The fact that the Dead Space developers made a game based on Dante Aligheri’s The Divine Comedy is weird enough, even without thinking about the motion capped, unbaptised children that face you in your descent to hell.
Monstrous children were something of a motif for Visceral Games, featuring in the Dead Space franchise and Dante’s Inferno. Equipped with sword-like appendages, the demonic children of Dante’s Inferno coo, giggle and cry like the real thing mid-fight. Even for a game revelling in gratuity, their inclusion is especially morbid.
These visual qualities are only compounded when you fight them. While a single waddling infant isn’t too hard to dispatch, Visceral usually throw them at you in hordes. This multiplication adds to both the shock factor and challenge involved. Dante’s scythe has a lot of reach, but it only takes one stray hit to spoil a combo.
Some creepier parts of the character design involved are credited to Wayne Barlowe, an American science fiction and fantasy artist who was contracted on for the project.
“One of Wayne’s great contributions to the whole character design was bringing in the umbilical cord and placenta. It was super creepy and very Wayne Barlowe,” said Ash Huang, art director for Dante’s Inferno.
For those unfamiliar, a central Christian conceit around the time of The Divine Comedy was the idea that unbaptised children would be sent to Limbo, a special part of the afterlife.
Since Limbo is also the first circle of hell, you visit it fairly early in Dante’s Inferno. Visceral wanted to make the experience of running into your first horde of unbaptised children particularly memorable for players. Naturally, the team went to bizarre lengths to make these limbo-bound toddlers feel authentic.
Jonathan Knight, Dante’s Inferno’s executive producer, actually brought his own child into the motion capture studio to make the movement of the creature a little more believable.
Over a decade later, Knight says the sequence was born from a desire to use motion capture to bring the various creatures of Dante’s Inferno to life in new and creative ways.
“I knew we would need a really creepy introduction sequence for the baby. I had an eighteen-month-old toddler at the time, and I was intimately familiar with the unique way in which toddlers walk. And I just thought– let’s motion capture him,” he said.
“I think I knew that I wasn’t going to get away with it unless I used my own child. I didn’t see putting this out as a casting call! As I recall, it raised a few eyebrows with the legal team, and they scrambled to get all the necessary papers signed.”
Knight says that the team at Los Angeles’ House of Moves were thrilled to do a motion capture session that was outside their normal routine.
“They had never done mo-cap on an actor that young, so it was a true first for them – in either film or video games. They immediately went into problem-solving mode, and helped us figure out how to suit up the little guy. They were very kind and patient with him.”
“In the end, he loved the attention and his Mom was there, so he took it all in stride and the day went quite smoothly. I think it was fun for the other actors too; something different.”
However, Knight added that not everyone loved the fact that it ended up being made into a bonus featurette.
“I wasn’t trying to promote my family or anything like that,” the executive producer explained. “I just thought it was a really cool, creative thing we’d done, and wanted to share the process and the footage of a kid in the mocap suit!”
Knight still thinks it paid off, noting that “that unique toddler waddle really comes through in the final scene.”
“I’m sure our talented animators could have achieved something great without that data, but there’s a reason why we do motion capture, and I think this one worked quite well.”
While Knight’s son is both too young to have memories of the motion capture session itself and to see his own performance in Dante’s Inferno, he does love video games, especially Fortnite.
“We mention it from time to time, at parties or whatever, and he usually smiles about it,” Knight said.
“I do think he’ll get a kick out of it a little later in life. We saved his motion capture suit; it’s in a box in the garage,” he adds.
While Dante’s Inferno was never remastered for modern consoles, the game is still available to play on Xbox via the magic of backwards compatibility. It even made its way onto Game Pass a few months back via Microsoft’s partnership with EA Play.
Fergus Halliday is an Australian freelancer, the former editor of PC World Australia, co-creator of the A Murmur or Two podcast and runs a fortnightly newsletter called Content Vampires Anonymous. You can follow Halliday’s work via Twitter.