In the article Playing the Afterlife: Dante’s Otherworlds in the Gaming Age, Claudia Rossignoli examines Dante Alighieri’s famous poem Comedy and its influence on modern media, namely games. The Comedy has been used as inspiration in various works and its signifiers are universally recognized and lend to, for example, the impact of medievalism in modern cultures. Through the poem’s influence, a medievalizing lens can be formed and used in such ways that make fantasy worlds feel both familiarly medieval yet eerily obscure. There are compelling arguments made for the Comedy’s effects on the presentation of fantasy horror and the supernatural in contemporary media. As Dante’s poem has become something of an icon to such concepts, gaming adaptations are inevitable. By examining existing adaptations and where they fail or succeed, the author presents an argument for making a game that could possibly change the world.
Firstly, Rossignoli assesses gaming adaptations of the poem, drawing comparisons between them and Dante’s work to finally infer what could be improved upon in trying to make a game that more richly encapsulates the “original”. The game under heaviest scrutiny is Dante’s Inferno, a 2010 action Role-playing game developed by Visceral Games studio, and an attempt to produce a thorough version of Dante’s idea in game form. Received with mixed feelings, Dante’s Inferno manages some, but not all. While the imagery and level design are rather satisfactory, the game focuses on only one part of the Comedy—the Inferno, basically Hell—and only a handful of elements within. Complete accuracy cannot be expected, but the author questions the developers’ decisions about what has been left out or adapted less than faithfully.
Some departures from the poem are rather substantial. The main characters in the poem and the game differ by a wide margin, from their physical capabilities to even their core motivations. The author argues that this lessens the impact of the narrative and the strength of the gaming adaptation in general, as much of what Dante offers in the Comedy relies on the main character’s self-realization and growth throughout the journey. The universal concepts and questions of humanity, such as participating in violence, are crudely simplified in the game, as the poem’s thoughtful Dante is transformed into almost a barbaric representation whose prowess and progress focuses solely on the physical. This stereotypical interpretation is underlined by the altering of Beatrice, originally a powerful character in her own right, into a damsel in distress, the driving force of the game’s journey. Dante’s Inferno presents almost an inversion of some of the poem’s core concepts, which results in unsuccessful gamification and a failure to capitalize on its potential impact in today’s culture.
The article examines a few more games in lesser detail. Madmind Studios’ 2018 game Agony falls into some of the same pits of simplification and fetishization as Dante’s Inferno, approaching the themes of hellscapes and gory horror in heteronormative and stereotypical ways. As Rossignoli notes, terrifying game worlds do not have to rely on outright hypersexualization, shown for example by Ninja Theory’s 2017 game Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Playdead’s 2010 game Limbo is presented as an example which, with surprising snugness, fits with the original poem’s hopeless and paradoxical representation of Limbo.
Among failures, there are also accomplishments. The Devil May Cry (DMC1-5) series by Bandai Namco is presented as successfully adapting themes of the poem while inventing new ways to represent them, for example by taking interesting and novel approaches to some characters. The author notes that part of the success may stem from the conscious departure and admitted autonomy of the creative process. Rather than simplifying for the sake of conformity, the developers have comfortably adjusted parts of the poem into game form while staying within well-established genre boundaries. The author goes on to examine a few more games, noting the decisions made and how they might be used in conjunction to craft the “perfect” adaptation of Dante’s Comedy.
Finally, the author brings the discussion together. Some games have managed to adapt parts of the poem in creative and successful ways, but it is not enough. There is space in the digital age for a game as challenging and provocative as the Comedy was in its own time. The ingredients are all ready for creating “a game for change” with the levels of authenticity, expressiveness, energy, and intellectuality of the Comedy. Rossignoli concludes that she could “not think of a better way to keep it living”.
Picture: Illustration of the structure of Hell by Sandro Botticelli, Wikimedia Commons
Article: Rossignoli, C. (2019). Playing the Afterlife: Dante’s Otherworlds in the Gaming Age. Games and Culture, 15(7), 155541201987257–155541201987849. https://doi.org/10.1177/1555412019872578
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