The Accidental Preacher

Traditionally, historically, video games and religion don't mix.

Make a game with strong religious context that deals seriously with the issues and you're often left with something heavy-handed, preachy and self-righteous.

Make a strong video game that is fun to play that also happens to include religion and often you're left with something distasteful.

But somehow, when Visceral Games created an action adventure game that has players exploring hell, banishing demons and forsaking the wicked as Italian poet Dante Alighieri, they managed to make a relatively theologically sound game that is engrossing, fun to play and, seemingly without religious critics.

Ironically, Visceral Game's initial concept for Dante's Inferno wasn't meant to really explore the religious aspects of the source material: The first part of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, a deeply religious work that describes the soul's journey to God and helped to cement the western view of hell.

Instead, the idea was to use the visceral descriptions of a hell as a backdrop for a button-mashing action adventure game, not to create a religious title, said Zach Mumbach, associate producer for Dante's Inferno.

"The initial goal was to create a game based in this medieval hell," he said. "We had this concept that we wanted to make a game about hell, but we were naive about how much we were going to get into religious issues."

As Visceral Games worked to craft a story loosely based on Dante's Inferno, planning only to use the epic poem as a backdrop, an increasing amount of the Divine Comedy's religious and allegorical nature slowly seeped into the video game apparently unnoticed by the team.

When they were finished, nearly two years after pitching the idea to Electronic Arts, the team realised that what they had created was almost a morality play.

As with the poem, Virgil servers as the guide in the game. Before entering each ring of hell, Virgil explains what sins were committed to land the demons and lost souls there. While playing, gamers learn that if you're not baptised, lustful, gluttonous, greedy, angry, commit heresy, violence, fraud or treachery that there's a good chance you're going to hell.

Despite the innate controversy that surrounds crafting a game that essentially preaches about the dangers of immoral behaviour, publisher Electronic Arts stayed completely out of the way of the game's developers, Mumbach said.

That doesn't mean that Visceral didn't censor themselves though.

For instance, in the poem, Mohammad serves as one of the cornerstones of the ring of hell dedicated to fraud. But he didn't make the cut for the video game.

"There are things in the poem we didn't want to deal with, like Mohammad," Mumbach said. "Clearly we are not going to touch that, we're not trying to upset people."

That didn't stop the team, though, from building one of the central gameplay mechanics around the concept of sin and punishment. During his journey through hell, the player controlled Dante gets to choose whether to punish or absolve the sinners he comes across, battles and defeats.

It was this concept of sin and punishment that first attracted the developers to the idea of a game set in hell, Mumback said.

"I don't think we are trying to hand out moral lessons here," he said, "but I think the basic thing we're trying to say is that people should be morally good."

And Visceral Games doesn't appear to be done with the notion of blending religion and literature with gaming. Inferno ends with Dante stepping out onto the precipice of the Mountain of Purgatory, the starting point of the second part of the Diving Comedy.

Mumbach declined to say if the team was working on Dante's Purgatorio as a game, but it certainly appears they are.

More interesting, though, is the notion that that second game may blends two great works of literature in its examination of Christian ideals.

While the Dante's Inferno starts very much in the realm of the first part of the Divine Comedy, the descent into hell, and the need for stronger plot devices, slowly shifted the work from an homage to Dante Alighieri's works to something more reminiscent of English poet John Milton and Paradise Lost.

By the time the player reaches the final conflict of the game, Satan is the fully realised product of Milton rather than Alighieri.

To turn Dante's Purgatorio into an action game the developers would likely have to lean even more on Milton and the stories told in both Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, something that the team is rumoured to have already starting doing.

Despite the heavy religious overtones of their game, the inescapable moralising of what can lead a person to eternal damnation, Visceral Games still says that what they created wasn't a religious game.

"We are a video game first that happens to deal with religious subjects," Mumbach said. "Whether you believe the bible or not, it is a hell of a read. The mythology is entertaining. There are some great, great stories there."

And, he adds, games like Dante's Inferno could make it easier for more game developers to explore those ideas.

"Hopefully Dante's Inferno getting out there and doing religious stuff and not getting backlash will open it up to other people," he said. "There is so much in religion that is fascinating from a story-teller's point of view."

Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.


    "While playing, gamers learn that if you're not baptized, if you're lustful, gluttonous, greedy, angry, commit heresy, violence, fraud, or treachery than there's a good chance you're going to hell."

    Yes, but you'll discover this by simply reading the original poem too.

    And in fact you don't learn any of this from playing (ie: your actions within) the game, you are simply told this by a static character whom does nothing but stand there and talk at you.

    And I think this is where Dante's Inferno fails to capitalise on the material.

    Visceral's version of Dante's Inferno is a competent re-telling of Alighieri's story, but as a modern morality play I think it fails, and I think the game (and gamers) are poorer for it.

    Because there is nothing in the gameplay to make the player react to what is going on in a moral way.

    Even the Absolve/Punish system ends up being completely irrelevant at the end of the game - your actions make absolutely no difference to the overall ending of the game.

    What they could have done is made it so in a level like Anger, if you acted in anger towards people you'd be further punished by having more people attack you.

    In the Greed level, they could have had shiny items in places which were incredibly hard (or even impossible) to reach and made it harder to play through the more items you had.

    Yes, it would become more frustrating to play this way, but that's the point! If you play the game as a morally good person (in terms of the original poem) it becomes easier to play.

    In this way the designers are helping to moralise the player's actions.

      Elloquent response, you're right though, they did nothing interesting with the material, the art style was good but the narrative was tame and bleh.

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