From Poetry To Playability: How Visceral Games Reimagined Dante's Inferno

It all began with a map. That's what drew Visceral Games producer Jonathan Knight to the Divine Comedy and eventually birthed the videogame adaptation Dante's Inferno.

"You open a copy of the book and the first thing that usually jumps out at you is a map," says Knight.

"There have been many, many drawings of it over the years, going all the way back to Botticelli. He is famous for the Birth of Venus and about 100, 150 years after Dante he did a reprint of the Divine Comedy and illustrated it. It was the first time anyone had done that, but it was a creative impulse we'd see repeated throughout the centuries that followed.

"Botticelli drew a map that showed the funnel shape of the nine circles of Hell, the nine rings starting at the surface and going down to the centre of the earth. Dante imagines rivers and cities and cliffs and it's full of this very specific geography because he walks the whole thing on foot with Virgil."

It's thanks to that map that you'll be able to experience Dante's journey through the afterlife on your Xbox 360 or PlayStation this week.

Knight believes that the universe and mythology so vividly brought to life through the writing of Dante Alighieri - and of course the illustration of Sandro Botticelli - is an ideal fit for a videogame.

"What I think we get doing an adaptation of the poem as a videogame is we get the benefit of his incredible imagination," he says. "The monsters and creatures that inhabit Hell, the mish-mash of mythologies from Biblical references to Italian politics and folklore to what was going on in Florence at the time. It's just this unbelievable petri dish of imagination."

On the surface, Dante's Inferno seems to serve up a faithful take on the world imagined in its poetic source. You'll progress through the nine circles of Hell in sequence, just as Dante envisaged. You'll cross the River Acheron, the River Styx, the River Phlegethon, and Lake Cocytus, each depicted with as much artistic and environmental fidelity to the original text as possible.

Knight notes the convenience inherent in the poem's structure: it neatly provides a boss encounter for every circle, from King Minos and Cerberus all the way to Lucifer himself.

"In the poem, King Minos is described as a king with a crown and the tail of a snake which he uses to judge the damned," says Knight. "We basically lifted that physical description of him and created our boss character."

"If you know the poem, you'll play the game and see all these minor characters, these Florentines that Dante meets in the poem. Whether it's Brunetto [Latini]who's kind of his teacher or Filippo Argenti who's his angry rival, there's a lot of these character littered throughout the game for you to interact with.

"Virgil is there," Knight continues, "and you can talk to him and all of his lines come directly from the poem. He'll describe to you how Hell works and who's there and so forth.

"A lot of it is fairly literal, albeit abridged because it's a 14,000 line poem. If you want all of that then obviously the best thing to do is to actually read the poem."

Where the game departs from the original poem is in the specific story it tells while following Dante's narrative thread of a man traversing Hell. Visceral admits it created "a bit more conflict" in the story, most evident in the reimagining of Dante himself as a warrior rather than a poet or scholar.

Despite taking liberties to make the Divine Comedy work as an action, Knight told me he felt great responsibility to do justice to Dante's original work.

"I'm very much a champion of the poem," he says. "Whenever we could do something that was more in line with what happens in the poem or had to make a choice about this character or that or this environment or that, we always tried to do what was in the poem first. But sometimes you have to change things for gameplay reasons."

Knight points to the example of Lust and Gluttony. In the text, Dante skips over the two areas quite quickly, meaning there's not a great deal of description from which to work. While this may make sense in literature, it's not quite the kind of pacing you'd want in a game.

Indeed, Visceral wanted each of the nine circles to have some central architectural elements, some important characters and to explore each of the sins in depth and equally. As such, they've taken license to build out those circles with more detail than what is in the poem.

"I think people know when they see the product is called Dante's Inferno - it's not called the Divine Comedy - that it is a popularised version of it," says Knight. "And that's a tradition that's been around for a long, long time.

"If anything, the game is making more people go back to the source material to see what it's all about. I'm really happy it turned out that way. Even though our adaptation is loose, and it's clearly a game, I think it will bring more people to the source material."

Have you read the Divine Comedy? If you haven't, I'm curious to know whether Visceral's game is likely to encourage you to seek out a piece of 14th century Italian literature? And if you have read it, are you interested in how Visceral has adapted Dante's Inferno for the interactive screen?


    I think the most fundamental difference between the book and the game is the fact that for the entire duration of the book, Dante is a cowering little bitch, scared out of his mind. Which is understandable I guess, given that he's in HELL.

    But honestly, I'm not too worried about how faithful an adaptation the game is. Obviously Visceral had to make compromises, but having played the demo about half a dozen times now I think this is going to be a hell of a fun ride. Sure, it's basically a carbon copy of God of War, but I don't think that's something worth losing sleep over.

    And anybody who is getting worked up over this game and the idea that is "destroys a classic piece of literature" or some such shit really needs to chill out and just enjoy the game for what it is.

      Check it out--both games are being released on Feb. 9th.

      BIOSHOCK2 Sales Rank: #14 in Video Games
      DANTE'S INFERNO GAMESUCK Sales Rank: #90 in Video Games

      BIOSHOCK 2 totally KILLKING (PWN3D) EA's Dante's Inferno gamesuck in pre sales!!!!

      Rock on Bioshock 2!! Something new and true!

      suppose you loved a woman and penned a poem for her.
      suppose you deemed her incorruptible and placed her in heaven.

      suppose a massive, money-losing corporation came along and threw her down into hell and stripped her bare so that their dwindling fanboy customer base could see her boobies!!! boobies!!!! ! !!

      suppose then that the lead designer jonathan knight kept saying that they were staying loyal to your intent and world, while stripping your incorruptible love naked and throwing her into hell. (lozllzzllzl!!)

      suppose that the "lead narrative deisgners" of the era hoping to work at ea all chimed in, stating that EA had to give the customer, investor, shareholders, women, Beatrice, Dante, Dante's religion, Dante's poem, and Play and Edge Magazines the finger for the sake of "gameplay."

      the past is prologue, and i have marveled at how so many of you have railed against plato, aristotle, homer, george lucas, joseph campbell, and dante, who are only trying to help exalt games to their deserved heights as art.

      as "narrative designers" you have thw opportunity to own the future of games, and to exalt them as epic art, but it seems you are preferring to sit back and justify the stripping of beatrice and the showing of her boobies to the world, hoping to be liked by the fanmbas who control the money supply. boobies!!! ! !! lolololl1l1l1oo1o1l1l1!!!aszzz!!! lolz!

      it is truly amazing that so many would rather lose millions to expose dante's beloved's boobies, rather than exalt games as art.

      instead of defending aristotle's and dante's timeless tenets, it seems like you are instead working for EA.

      so here is the question:

      suppose you loved a woman and penned a poem for her
      suppose you deemed her incorruptible and placed her in heaven

      then suppose you got a job as a "narrative designer" at a major corporation making your poem into a game.

      would you strip her of her clothes and show her boobies to the world for the sake of "gameplay? and throw her into hell?

      if you did, would you say it was all just for the sake of "the gameplay?" and that really story doesn't matter, and that besides, the game is still loyal to your original vision?

      EA = the ends (boobies) justify the means (lying, hyping, and desecrating). lolzlzllzlzl! i wanna work @ EA! boooooobies! beatrice's boobies!!!!

      rock on!

      (i know that this post is critical of ea, and as they run these boards and dictate narrative design throughout the universe, i understand this post may need to be deleted for the greater good of humanity--so as to stay loyal to dante's true intent of boobbbobiesisisis!!! boobies! lolz!)

      funny how quick you guys are to rush & protect EA:

      From EA's very own forums:

      From the opening sequence of the demo where Dante is stitching a cross into his skin to the nude Beatrice, I pretty much felt like I was being baptized in oily, filthy water... In summary, gameplay was lame, Dante's a moron, Beatrice is a *, camera movement was obnoxious, premise is embarrassing while pretending to be literary and historically informed, and I'd rather get Bayonetta than this crap. Apparently In summary, gameplay was lame, Dante's a moron.....

      you should apply for a job moderating ea's forums!! disobedient fanboys longing for epic art must be stamped out, censored, and destroyed in the name of "gameplay"!!! lolzlzlzozllzzlz!! boobies!!!

        Congratulations on writing easily the most insane comment I've ever had the pleasure to approve.

          LOL, i was just sitting and wondering how long the comment would last... then the page reloads and i see ur approval :P

          quite a rant. would be a shame for it to go to waste... well not really but still fun to read :)

        LOL fanboy much?

        Mr. This-Game-Is-Going-To-Epic-Suck, what you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

          lol, Billy Madison rules...

          on the subject of the main post... ramblings yes, but does it really need to be compared to Bioshock in anyway? they are both completely different... and they aren't released on the same day, over here at least, unless I won't be picking up Dante's this week?

        rambling though he is I happen to agree with his sentiments.

        the break it down:

        Classic pieces of literature should not be dumbed down as source material for video games. The world will be dumber for playing this game.

    I was sooo looking forward to this game, but then I went and bought Mass Effect 2.
    I wont finish ME2 for a while and after that Im playing Bioshock 2. . . so Dante will have to wait :(
    Oh the priorities.

    I actually went out and bought a copy of the book just because of this game. I've read it 3 times in the last 2weeks.

    The book came with a set of notes, explaining the different references and such that Dante makes through out the book. Very cool

    Why is it that Americans seem to think they are doing justice to an original story in a movie/vidoegame adaptation simply by recreating the setting accurately, then basically doing what they wish with the characters, plot and messages/morals? I guess the audience for these things is so superficial they only pay attention to what it looks like, whereas any deeper critique would reveal that it's entirely separate from the original story and they are just cashing in on it's name, and drawing people in with the appearance.

    It's similar to the recent books 'Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters' and 'Pride & Prejudice & Zombies'.

    I see no problem with a popular re imagining of a piece of text. Think of it as taking inspiration and paying homage, rather than a literal interpretation of either the story or the themes.

    Of course, it's true merit will be whether it stacks up as a game, and Visceral have already shown they can come through with the goods.

      That's way different, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are pastitches and parodies of the source material Spike Milligan style that at no point are you supposed to take as being a true version of the original.

      EA can't stop telling us how accurate it is to the source material, which is a lie so sudderingly bad whole convents of nuns must faint every time they repeat it.

      I get that game developers tend to really suck at coming up with ideas for games, and I understand that they looked at the sketches of Inferno and thought, oh a game would be a good idea.

      What I DON'T get is why, oh why, they had to call the ass kicking, brooding bad ass crusader Knight Dante why they couldn't just make it a different original character following the same path as the original Dante, but kicking ass and taking names.

      Sure, that would still be silly, but at least its an excuse for the game that doesn't take a big crap on the original.

        Here here, I wholeheartedly agree.

        I studied the Divine Comedy at Uni a couple years back, and loved it start to finish. The very thought of turning Inferno into a game is still repulsive to me. I'm not going anywhere near it.

    I'm intending to devour a copy of the book, probably before I touch the game. My gut is telling me that the two will be quite divorced from each other.

      I can tell you right now the similarities will start and end with the title.

    The demo was an awesome good time - so I don't give a rats for those weepy biatches, crying into their Thundercats bedspreads that it isn't 'true to the source material'.

    I'm a gamer, I care about the game, not the inspiration. Will I read the poem? I will, I want to, I've been meaning to for years. But it will be kept separate from the game, because they are two very different mediums.

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