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 one of our three-part exposé on the game details its background and surreal gameplay as we begin to breakdown exactly what made DANTE’S INFERNO one of the 2010s’ strangest relics
For some reason, I’ve always been fascinated by the various iterations of the classic medieval allegory THE DIVINE COMEDY by Dante Alighieri. Like many, I was particularly interested in the first and possibly most well-known of the three epics that make up THE DIVINE COMEDY, INFERNO. When I was around 14, I read an edition of Dante’s INFERNO that had been updated in the parlance of the ultra-modern new millennium, with illustrations that were a contemporary reimagining of Gustave Dore’s classic woodcuts. Later, I would read a more traditional translation that further baked in my interest. I read this particular version while away at a camp for students preparing to undergo the Catholic sacrament of Confirmation, and while Dante’s writings are not Catholic dogma, I think reading about the brutality inflicted upon those that strayed from the straight and narrow while hearing about the infinite love of God gave my high-school sense of reasoning a pounding.
I don’t remember when or where I first heard about the impending release of Visceral Games’ DANTE’S INFERNO; it might’ve been a YouTube video, a bus ad, an article in a gaming magazine—I really can’t recall. But I do know that the moment I became aware of EA and Visceral’s high-combo hack-n-slash gore-a-ganza, it became my mission to learn everything I could about it. Poring over the dev diaries, watching all the trailers I could find, learning all I could, I had to know more about this game. While I was instantly put off by Visceral’s reimagining of the poet Dante as a hulking death machine with an interesting idea of body modification (and even more interesting ideas regarding body armor), I was fascinated by the concept art and what the developers planned to bring to the table. Given the magnitude of the promotional campaign behind DANTE’S INFERNO, it was tough NOT to get even a little hyped.
Hell yeah, brother, it’s about to get theologically alle-GORE-ical up in here
Then the game came out, and despite making Yahtzee smash a wooden box and faking a Christian protest, the best the game could manage was a shrug and a solid “it’s fine” rating. Looking back on the Metacritic scores for DANTE’S INFERNO, it seemed equally matched between positive and middling reviews. I too was disappointed that it didn’t seem to match the infernal fury that was promised by the dev diaries and even a Superbowl ad.
I didn’t end up buying it when it was released. I didn’t have a lot of purchasing power as a kid/teenager; my parents never gave me an allowance apart from a few bucks for doing chores around the house (and that was only sometimes), and even then my parents had a pretty strict Anti-M video game policy (which lasted, as these things do, until one of my younger brothers brought home CALL OF DUTY: MODERN WARFARE 2), so me playing the game when it came out wasn’t exactly feasible. Plus the reviews seemed pretty negative, so, disappointed, I put DANTE’S INFERNO into the corner of my mind for the foreseeable future.
But after watching a booze-soaked Let’s Play of the game, I came to the realization that despite DANTE’S INFERNO being almost a decade old, I could probably purchase it if I wanted because I’m a damn adult now. I even had my old Xbox 360 that, despite all reason, was still chugging along. So 10 years, a trip to Florence, and a minor in Italian Studies later, I sat down to see for myself just what the Hell was up with DANTE’S INFERNO.
Before I even began my descent, I looked into the background of the game, trying to develop a theory for what might’ve lead the developers in the decisions they’d made: DANTE’S INFERNO was slated to come out just before GOD OF WAR 3, and while Kratos was one of the primary demigods of gaming, the upcoming release was seen by all to be the final game in the series. So with the end near, EA was probably hoping to find a property that could hit all the buttons the God of War series did, filling the void it would leave before it even appeared.
Enter Jonathan Knight of Visceral Games, who stepped up with a brutal adaptation of Dante Alighieri’s THE DIVINE COMEDY. Visceral (which up until that point the studio was named EA Redwood Shores) was coming off of the (presumably) wild success of DEAD SPACE, so they knew how to use both gore and horror with an expert hand. Plus, THE DIVINE COMEDY was already a trilogy, and could be spread out over a number of years if need be. This is presumably when someone at EA said “HELL yeah” and giggled to themselves, greenlighting the project and setting in motion a hype campaign that would remain unrivaled in infamy until, well, DEAD SPACE 2.
Parents! They just don’t understand!
According to Steve Desilets, one of the creative leads on DANTE’S INFERNO, the story of the game’s genesis isn’t exactly as conspiratorial as I’d imagined: “The start of INFERNO going way back was Jonathan Knight,” Desilets told me, “who ended up being the [Executive Producer] and Creative Director on Inferno… he and I met on [THE SIMPSONS GAME] that Electronic Arts—we were making it at Electronic Arts Redwood Shores—we were just finishing up the Simpsons Game, and Jonathan had sort of just been ‘made,’ using mob terms, by EA as an EP.”
While working on THE SIMPSONS GAME, Desilets and Knight had developed a successful working partnership together. Desilets described Knight as the creative and business-oriented mind, and himself as a “master prototyper.” The duo discussed making a game together during the end of the development period of THE SIMPSONS GAME and informally decided to work on whatever it was that Knight could come up with after impressing the EA brass. After the eventual release of the game, Desilets took two weeks off while Knight set to work:
“By the time I came back he had come up with an idea, which was, ‘Let’s make a GOD OF WAR clone, but within the universe of Dante Alighieri.’ Dante’s INFERNO tested really well; he performed some research tests and Dante’s INFERNO registered really high as far as recognizability or Q Score of all the people asked. 77% of all the people from a very varied cross-section of people domestically had ever heard of Dante’s INFERNO; even if they didn’t even recognize the term ‘DIVINE COMEDY,’ even if they didn’t know who Dante Alighieri is, they’ve heard of Dante’s INFERNO. It had sort of saturated pop culture beyond its actual meaning. And so he’s like ‘Cool! It’s recognizable, and guess what, it’s totally free! And guess what, it’s about Hell, so that’s kinda cool. But guess what, it’s mostly about a guy walking and looking at things and passing out.’” <laughs> “So we’re gonna have to adjust it for, you know, an action audience.”
A brief tangent, but one that will become important later: for all of its critical success, DEAD SPACE wasn’t the commercial success one (read: me) would expect it to be. As the marketing for DEAD SPACE 2 would imply, horror isn’t the largest market one can appeal to, and according to Desilets, the sales numbers didn’t exactly justify a sequel. It wasn’t until Glen Schofield, former executive producer on DEAD SPACE, became the studio manager at Visceral that the ball got rolling again on a sequel. The critical success of the game and the placement of its former EP were helpful, but it was actually the commercial success of DANTE’S INFERNO that kept the lights on at Visceral and gave the studio the capital to make the sequel at all, in a testament to the complicated inner workings of game development.
GAME DEV TYCOON tried to warn us, but we were fools to not heed its warnings
As someone who has read and studied Dante slightly more than normally, one of the things I picked up on early in-game, as well as even in the dev diaries, was that the team did demonstrate an understanding of the poem and its basic outline and structure; Dante the character is a man who finds himself lost in a highly allegorical dark forest with no clear idea how to proceed forward. As he wanders, he meets the Greek poet Virgil, who informs him that while Dante is still alive, Virgil has been instructed to guide him through the afterlife by his first love, Beatrice, in order to help him find his path. While traveling through Hell, Dante learns what befalls those who are forsaken by God and how their punishments are doled out, and it’s all pretty metal.
But, as it turned out, not metal enough for the brutal landscape of the early 2010s, or at least for the action game that Visceral wanted to make. One of the first things one notices about the cover art for DANTE’S INFERNO is Dante himself. In order to justify the brutal hackin’, slashin’, button-mashin’ gameplay, developers gave Dante a makeover and backstory that would fit the tone and conceit of the game. Dante the Poet became Dante the Crusader. While this portrait of Dante Alighieri stands in stark contrast to historical records, he did in fact have a military history, fighting for the papal-supporting Guelphs in the Tuscan civil war between the Guelphs and Ghibellines.
While taking liberties with biographies isn’t the biggest of deals, one of the most striking aspects of this Dante isn’t just his massive, hulking physique and bizarre sense of body modification; it’s how much he looks like someone else. Looking at Dante’s design already calls forth echoes of Kratos, but knowing that the game was largely a clone of GOD OF WAR really brings it into clarity. A hulking, angry man with an iconic weapon seems to describe most protagonists, but a concerningly unarmored man with a shock of red to spice up his color scheme? Hmmm…
As atonement for his sins, Dante has decided that the best way to show he’s sorry is to sew a tapestry in the shape of a cross into his chest and stomach. This acts as something of an exposition device, as throughout the game Dante’s sins are elaborated on in specially-animated segments reminiscent of the art from the HELLBOY comics, and these sins seem to be woven into the tapestry on Dante’s skin. It’s sort of like the end of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS where Christoph Waltz has a swastika carved into his forehead so that everyone recognizes him as a Nazi, and so similarly does Dante choose to have the cruciform bear his sins. From the outset it’s made blindingly clear that this isn’t your Italian professor’s Dante, but it might be strikingly similar to her Inferno.
“Stupido sexy Dante… ”
One of the biggest criticisms lobbed at the game is how much it plays like a God of War title, and you’ll be excited to learn that that not only is this criticism completely warranted, but is, in fact, the much sought-after goal of the Visceral team. According to Desilets, Jonathan Knight “picked the God of War genre because this is what EPs do at EA: they pick a license, or something that provides a lot of narrative structure —‘cause making new IP from scratch takes years to do and write—and no game company like EA is gonna take the time or have interest in that. Not that often, anyway.”
The franchise that best fit the mold for the game, according to Desilets, was God of War, because it had the attributes that Knight wanted in his game. “…It taps into the mythos, y’know. It’s about mythological beings, just like Hell would be. It’s action based, brutal.” As Desilets put it, the team “did some synthesis between IP and genre” in order to provide a structure for the game, and they would eventually bring on some of the key level and combat designers from GOD OF WAR (2005) to fine tune the combat. “The first thing [Knight] said,” Desilets says, “was ‘we’re going to clone GOD OF WAR.’”
“I always thought of it like Jack Skellington ripping open a teddy bear trying to find the meaning of Christmas,” Desilets told me, laughing and giving his best Danny Elfman impression. “And that’s when we found out things like the light attack chain in GOD OF WAR 1 is 155 beats per minute. I noticed there’s a musicality to it. A year later, when we brought in Eric [Williams], who was the lead designer on GOD OF WAR 1 and 2 and former Street Fighter Tournament champion, he verified, ‘Yes, this is the way we do it.’ He verified that everything they do has a musicality, it has a rhythm, it’s all about rhythm and controlling space and your volumes of attack.”
The ensuing hours upon hours spent watching God of War footage frame-by-frame in order to understand the rhythm of the game’s combat and what made it feel so good were not spent in vain. Combat in DANTE’S INFERNO feels good, but as someone who has played GOD OF WAR, it can’t help but feel derivative, like I’ve done it before in a different life. Even though the game gives Dante a ranged attack via holy blasts fired from Beatrice’s crucifix, the overall tempo still feels like GOD OF WAR. This similarity extends into a lot of the emotional elements of the game, as well. While chaining together heavy and light attacks to rack up massive combos is a feature of many other games, there’s something about a rage-filled, deeply-flawed, and incredibly jacked man journeying towards a vague sense of redemption that rings more of God of War than, say, Devil May Cry.
As Dante kills things he collects souls from them that act as currency to level up Dante’s abilities in duel-branching pseudo-morality trees. Improving “Unholy” abilities gives Dante new and improved scythe attacks as well as strengthens the magic he’s able to use. Leveling up your “Holy” abilities likewise unlocks new and improved versions of Dante’s Holy Cross attacks, and can unlock Holy Magic abilities. These branches also require experience in order to unlock new levels of abilities, and these are gained by either absolving or damning enemies in combat. Grabbing certain enemies with the scythe presents this choice, and a quicktime event executes it and the demon in question. On other enemies this can only be done after beating them into submission.
Don’t worry, you’ll get these opportunities a lot
In order to further upgrade your abilities, the player will occasionally stumble upon a shade that has managed to escape torment for the time being. These are all historical figures mentioned specifically in INFERNO because of their various sins, and if the player idles a bit nearby one of these shades, they’ll recount the events that led to their damnation. It’s a neat little bit of information that the player can choose to pay attention to before grabbing the poor soul by the throat and deciding their fate. If the player chooses to damn them, they’ll be brutally executed, making them, I don’t know, super duper dead?
If the player takes pity on them (maybe people shouldn’t be sentenced to eternal damnation for being into butt stuff?), they can absolve their sins and send them to Heaven, which makes things really messy theologically speaking. But in order to usher this soul to Paradise, players have to play the most annoying minigame since BIOSHOCK decided that hacking vending machines required rearranging plumbing. Players have to hit the correct face button when a sin orb (??) passes over it to absolve it, I suppose. Eventually the orbs speed up and hitting a button when there’s nothing there decreases the amount of souls/experience you get, but like in BIOSHOCK, it’s one of the most frustrating things someone could put in an action game by bringing the action to a screeching halt. By collecting three Beatrice Stones somewhat early in the game, the player can bypass this minigame altogether, which is nice, but it also is part of a trend where DANTE’S INFERNO gives players the ability to cut out entire game mechanics. This trend, while seemingly damning of the game’s development, is most likely due to the fraught mandates issued by EA (more on that later).
Listen, buddy, you can absolve Pontius Pilate if you want, but it’s gonna be a real kick in the dick
Ultimately, none of these mechanics do anything to influence the game’s story or how it unfolds. The Unholy/Holy paths only serve to enhance a player’s preferred playstyle and little else. Neither has any effect on the overall story, nor does it matter how many people are redeemed versus how many are damned other than special achievements for doing one or the other on specific characters.
Also present in the game are relics, which augment Dante’s abilities in various ways. Things like Frederick II’s Ring, Ciacco’s Bile, Eyes of St. Lucia, and other baubles named after various sinners and figures are featured in the game because they’re specifically mentioned in the original poem (with the exception of St. Lucia, who was only added to foreshadow the Trials of St. Lucia DLC). One of these, the Rage of Farinata, allows the player to automatically destroy fountains, which is how health and mana are recovered, caches of souls are found, and where more relics are hidden (again, the presence of unlockable items that cut out entire mechanics does not bode well for the rest of the game). Players can equip these relics in combinations that best suit their playstyle, be it high-damaging scythe attacks or, and I’m not kidding, not being hurt by the shitting attacks of the Glutton enemies.
A more useful tool than one would think!
The inclusion of a branching morality/tech tree without any sort of impact, as well as the inclusion of the Beatrice Stones that allowed players to skip the Absolution minigame, and the relics that allow players to skip other mechanics, could probably be chalked up to the fact that the game’s development cycle was cut in half shortly after it was greenlit. “…[after] we were told we have 36 months for development,” Desilets recalls, “a week later Nick Earl came by with some bad news: ‘Actually you’re gonna get 18 months.’ So we went from 36 months to 18 months and I was like ‘Holy shit!’ But we still have to deliver everything we promised.” Needless to say, going from a three-year planning and development runway to a year-and-a-half can really put a damper on some of your most ambitious plans.
Desilets recalls that among the designs scrapped was an entire mechanic that would only be accessible had a player chosen to gone down the Unholy path, unlocking the ability to construct turrets from discarded infernal materials. “…you’d find just discarded piles of flesh because the flesh is stripped off the souls when they come in, the souls go on to be tortured, and the flesh is repurposed to build chairs and clothes and cities and stuff like that,” Desilets explained.
This vaguely Ed Gein aesthetic is a reference to the writings of Wayne Barlow, who provided much of the concept art for DANTE’S INFERNO, as well as concept art for numerous Guillermo del Toro films and even the creatures in AVATAR. Barlow is also a writer, and wrote several volumes describing his interpretation of Hell, and the development team for DANTE’S INFERNO, including Desilets, were interested in incorporating some of these elements into the game.
“You can find these [piles of flesh] and reanimate them with a series of different mechanics. You could have a flesh golem, or a big fleshy turret that would fire, like, acid. So [Dante would] have these strategic elements around the map that he could convert, if he’s on that path, to help him fight battles” said Desilets, referring to the option to have Dante gain more Unholy abilities. “So it was really a tactical/strategic mechanic that’d be placed around the world that if you took that path, you’d have that advantage. It’d at least give you a reason to go back and play a second time on that path so you can use those mounds of flesh that you can’t use if you’re righteous. So that was something I wanted to put in very badly because I thought it would add an interesting choice and a continued repercussion of past choices that would give you a sense of buyer’s remorse to motivate you to replay the game.”
In academic discussions of THE DIVINE COMEDY, scholars often use the names “Dante the Poet” and “Dante the Pilgrim” when distinguishing between which Dante they’re discussing. Dante the Poet is the author of INFERNO, PURGATORIO, PARADISO, whose decisions on who is in what part of the afterlife and why give him a stern, authoritative, and powerful feel. Dante the Pilgrim is the character within the narrative, who is constantly overcome with emotion and pity for the souls he finds, and needs to be taught the justice of the afterlife.
This duality is not at all dissimilar to the way in which DANTE’S INFERNO was made. EA demanded an intense, action-packed game within a tight deadline, and Visceral did their best to comply while also trying to fit their boundless imaginations within its confines to deliver exactly what EA wanted. Consider it Dante the Publisher and Dante the Developer. The halving of the game’s development timeline would lead to many scrapped mechanics and forced redesigns throughout the game, leading to something that can best be described as a shade of Desilets and Knight’s original vision.
Desilets seemed to imply that the 18-month development schedule was daunting, to say the least; “I woulda shit my pants, but we did it! 18 months from start to finish, we got that game out.” Being on the shorter edge of game development for what was more or less a new IP for EA and still managing to ship the game was a point of pride for him that wasn’t without its hardships. “…despite the fact you all pulled together and you shipped a game in record time that made enough money to keep the lights on it doesn’t mean that you had a good time doing it,” he said. “But we still have to deliver everything we promised.”
In part two of our three-part exposé on the game, we look at the the story, characters, and design as we continue to break down exactly what made DANTE’S INFERNO one of the strangest relics of the 2010s. Check out Into the Inferno Part II: Development Hell here.
**A previous version of this article cited Desilets and Knight as having met on THE SIMPSONS HIT & RUN. This has been corrected above, as the two met on 2007’s THE SIMPSONS GAME.