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. Part two of our three-part exposé on the game tackles the story, characters, and design as we continue to break down exactly what made DANTE’S INFERNO one of the 2010s’ strangest relics. Catch up on the beginnings of this Divine Comedy here if you haven’t already
While Dante’s original INFERNO could be accurately described as a poem about a guy looking at stuff and passing out, DANTE’S INFERNO needed to be a much grander, engaging narrative in order to not only appeal to gaming audiences of 2010, but also to be seen as a worthy competitor to the God of War franchise. Speaking with Steve Desilets, Lead Designer on the game, it seemed as though the idea of going to Hell to rescue Beatrice was one of the first things the team, or at least Executive Producer Jonathan Knight, had decided on. Regarding Knight’s motivations for going with this concept, Desilets sums up the attitude in the conference room. “‘Let’s take Dante’s INFERNO: it’s available, it’s recognizable, Hell’s kinda cool. And who doesn’t wanna go and save the princess from Hell? It’s like Mario, but Hell.’”
Beatrice Portinari was the epicenter of all things pure for the historical Dante Alighieri (despite meeting her, like, twice over a nine-year span and ultimately marrying someone else), so why would this Beatrice be in Hell? Perhaps she made a deal with the devil, a deal that hinges on the good behavior of Dante the Crusader, which doesn’t seem like the safest bet. Maybe something like staying true to Beatrice while he’s away. Away where? Why, war of course! When we meet Dante he’s returning home from the Third Crusade, specifically the city of Acre, where he apparently messed up so bad he decided to atone for his sins by sewing a tapestry representing the major ones into his own skin (how the tapestry was made is unclear). What we learn then is that during a riot in Acre he was literally stabbed to Death, who appeared to Dante to inform him that because of his sins he was condemned to Hell. Dante, laboring under the impression that his service in the Holy Land would absolve him of sin, somehow kills Death out of pure indignation and takes Death’s scythe as his own.
To revisit this image, how does Death die? Is everything like that FAMILY GUY episode now?
It’s not metal enough that Beatrice is taken to Hell, so when Dante returns home to Florence, he finds her and his father brutally murdered. Well, his father is brutally murdered, but the game somehow manages to give Beatrice’s corpse this weird sexy undertone. Other than the sword sticking straight out of her stomach, she’s lying on the ground with her breast exposed like “Oh, Dante, didn’t see you there, I’m just being dead and demure.” Her spirit appears to Dante (and, as spirits don’t wear clothes, completely nude) but is quickly whisked away by Lucifer.
From there the backstory is told in flashbacks until it catches up with the beginning of the actual game as Dante’s past transgressions are revealed according to the circle of Hell he advances to. In Lust, the player learns that because Dante banged one of the hostage women of Acre after she offered her body for her and her brother’s freedom, he doomed Beatrice to get sexed up by Lucifer on entirely out-of-place four-poster beds. In Gluttony, we learn Dante… drank a lot, I guess. That’s not much of a revelation, so in the middle of the level (apropos of nothing, as I’ll discuss later) we find out that the brother of the woman Dante slept with was actually her husband, and, being royally pissed about Dante cucking him, guessed where the crusader lived and traveled from what is modern-day Israel to Florence so he could rub out his entire family. Truly, we are playing the wrong person’s game.
“This spaghetti sauce left on my wife… A Tuscan, Florentine in particular…”
Amidst all of this, there’s a weird moment where Dante asks Lucifer, who is showing him these visions, where the shades of the people he’s killed are. Lucifer responds that this isn’t “their Hell”—it’s Dante’s. Whether this is foreshadowing the end of the game or teasing a reveal in a future game where various aspects of the Abrahamic religions are questioned is unclear, but it adds a tinge of mystery to the game that I can’t decide if I like or not.
In the circle of Greed, we find out that Dante’s father was a huge asshole, and by Wrath we’re already aware that Dante’s been a bit of a prick himself, so when we find out that he killed some dudes he shouldn’t have, it’s not the most shocking reveal, nor is it in Heresy, where we find out that he fucked up because he was so sure he’d be absolved by fighting in the Crusades. It’s not until Violence that we find out that not only did Dante’s mother kill herself to escape the cruelty of Dante’s father, but that the riot from the beginning of the game was instigated by Dante and crew murdering the entire city of Acre, an actual historical event known as the Massacre at Ayyadieh. Historically this was understood to have been ordered by Richard I, aka King Richard the Lionheart, who in-game hangs Beatrice’s brother and Dante’s friend Francesco after he takes the rap for it.
During this time Beatrice, seeing that there is no way to Go Home, decides to instead Go Big and consume the Forbidden Fruit, aka pomegranate seeds. This seems like a shout-out to the myth of Hades and Persephone, another story where a maiden was taken to Hell and forced to become the queen of the underworld after eating pomegranate seeds. To celebrate her new role as Lucifer’s queen, there’s a moment where Beatrice intensely tongue-kisses him while Lucifer looks at Dante over her shoulder, and boy oh boy is it weird.
This happens between Wrath and Violence, so by the time we hit Fraud, Dante’s backstory is complete, and there’s really no reason for Beatrice to stick around other than to help fill that out. After the frustratingly repetitive Fraud level, Dante tells Beatrice how bad he feels about the whole thing, causing her to revert back to her “pure form.” She’s retrieved by an angel who has some more vague lines about Dante’s destiny and his journey and its divine nature and whisks her away to what we presume is Paradise.
But there’s one more circle to go, Treachery, where Lucifer is theoretically hanging out. Once Dante confronts him, we learn that even though Beatrice’s kidnapping was what set off the whole game, and indeed has served as the true animus of the plot, she never even mattered to begin with! Cue sinister violins, because Lucifer’s whole plan was for Dante to free him from Hell by severing the Chains of Judecca, which the player has been doing almost mindlessly during every transition from one level to the next.
When the player first finds one of these chains blocking their path, they don’t really know what it is, why it’s there, or what it’s chained to. They do know that it’s flashing intermittently, and that can only mean one thing in a video game. So the player smashes them, the chain dramatically falls into the abyss, and they can hear Lucifer laughing from nowhere. I think the player, at this point, is supposed to assume that it’s your standard evil villain laughter, mocking Dante’s attempts at progress, but it’s not until the final boss fight that it’s revealed that the chains were holding Lucifer in Hell, and now that there’s no chains, it’s on.
Satan, seen here just waiting to get this shit over with
After the fight, Lucifer tells Dante that even if he’s defeated, Dante still can’t leave because he actually got super killed back in Acre, and as a sinner he’s doomed to remain in Hell. But Dante has a trick of his own up his sleeve, revealing that the souls he accumulated in Hell give him the ability to absolve himself, somehow. It’s not thoroughly explained why the souls the player has used to buff up Dante’s abilities are also able to pull him out of Hell and reseal Lucifer, but that’s exactly what they do. Dante then passes through the center of the world and ends up across the shore from Mount Purgatory. Because Dante has been redeemed or something the tapestry on his chest is now withered and charred, so he easily removes it and heads toward the mountain, spiritually renewed and ready for a sequel. However, for whatever reason, the remains of the tapestry transform into a snake that slithers away as Lucifer laughs in the distance.
Clearly there is a DANTE’S INFERNO II being teed up, as the game doesn’t exactly state that the mountain is Purgatory, but if you’re familiar with THE DIVINE COMEDY, then you’re aware of the structure of the story and can recognize the landmarks. According to Desilets, this was for a few reasons, and interestingly enough, many of the reasons that DANTE’S INFERNO didn’t receive a sequel were the opposite of why DEAD SPACE did.
As mentioned previously, one of the most prominent reimaginings is the conception of Dante Alighieri, going from literal poet laureate to battle-hardened former Crusader and proto-tattooer. There’s not much that separates him from Kratos, the battle-hardened, former military commander who also bears the curse of what he’s done on his skin. This definitely doesn’t help the “Like God of War But” comparison, and part of why his backstory and characterization is so “ho-hum” is where it could’ve come from and gone. The decision to make Dante a Crusader is understandable, but as mentioned before, he was historically a military man who fought for the Guelphs against the incursion of the Holy Roman Empire-supporting Ghibellines, notably serving in the battle of Campaldino, a battle which effectively turned the tide of that conflict in Tuscany.
But a more prominent facet of Dante as contemporaries understand him is his exile from Florence. Following the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict, Dante’s Guelphs began fighting amongst themselves and two more factions formed. While both sides initially supported the Pope, Dante and the White Guelphs wanted a restrained papacy when it came to Florentine affairs, and the Black Guelphs wanted Rome to have more influence. This led to some real GAME OF THRONES skullduggery, back when “the game of thrones” was also known as “the events of Tuesday afternoon.”
The Black Guelphs would eventually seize power, framing Dante for corruption. Dante denied the charges and refused to cooperate, causing him to be exiled from Florence forever. While the game mentions the conflict in the form of one of the Damned shades that Dante can either absolve or condemn, it’s a blink-and-you-miss-it reference, as this character is specifically mentioned in the poem. Dante’s exile was a huge deal, and is mentioned in several stanzas of THE DIVINE COMEDY, so it would stand to serve as an excellent source of backstory. It’s unfortunate that GAME OF THRONES only really picked up a few years after the game’s release, as the fascination around sword-and-shield soap operas could’ve really resulted in a very different direction for the character.
As a character, video game Dante is a loud, angry guy with a physically impractical weapon (the developers had a model made and tried to hold it, to no avail), and for a dude that cheated on his lover, surprisingly dedicated. As his entire backstory is laid out for the player, the game seems to blame most of these traits on how he was raised by his father, who admittedly does try to kill him at some point.
“A big part of Dante’s quest is redemption, or it least it should’ve been,” according to Desilets. When asked if there was anything cut out of DANTE’S INFERNO that he would’ve loved to include, Desilets specifically mentioned he would’ve liked a moment in the middle of the game that focuses more on Dante’s need for redemption. “We give him this great moment for him to REALLY convince us he’s realized what he’s done and how sorry he is, and it’s just so two-dimensional.” Desilets here is referring to the moment right before Beatrice gives herself to Lucifer, right before The Tonguing. “Nearly every man who has been in a relationship with another human being has probably fucked up in one way or another and can probably relate to knowing you fucked up and how you need to make things better. I felt like that would’ve been the more mature choice and, quite honestly, would’ve given Dante a little more dimension than it did.”
Even Dante’s final absolution comes across as largely self-serving, as he brandishes the souls he’s been collecting as a weapon that seals Lucifer back into Hell and allows him to pass through to Purgatory. As mentioned before there’s only one ending no matter what tech tree you choose to put the majority of points into or how many sinners you save or damn. In a game that ostensibly features morality, the lack of any consequences due to player choice really makes the themes ring a little hollow.
In-game footage of Dante passing into Purgatory despite remaining a huge asshole
While the Greek poet Virgil is a presence in the game, his is a very muted figure in sharp contrast to the Virgil in the original text. While in both the game and the poem Virgil functions as Dante’s guide, lost is the powerful, authoritative Virgil of the text that often tells the inhabitants of Hell to fuck off and leave Dante alone just cause he’s still alive. In DANTE’S INFERNO, most of Virgil’s conversations are optional and players can ignore him if they so choose. But by doing so, they miss out on additional relics that can only be gained by listening to Virgil’s counsel, many of which are word-for-word lines from the text. There’s a moment in the Dark Forest prequel DLC where Beatrice mentions that she’s sent Virgil to guide Dante, but for all the effect Virgil has on the plot or even gameplay, he may as well not be there altogether.
Other than being a convenient pair of boobs for a game wanting a Mature rating, Beatrice doesn’t have much of a purpose in the game; Lucifer might as well have stolen Dante’s favorite weight set to get him to come galumphing into Hell. Indeed, the treatment of Beatrice would come under fire by Dante scholars, including Teodolinda Barolini, a Columbia professor and former president of the Dante Society of America, who has been quoted as saying “She is not to be saved by him, she is saving him. That’s the whole point!” It’s also weirdly unclear in the game what the relationship status is between Dante and Beatrice. He clearly loves her a great deal and they’re referred to as lovers, but are they married? Going steady? Domestic partnership? Who’s to say?
There’s a lot to-do during the game about the purity of Beatrice as well; after she eats the Forbidden Fruit, Lucifer shouts about the “incorruptible becoming corrupted” before she transforms into her Queen of Hell form. But watching this made me think that if Beatrice was at all as pure as she’s being made out to be, she probably wouldn’t have made a deal with the devil to begin with? I always felt that that was a big no-no among Christians, no matter what the era or setting.
The only other “character” in the game is Lucifer. While there are others, they function more as bosses, and the player doesn’t really hear from them or care about their relationship to Dante until he’s about to eviscerate them horribly. We don’t really care about Cleopatra’s motivations in Lust, but we are concerned that her nipples are mouths from which demon babies emerge. As the Emperor of Dis and Literally the Devil, Lucifer traditionally hasn’t needed much motivation other than “this will really fuck some people up.” Such is the case in DANTE’S INFERNO, where he subtly boasts during the final boss fight that once he’s free he can regain his place in Paradise and destroy everything good in the universe, whatever that means.
Lucifer as the player encounters him at the end of the game has a couple different forms, aside from the shadowy specter that calls you a nerd and fingers your girlfriend while telling your shitty dad to kill you. The first is the traditional Satan described in INFERNO, a colossus with three faces and three pairs of bat wings that beat an icy wind. The second is a smaller version that inexplicably has a MASSIVE swinging penis. No one in the game really mentions it, Dante doesn’t look at it like, “Christ, look at that hog,” and it’s not used to attack him, but it’s just a foot-long dong swingin’ in the icy wind, which makes its size even more impressive.
I took the opportunity to bring this up with Steve Desilets, who helped design numerous characters, and scripted boss fights. According to Desilets, the idea to give Lucifer a five-dollar footlong came from Jonathan Knight. Knight “was attributing ‘masculinity’ with ‘evil’, and wanted to use Lucifer’s male genitalia to reinforce this concept.” From Desilets’ account, it doesn’t seem like this was one of the most well-received decisions, and said the team itself found the idea “snicker-inducing.” He further went on to relate a story where some developers had used the “ribbon tech,” presumably used to dictate the physics of the tapestry flowing from Dante, to make it so that Lucifer’s penis dragged 12 feet behind him at all times. Again, very impressive given the climate of the circle of Treachery.
Here’s a link to the NSFW character model, but due to the site’s aversion to swingin’ hogs here’s the Beelzeboss character from TENACIOUS D AND THE PICK OF DESTINY
If there’s anything we learned from games like AGONY, it’s that sometimes when developers go all-in on horrifying brutality, it tends to fall quite a bit short. It’s the level design equivalent of being 17 and groping pasta in the dark while someone goes “And these are the witch’s BrAaAiinsss!!” Such is the case with DANTE’S INFERNO, where the sense of creative brutality and horror was the main facet of the game’s hype campaign. To be fair, there are parts where there’s a real sense of creativity and morbid glee that can be felt in some of the designs, even if they are a little mid-2000s X-TREME by today’s tastes. Some of the most intriguing designs sprang from the work of artist Wayne Barlow, who did concept art for DANTE’S INFERNO as well as AVATAR, HELLBOY, and PACIFIC RIM. Steve Desilets lauds Barlow’s contributions to the game’s art, in particular mentioning Barlow’s punch-ups to the Glutton enemy, which Desilets describes as a “shit demon” and “that big, fat, gross, hands-were-teeth character.” Though certain aspects like turning the boatman Charon into an actual Boat Man can be a little jarring, certain levels like the city of Dis and parts of the circle of Greed make for solid experiences. Even parts of Gluttony are at least varied and different even if it took the one fart joke in INFERNO as permission to base the whole level around it.
“But first each pressed his tongue / between his teeth as signal for their leader / And he had made a trumpet of his ass.” -Inferno, Canto 21
What’s heart-wrenching about these levels is that many of the better designs end so quickly. Part of it is due to the many different circles, levels, and pockets of punishment present in the original INFERNO, so much so that developing each into their own coherent level could be a daunting task (a daunting inferno, if you will). This was more than likely exacerbated by the game’s development schedule being cut in half from three years to a year-and-a-half, and even explains a lot of character choices.
Regardless of the circumstances, there’s a feeling of “is that it?” when progressing through each level, and playing through it you can kind of feel a point in each level where it seems like the developers said, “Well, that’s enough of that shit, let’s get something else in there.” One particular moment that stands out is in Gluttony, where the player is brought to what feels like an alternate dimension within Hell known as The Hall of Gluttons. Here, they’re introduced to the tank-like Glutton enemy and Lucifer just kinda calls Dante a punk bitch for a little while. The transition from the organic, almost Geiger-esque biology of Gluttony to the stark, stone puzzle segment that is the Hall of Gluttons is incredibly jarring, and almost unfair.
In the original INFERNO, the cantos of Fraud contain some of the most brutal and horrifying imagery of the whole poem, as Dante and Virgil travel through the pockets of the Malebolge and examine the various aspects of fraudulent behavior; thieves are chased by and transformed into snakes, fortune-tellers have their heads snapped backwards, and sowers of discord are mutilated and split asunder by demons. In DANTE’S INFERNO, the circle of Fraud is just a series of arena battles with a specific combat objective like staying in the air for eight seconds, winning before your automatically-depleting health meter runs out, or defeating all enemies in a single combo. It’s even more of a letdown than the Hall of Gluttons example, because immediately preceding this circle is Violence, which contains the Phlegython, the river of boiling blood, the Forest of the Suicides, and the Burning Sands of the Sodomites—all showstoppers in their own right.
The level design in Fraud was also a common point of interest in many reviews, most of which were dissatisfied by the shift in gameplay that made it appear the designers had run out of steam. I would find out later that they had instead run out of time, and after speaking with Desilets, I learned that Fraud was another facet of the game that fell victim to Visceral’s development schedule, rent in half like a sower of discord in the Malebolge. There’s a lot of imagery to be adapted, and while they were mostly incredibly brief, each pocket was at least present. Each circle of the Malebolge is punctuated and differentiated by a statue representing the individual punishment, but the ensuing fights don’t have anything to do with the themes, other than the taunts that the newly-crowned Queen of Hell Beatrice shouts at Dante.
All of her taunts are stuff like “YOU’RE a prostitute… cause you suck!”
The inclusion of plot-inessential nods to the original poem were particularly bittersweet for me. As I said, INFERNO is a much denser text than its page count belies, and the effort to fit every bit of imagery and allegory into a video game adaptation that translates each one into a useful and enjoyable mechanic or concept must have been quite a task—some were better than others. In Greed, there’s a puzzle where a statue shoots light onto piles of dust, turning them into bejeweled platforms of varying heights. Once the puzzle is solved and the player passes the statue, there’s a mysterious voice saying “Pape Satan, pape Satan, aleppe.” This statue is identified as Plutus, the god of wealth, who in INFERNO serves as the demonic guard to the circle of Greed. Upon seeing Dante and Virgil approach, Plutus utters that phrase as a sort of warning (the actual meaning of the phrase is still hotly contested among academics). This part of the game happens right in the middle of Greed, but other than the puzzle there’s no real interaction with Plutus. Other elements, like the minotaur and the centaurs in Violence and Geryon in Fraud, are similarly represented as statues that don’t have much purpose other than a callback to the text. Again, I would rather they be in there as nods than not in at all, but it’s interesting to note their existence in-game as a sign that the developers were familiar with the text, but for whatever reason couldn’t fit each mythical figure in the adaptation.
As a teenager who hadn’t yet played the game, I assumed that one of the main reasons the game didn’t do well critically owed to the fact that the game didn’t properly translate many of the aspects of the original work. But looking deeper into the development of the game and its contents, it seems that the developers had more of a handle on the source material than I previously gave them credit for. As a stark example, the presentation of Cerberus as a horrifying worm creature that emerges from the depths of some great horrible face (and not the traditional three-headed dog) seems like a creative liberty designed for X-treme sensibilities. However, as one reviewer noted, the text does not say that this Cerberus is a dog, but Virgil does describe the creature (in-game and in-text) as “that great worm.” And as discussed, there were plenty of references and inclusions from the text that made it into the game, so it wasn’t lack of reading comprehension that hobbled the game’s eventual critical reception.
If you point a gun at my head, I’ll admit that DANTE’S INFERNO is an alright game, but there’s something about cutting the development process of anything by half that hampers the quality of the final product. When I asked Desilets about the things he wished had made the final cut, more engaging gameplay concepts and mechanics that were to be integrated into the story were mentioned. Yet as the team’s deadline approached, last-minute adjustments turned fair compromises into hasty revisions.
Desilets remains resolutely proud of the way the team had developed the combat, and mentioned that he felt bad for the combat developers once the reviews began coming out, specifically mentioning Lead Combat Designer Vince Napoli’s contributions to the game’s combat mechanics, working around the clock to push the boundaries of combat and make sure that it felt good. Napoli (who would go on to work on the combat for 2018’s GOD OF WAR and is now at Crystal Dynamics) and his team were reportedly disappointed with the reviews:
“…when [the combat team] saw 73 [percent] critiques, those critiques were 73 not because combat felt bad, they had done their job, they had done really, really well and it wasn’t easy. So they saw 73 and they were like ‘Fuck!’ But even on a 73 some of [the reviews] would say ‘combat feels okay. Combat feels good.’ So I felt bad for everyone that worked on combat… you can’t really spend too much time feeling bad about that.”
I had made peace with the choice to cloak the adaptation of Alighieri’s poem in an action aesthetic early on in my playthrough of DANTE’S INFERNO, so not too much of it bothered me (other than the general fridging of Beatrice and sidelining of Virgil). To be fair, it’s a lot easier to adapt INFERNO into an action game in a year-and-a-half after taking such liberties with the story, and in that sense making those changes seems to be an acceptable amount of risk if one wants to appeal to a consumer base that loves gory hack n’ slash games, isn’t entirely familiar with original text, and isn’t concerned with thinking about it too much.
The real legacy of DANTE’S INFERNO is the way Visceral and EA attempted to make up for the potential loss by pouring loads of capital into what could be very politely described as a relentlessly aggressive marketing campaign. When asked, Desilets denied having much of a role in the campaign, due to heavy development tasks, but acknowledged its notoriety: “I’ll say this,” he told me, “it was creative.”
In part three of our three-part exposé we tackle the reception, promotion, and aftermath as we finalize our breakdown of exactly what made DANTE’S INFERNO one of the 2010s’ strangest relics. Check out Into the Inferno Part III: Divine Judgement here.