I stepped off the elevator and through the replica of Rodin's "Gates of Hell" into the Ninth Circle, the offices of the team developing the "Dante's Inferno" video game at Electronic Arts.
Far from the comforting array of books at Book Hunter's Holiday, I was standing in a cubicle farm, filled with rows and rows of desks and computers. If any place screams "Ninth Circle of Hell" to this antiquarian bookseller, it is the soul-killing atmosphere of a large office crammed with row upon row of cubicles and computers. However, after I took a more careful survey of my surroundings, I realized that though I was standing in a typical Silicon Valley office, I was also in a very atypical place.
Everywhere I looked, I was surrounded by iconic images of Dante's work. The walls were covered in illustrations from print editions of Dante and from images that will appear in the "Dante's Inferno" video game. Papered with pictures of engravings from Gustave Dore, who, in the nineteenth century, created some of the best known images of Dante's work, the walls also showcased additional pieces of artwork from Eugene Delacroix and science fiction author and illustratorWayne Barlowe (Barlowe's Inferno, 1998). Storyboards of the game in development were interspersed with the other artwork. Anyone working here is immersed in Dante's world, even as he creates it for the video game. Talk about worlds colliding!
After admiring the artwork on the walls, I was introduced to the Executive Producer of "Dante's Inferno", Jonathan Knight. According to EA's website, Knight "studied Computer Science in undergraduate school, then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in directing from Boston University. At B.U. and in professional theatres, he wrote and directed a variety of plays, and studied extensively the works of Shakespeare. Since joining EA in 2001, he has produced several award-winning expansion packs to Will Wright's The Sims, and was Lead Producer for The Sims 2, which launched as the most successful PC game of all time. He was the Senior Producer for 2007's The Simpsons Game on six platforms, and is currently Executive Producer at the Redwood Shores studio. Currently Jonathan is writing, producing and directing Dante's Inferno, an all new action/adventure game based upon the classic epic poem."
After watching a short Power Point presentation about the game, Knight and I sat down and discussed why EA thought Dante's work would provide good source material for a video game.
Knight was quick to point out something I'd already noticed in assembling my own Dante collection for Book Hunter's Holiday's first print catalogue: from its first publication, Divine Comedy was written for the common man and a part of popular culture. It was written in the vernacular Italian rather than in Latin. The 1502 Aldine edition of Dante is also one of the earliest books published in a portable octavo size, inviting the reader to skip the added commentary of previous, overstuffed editions and to experience Dante's text directly. Other editions of Dante's work over the past seven hundred years provide clear evidence that Dante appealed to popular culture. Indeed, images from Divine Comedy have been used to market everything from cigarettes to chocolate to soup over the centuries. Why not a video game?
"How many people read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings for the first time after seeing the movie or playing our video game version of it?" asked Knight, acknowledging that a successful game may steer its fans to the source material. If it's successful, the "Dante's Inferno" game could expose a whole new generation to the Divine Comedy.
Knight made clear that the video game is not the same as Dante's book; it is an adaptation of the book. For your perusal here are some of the major differences:
1) Dante is no longer just a poet. He is now a returning warrior from the Crusades (yes, that's anachronistic). His garb includes a blood red, cross-shaped tapestry that depicts his sins stitched into the bare skin (!) of his buffed chest. (I warned you it was going to be different than the book!)
2) Beatrice is not the image of perfection that she is in the book. Through a few sins of her own while Dante was away fighting in the Crusades, she is now a prisoner of Lucifer in Hell. (Can you see where this is going? It sounds to me like a rescue story -- the flawed but noble warrior will fight off his enemies to rescue and regain his true love and, in doing so, gain redemption.)
3) There will be a climactic "Boss Fight" (as it's called in gaming circles). Dante and Lucifer will go head to head (or perhaps scythe to pitchfork?) in a physical battle.
Like me, you may be wondering whether these changes, extreme departures from the book, will fundamentally change the Dante we book nerds have come to know and love. Is it really necessary to tamper with an enduring classic? How one understands the answer has to do with remembering one crucial thing: the conventions of an epic poem are different from the conventions of a video game. Though both the book and the video game formats might be used to demonstrate the same themes and explore the same characters, the way in which they do so is different.
While an epic poem might need to start in medias res, might invoke a muse, and might contain extended formal speeches, the visual format of a video game does not necessarily need to do these things. While the nine levels of Dante's Hell lend themselves well to the multi-tiered levels that are found in most video games, the extensive narration in Dante does not. Dante has been transformed into a warrior in search of redemption and looking to rescue his true love in order to propel the plot forward in a visual way, something which was just not necessary in print.
And just as books have conventions, video games have as well. A survey by the Media Awareness Network, a site dedicated to promoting critical thinking in young people about the media, reports that teenagers cited the following as charactersitics of exciting video games: "realistic graphics, good sound effects, lots of control, and good characters to play were crucial to a good video game. Also considered important were the features of unpredictability (75 per cent or respondents), excitement (73 per cent), good weapons (72 per cent), and an interesting story (67 per cent)."
EA has adapted Dante's story, which in itself has made an excellent candidate for visual depiction through the past six-plus centuries, and in doing so, has made changes in order to make a better game. As Knight put it to me, "Scholars and critics are not our main audience. Gamers are."
Here, straight from the "Dante's Inferno" website, are a few more adaptations made in the interest of creating a great game from a great book:
1) "Scythe Combat: Using Death's Scythe as his primary weapon, Dante becomes a master of brutal melee combat, to fend off the monsters and minions of Hell, and earn their souls by killing them. Spend the souls on tons of upgrades and special combos, to augment the variety and power of the combat system.
2) Holy Powers: Using a cross given to him by Beatrice, Dante has additional moves for added combat variety and complexity. The cross is also used to either Absolve or Punish the damned shades encountered by Dante.
3) Magic of the Inferno: Dante acquires the powers of Hell through the defeat of certain monsters, and can turn these powers back against the creatures of Hell.
4) Creature Taming. Tame, ride and control giant monsters of Hell, using them to conquer enemies, solve puzzles, and make epic leaps forward into the bowels of the Inferno.
5) The Nine Circles of Hell: Each of the nine circles brought to life, as envisioned by the original poem, with a unique art style per level, and a variety of minions, demons, sub-bosses, and bosses themed for each level. Creature design by award-winning world-renowned artist Wayne Barlowe."
Depending on your perspective, you may be dismayed to learn that Dante's classic is being made into a video game. On the other hand, if you remember that the video game is not seeking to be a reprint of a book but an adaptation of Dante's Inferno in an entirely new format, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised and heartened by the fact that, after almost seven hundred years, the popular culture still considers Inferno a tale worth telling. I'm going to reserve my judgment until I get a chance to see and play the final version of the game, due in a few months, but I think that EA's adaptation may be the first ever to simultaneously utilize artists, computer graphics, animation, and player-determined (as opposed to author-determined) outcomes. As such, it deserves a place among any self-respecting Dante collection.
And did I mention that plans are in the works for a major motion picture? And maybe a Dante action figure, too?
Perhaps adaptation is the sincerest form of flattery.