Dante’s Peak?

EA had high hopes for Dante’s Inferno when it was released in February, but divine judgement has seen it slip to the seventh circle of the bargain bin. We ask an Alighieri expert what went wrong…

Dante's Inferno

“The logic of slaughtering souls who are, after all, already dead is a bit odd, but again that applies to the whole game.  Did the game’s creators pick cynically on unbaptised infants for shock value?  Well, maybe…”

Claire Honess is currently in America, but she has taken some time out to talk to us about EA’s Dante’s Inferno. She knows a wee bit about Dante – she’s currently co-director of Leeds University’s Centre for Dante Studies which The Guardian ranks as second in the UK league table of University Italian departments. She’s immersed herself in Alighieri’s original text for most of her adult life, and would be incredibly useful in a Dante-themed pub quiz.

So we want to know what she thinks of EA’s 2010 adaption of what is viewed as one of the most important texts in history. To date EA have sold just under one-and-a-quarter million copies combined on the 360 and PS3 , which should be viewed as tepid, especially considering the positive reviews that Dante received.

“I suspect that the poor sales mean that it’s just not a particularly good game.  But I am not the right person to judge on that.  I can’t imagine that the title put people off: Inferno is a pretty enticing title, I think.  Nor do I imagine that many people thought, ‘Oh, I won’t buy this because I read the book and didn’t enjoy it that much’.  So I think the reasons for the game’s relative lack of commercial success need to be sought out in something other than the fact that it was ostensibly based on a ‘classic’.”

Maybe the whole interpretation side of things is at fault, and some serious questions need to be raised with EA’s creative heads. There was certainly no shortage of inspiration for EA to draw on, as Claire points out. And EA’s marketing blitz left no stone unturned when whipping up interest in the game – PR director Tammy Schachter admitted to hiring a baying mob to protest the game’s content at E3 2009 in Los Angeles, while the International Nanny Association took a pretty dim view of the aforementioned baby-beating shenanigans.

Did EA make a blunder in trying to adapt such an old text for the modern gamer? “That’s a difficult question.  For the adult market, I suspect that most texts are just too wordy and lacking in action to transfer to this kind of market. Moreover, I think it’s wrong for any of us to assume that we have the right to pronounce on how Dante should be read and on how his works should be used.

Dr. Claire Honess

“My Dante is not the same as the Dante of Boccaccio, reading him in the fourteenth century, or of Dorothy L. Sayers, reading him as an Anglican in the first half of the twentieth century, or of a bored Italian teenager reading him in class in modern-day Florence.  And since I tend to see the game as ‘inspired by’ Dante rather than as actually engaging in any real way with Dante’s text, the ‘mis-use’ of Dante is not really an issue.”

There were a lot of other factors to consider when the game was released in February. The world was still curled up under its duvet after its recession bender and the time-burgling Mass Effect 2 was released a month earlier. February also saw the release of the phenomenal Bioshock 2 and the much-hyped Heavy Rain. Dante was probably doomed to walk its path through Hell alone before it was even released.

Claire does draw parallels with writing a story for consoles though, and Alighieri’s own troubles when he wrote Inferno some 700 years ago: “Certainly I don’t think that the art of storytelling in the traditional way, involving words on a page, is dead.  Nor do I think that the two [continued existence of a literary tradition alongside new media] are necessarily mutually exclusive.  And we need to bear in mind that, by the standards of his own day, Dante, writing an epic in the vernacular was doing something not very far removed from writing literature-as-console-game.

“The disapproval of some of his contemporaries (like Petrarch and Giovanni del Virgilio, both of whom thought that he had ‘debased’ the poem by writing it in Italian, and that it should have been written in Latin) is enough to remind us of that.  But Dante foresaw that this was the future of poetry, and he privileged communication of his message over rigid adherence to tradition.  So, if a modern-day Dante comes along with a pressing message to convey to the youth of today, then why not do it through a medium that will actually reach them?”

We point her in the direction of Limbo and open up a brand new can of worms.

Dante's Inferno boss fight