckoning, it lasted for about six months.

“[The team] had some novel mechanics in mind, they had some amazing art tech being developed by this guy, Eric Holden, who was the main art tech wizard that we had on INFERNO. He was a guy who could make magic on the screen happen so fast. There was like, living vines that you could control, all these really cool ideas that they were starting to push out, but PURGATORIO was ripped to pieces from the inside-out.”

The internal divisions seemed to come with the team, and as a result, no one wanted the creative lead position for the game, and by Desilets’ account those that were interested were too inexperienced to lead. With himself off the project and Jonathan Knight taking a restrained leadership role, Desilets began to develop another prototype with Knight. Known as BIG WAR, it was a third-person shooter with customizable action-figure characters, described as TOY STORY mixed with GEARS OF WAR. The prototype would eventually grow to impress the highest levels of EA management with its sheer playability and fun, and it was eventually decided that with the PURGATORIO team fraying and the less-than-enthused critical reception for INFERNO, resources would be better put to use developing BIG WAR.

Then, in late 2010, Jonathan Knight left EA, leaving Desilets as project lead. Desilets would also leave soon thereafter, both to develop games on Facebook. Development continued for about two years afterward until it was finally shut down. Desilets attributes this to the game aiming too high for the gaming industry, as BIG WAR would’ve been the first multiplayer game able to be played across any platform simultaneously. But, as recent dust-ups with Sony have shown, the industry still isn’t quite ready for such a paradigm shift.

Pictured: Sony

As it would turn out, the greatest victim in the story of DANTE’S INFERNO other than the grades of a couple-hundred English Lit students would be Visceral itself. With PURGATORIO finally laid to rest, Visceral refocused and put out DEAD SPACE 2 in 2011, and then DEAD SPACE 3 in 2013, around the time when BIG WAR was also purportedly shelved. While each release received generally favorable reviews, they also each developed a trend of decreased sales. Later that year, Electronic Arts’ VP, Patrick Soderlund, would say in an interview that they would not be working on a DEAD SPACE 4.

After two more action shooters in the form of BATTLEFIELD 3: ENDGAME and ARMY OF TWO: THE DEVIL’S CARTEL, Visceral would release BATTLEFIELD HARDLINE, an outlier in the Battlefield franchise with a heist-style cops-and-robbers gameplay rather than massive military deathmatches. The game didn’t exactly flop (similar to the performance of DANTE’S INFERNO), but it would prove to be the final game Visceral released before the studio closed with the cancellation of Project Ragtag. This might be familiar to some, as Ragtag was going to essentially be HARDLINE but set in the Star Wars universe, following Disney’s acquisition of Lucasarts and EA’s release of STAR WARS BATTLEFRONT in 2015. Players would’ve been able to control several different characters planning and executing various heists, which would take place soon after STAR WARS IV: A NEW HOPE.

Unfortunately for Ragtag, conflicts over the game’s “lofty” goals, creative direction, linear vs. nonlinear storyline, and many other issues caused EA to cease development at Visceral, and the studio was shut down later in 2017. Development was then reportedly shifted to EA studios in Vancouver, but as recently as this year, there have been reports that Project Ragtag is officially no more.

Great disturbance, thousand voices crying out in anguish, yadda yadda

After leaving Visceral in 2010, Steve Desilets worked with various studios to develop games for Facebook, including Zynga. He cites the allure of these games being that they’re simple, fun games with a broad audience that are less stressful to develop than the hardcore action-based titles he’d worked on previously. After working at Amazon Studios in Seattle, Desilets left to start his own independent gaming company, Sockeye Studios, where he currently works.

Jonathan Knight now works as a studio head at WB Games’ San Francisco division. His most recent gaming credits consist of the WESTWORLD mobile game that was discontinued after being sued by Bethesda Softworks for bearing a striking similarity in gameplay and art design to their mobile game FALLOUT SHELTER. He’s also been recently credited as a writer for a series of impressive fan-made shorts that envision Dante’s return, DANTE’S REDEMPTION, created by developer Tal Peleg.

Peleg, who claims to have briefly worked for Visceral, has been working on EA’s most recent effort, ANTHEM, as a developer at Bioware, and has also worked for Naughty Dog. Most are familiar with how Electronic Arts has fared after DANTE’S INFERNO; keepin’ on keepin’ on with yearly sports game releases like Madden and FIFA, a couple of STAR WARS BATTLEFRONTs, TITANFALL, TITANFALL 2, and then APEX LEGENDS, always trying to see what the hot ticket is and always managing to stoke ire by either ruining it completely or attaching loads of microtransactions.

Writing this article took so long that in order to comply with Ethical Gaming Journalism I legally have to include this picture as a counterpoint.

Wieden+Kennedy were doing very well before DANTE’S INFERNO and have been doing very well afterwards, being the company that brought to life Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign, as well as extensive work for Nike and being the source of Bud Light’s “Dilly Dilly” ad campaign. The company’s prowess would seem to shift the blame of DANTE’S performance onto the game itself. While the advertising for the game capitalized on the concept of “all press is good press,” and the hype was just enough to keep servers at Visceral humming, the “success” of the campaign truly depends on who is answering the question. Because again, while I have written several thousand words on DANTE’S INFERNO in the Year of Our Lord 2019, including its ad campaign, gameplay, and reception, I’m not sitting here writing an article about any of the game’s sequels.

Dante Alighieri is still super dead and interred in the Basilica de San Francesco in Ravenna. Contemporary Florentines have done their best to walk back their condemnation of Dante, asking the city of Ravenna if they could please give them his remains, and even building a tomb for him in 1829 at the Basilica de Santa Croce if they should ever say yes. They have not, even though in 2008 Florence formally rescinded the threat of burning Dante at the stake if he ever returned, as was his sentence in 1302. He’s one of Italy’s most-celebrated minds, and his impact on Catholic culture and tradition has been immeasurable.

Inferno statue

In this depiction of Dante from his empty tomb in Florence, we see the poet looking as jacked as the game depicts him, and also leaving the entire city on read

I think what mainly caused me to want to revisit DANTE’S INFERNO after 10 years was a desire to know “what happened,” for lack of a better term and to steal a bit from YouTuber Matt McMuscles, whose Let’s Play also was a contributing factor. It seemed that the team at Visceral had a better foundation and appreciation for the source material, and I think it was my own naivete that made me think that as long as they had an understanding of the source material and could properly incorporate it, they’d be fine. But what it seems to me is that the moment the DANTE’S INFERNO team was told that they had 18 months instead of three years, EA had basically blown their own kneecaps off.

Critics didn’t seem to mind too much that DANTE’S INFERNO played like GOD OF WAR—they minded that that was all there seemed to be to it. While it was no small feat to get the game out in that timeline, and the fact that it achieved commercial success notwithstanding, it seems to represent a sacrifice of not only thinking through the story elements, but also any other game mechanics that would’ve made the game stand out. And it would seem like EA’s hesitation to really nurse any creative venture also played a part as the fraying of the team dynamic and the presence of something newer, shinier, and more promising lead to the franchise’s shelving. What interested me most about the discontinuation was that despite the critical panning and in fact possibly thanks to the over-the-top marketing was that DANTE’S INFERNO did do well commercially. Despite how over-the-top, ridiculous, and even eye-rolling the marketing campaign was, Wieden + Kennedy, along with Jonathan Knight and EA’s marketing, helped sell enough copies to keep Visceral afloat and developing for another seven years. As this piece has come out it’s attracted fans that fondly remember the game and have taken umbrage at our ad copy referring to it as a “flop.”

DANTE’S INFERNO represents a sociological turning point in a way, and many of today’s gamers are holdovers from that era in video games and in culture. It came out in a time where there wasn’t nearly as much blowback for edginess for edginess’ sake, and it attempted to push the envelope into a direction where there wasn’t much more room left. Right on the cusp of the “are video games art” conversation, if it were released today DANTE’S INFERNO would fare much, much worse.The game’s sense of being aware of its own “epicness” and “brutality” feel dated at this point. Even the gameplay structure feels dated, as the dedication to recreating GOD OF WAR means that the game is trapped in the mid-2000s.

I’ve heard this sentiment echoed by a few developers and even filmmakers on Twitter, but the story of DANTE’S INFERNO really illustrates how much of a goddamned miracle it is that anything gets made, ever. So many factors need to align, and with such large, collectively-made products, there are so many chances for things to go askew. Maybe if the game had generated stronger critical buzz, maybe if development time hadn’t been cut to make it compete with GOD OF WAR 3, maybe if someone had convinced Knight not to give Lucifer a massive dong, I’d be writing about PARADSIO: THE GAME. We’ll never really know. And knowing why I won’t know honestly gives me a sense of peace.

Steven Porfiri
Steven Porfiri is a Merry-Go-Round contributor that grew up on the dusty streets of Bakersfield, California with nothing but a dream and horrible anxiety. He hasn't seen a movie from the current year since 2008 and hasn't played a new game since 2012. You should trust his opinions. You can also find him over at Hard Drive.

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