The Next "Illustrated Edition" of Dante's Inferno Will Be a Video Game

You read that correctly.

If you're a gamer, a regular player of video games, then you may already have heard . . .

Video game company Electronic Arts announced a couple of months ago that it plans to make a video game version of Dante's Inferno.    

Those of us bibliophiles who prefer books to all other forms of entertainment may be stunned at this news. A major player in the video game industry plans to make a cutting edge game out of a 14th century epic written entirely in verse? Could there be a more ridiculous idea than re-interpreting this masterpiece as a visually-oriented game in which the player, and not the author, determines the final outcome of the story?
Rather than reject news of the game out of hand because this new interpretation of Dante is a "just" a video game, I am heartened by EA's decision. Though it's true that a video game is nothing like a book, the detailed imagery in Inferno lends itself particularly well to illustration, and, in this case, to computer animation and player interactivity. One of the key components in Inferno is that each of the sinners punished in Hell exercised his free will and made choices which landed him there. It will be interesting to see if those playing the game get to make similar choices. This game might succeed in making Dante's work accessible and appealing to a new generation.  Luddite though I am, even I have to admit, this is one video game I want to play.

A recent post from the gaming website Team X Box gives an in-depth report on this forthcoming game, including screenshots. You can click on their link in the previous sentence to read the whole article, but here are a couple of the author's opinions:

"EA's presentation was lead by Jonathan Knight, the game's executive producer/creative director, who told us that they're focusing on a number of key areas in the game. He also said that Inferno provides a solid structure for a game, culminating with a face-off against Lucifer, who is 'the ultimate end boss.'

Beyond that, though, Knight and his team showed how such an odd marriage of ancient literature and modern technology could come together so well. Certainly, the setting lends itself as a mood setter, with lots of dark, dirty terrain; flames; demons; and creepy creatures everywhere you turn. Knight also said that his team is comprised of numerous game-design veterans, such as Stephen Desilets (who is design lead on Dante's Inferno, but has worked for Oddworld and Valve in the past) and Mike Cheng (the lead level designer who has helped create levels on such projects as the God of War series and Metroid Prime). Visual design received major contributions from Wayne Barlowe, a sci-fi/fantasy painter who was inspired enough by the poem to have created a book of art called Barlowe's Inferno.

Looking at the game while it's running shows how much attention to detail there will be on the imagery--and that with the version we saw being 'at least a year out,' according to Knight. For instance, the first playable scene was backed by what seemed like water flowing from a pipe behind the action, but when you look closely, you can see that the 'liquid' was really made up of hundreds of human bodies, flooding into Hell endlessly. A later scene showed lines of condemned people walking single-file onto boats. Though the gameplay looks like it'll be engaging enough to hold your attention, there will be lots of other scenery to take in if you find yourself idle for a few moments."

Though it might be difficult to imagine how a video game likely to be played by teenagers and young adults is relevant to collecting the centuries-old works of a classic author like Dante, it's important to remember that Dante has always been an author who appeals to the common man. Writing in the vernacular rather than the traditional Latin, Dante ensured that his book could be read by any literate Italian.  Additionally, the 1502 edition of Divine Comedy, printed by Aldus Manutius was the first edition printed in the small, portable, book-shaped format readers still use today. For the first time, anyone who could carry a book could read it. Compared to the huge incunabula which preceded it, the book was made more accessible by this format.   It is possible that a video game will help to make Dante's 600+ year-old-work continue to be accessible in the next generation.

I've been able to wrangle an invitation to tour EA in the near future and to see the game in development.  (Full disclosure: someone I know well works there.)  As someone who has spent a significant amount of time building and cataloguing a collection of illustrated and unusual editions of the work of Dante Alighieri, I look forward to asking the team who are developing the game which previous illustrated editions of Dante's work (if any) influenced their design.  I'll be sure and report back if and when I find an answer.

Dante as depicted by Gustave Dore in his definitive 19th century engravings:

21st Century Dante as envisioned by EA's game designers:
new dante.jpg

19th Century Dante at the Gates of Hell as imagined by Dore:
Gustave Dore  Gates of hell.jpg

21st Century Dante in The City of Dis in EA's game:


Dore's version of Minos:

Screenshot from EA's game: