Hey, have any of you guys heard of this game, Dante’s Inferno? It seems the good people at Visceral Games–you know, the same guys who made The Godfather: The Game, The Godfather II: The Game, and Dead Space–took the first part of Dante Alighieri’s thirteenth-century Divine Comedy and made a God of War style spectacle fighter out of it. Weird, I know.
If this is news to you, you might want to go read my hard-hitting exposé of all the exposed breasts in which the game cloaks its meager plot first, because today I want to talk about the characters in the game who own and interact with those plot-breasts. Let’s start with the game’s titular* hero.
Apparently, at some point in the last five years, a memo was circulated through Hollywood to the effect that pre-modern masculinity is best captured by having a lead who bellows most of his lines. (THIS! IS! SPARTA!, I! AM! BEOWULF! THREE! WORD! PHRASE!, etc.) The designers at Visceral got this memo and then some, giving us a hero who shouts his way through the Christian afterlife. But unlike Leonidas and Beowulf–and yet, strangely, like Dante in Divine Comedy— the video game Dante is in a state of near-constant befuddlement, so the masculine swagger of the more famous bellowers is replaced by shouty confusion. BUT!… I! DON’T! UNDERSTAND!, WHERE! IS! BEATRICE!?!, VIRGIL! HELP! ME!… It must have been hell on the copy editors who worked on the game’s script. Does the exclamation point come before the ellipsis or after in MLA style, I wonder?
Other than the fact that HE! WANTS! BEATRICE!, the game designers didn’t give much thought to Dante’s motivations. In this respect, too, I suppose, they betray an unexpected fidelity to their putative source. When the game was first announced, I remarked offhand to my little brother that Dante was not a Crusader and had never actually touched Beatrice in real life. Naturally, he asked, “So, why did Dante go to Hell in the original?” and was unsatisfied when I told him, “Oh, you know, he gets chased by some animals and he just finds himself there and figures, oh, what the Hell.”
Of course, there’s no need to explain Dante’s motivations in the game’s tacked on princess rescue A-plot, swiped as it is from Orpheus and Eurydice (or, more probably, from every video game made since Super Mario Bros.). We can all agree, when Satan kidnaps your girl, it is on. But there’s still the thorny matter of the hero’s new backstory.
As I’ve already discussed, Dante of the game is one of Richard I’s lieutenants during the Third Crusade. Why he takes up the Crusader flag isn’t ever addressed. It’s war, I guess, and Dante’s a warrior, so ’nuff said. Dante leaves after having one steamy night with his beloved, Beatrice, and heads off, promising to be true to her and to return to marry her after the war and also to protect her brother Francesco while he’s away. Why he doesn’t just marry her before heading out is, likewise, never addressed.
So then whilst on Crusade, the video game Richard (who seems to be modeled directly on Sean Connery’s cameo in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) takes some 2,700 Muslims prisoner at Acre, as he did in the “real” Crusade. But in the game, when Richard doesn’t immediately have them executed, the video game Dante is enraged and takes it upon himself to kill them all personally. Some he burns during an animated cutscene, and others he apparently gives weapons to so that you can learn while helping him mow them down in wave after wave which button does what. Eventually, Richard learns of the slaughter and is enraged, and for some reason, Dante lets Francesco–Beatrice’s brother that he swore to protect–take the blame for the war crimes and be summarily executed by the justice-minded Richard.
As if this all was not enough, Dante also allows one Muslim to go free, telling him it is on behalf of Beatrice of Florence that he is given mercy, but actually because that Muslim’s sister offered herself to Dante for one night of sweaty prison sex. This little transaction becomes the key plot point of the game. The Muslim Dante spared apparently tracks down Beatrice and kills her and Dante’s father in revenge. And somehow, Dante’s breaking his promise to Beatrice is what allows the Devil to take her to Hell, and the infidelity on top of the betrayal of her brother is what convinces Beatrice to become Lucifer’s flaming-boobed hellbride once she’s there.
And so I find myself unexpectedly agreeing with the game’s version of Cleopatra when she asks Dante, “You gave up the keys to the kingdom, Dante, and for what, a Saracen’s tits?”**** I think we can all agree that the character’s motivations have gotten away from the designers when you find yourself saying to the hero, “Actually, the giant purple topless demon with monkey feet and nipples that shoot babies has a point.”
Dante has no answer to Cleopatra’s question because she asks it during a boss battle and there’s no button in the game reserved for “offer a consistent moral justification for your actions”. But what the hell, Visceral? This isn’t the troubled backstory of an anti-hero seeking redemption. Dante’s pretty much a horny amoral psychopath.
In many ways, Beatrice functions in the game as she does in the original Inferno, as the distant object of the hero’s desire that motivates him on his journey, though her role is downgraded slightly from perfect intellectual idealization of romantic love to B-movie-grade sex object. Now, I’m not going to gnash my metaphorical teeth over this reassignment, because it’s well-established that video games need princesses,***** and at least since Dragon’s Lair we’ve known that it doesn’t hurt to give that princess some porn-star quality cleavage if you want to liberate a dude’s hard-earned quarters.
Though the game never makes it explicit, it seems pretty clear to me that before the game took place, the Devil must have went down to Florence looking for a soul to steal. Presumably he was way behind, running out of time, and looking to make a deal when he came across a young, nubile blonde (and she was hot), so he set right down on a hickory stump and said “Bea, let me tell you what. I’ll bet you didn’t know it, but that ass Dante’s cheat on you, and if you care to take my dare I’ll make a bet with you.” Then, I guess, he must have bet a fiddle of gold against her soul if it turned out that Dante was a cheating jerk.****** (SPOILER ALERT: He was!)
Otherwise, I’m at a loss to explain why Dante’s sins in the Holy Land somehow mean that not only is Beatrice damned she’s also forced to become Lucifer’s regular Saturday night thing. But even then I’m still at a loss for what happens next. When Beatrice learns everything Dante did, in short order she gives herself willingly to Lucifer and becomes his bride; accepts his magical tainted pomegranate of symbolism; embraces Hell’s corruption and transforms into a flaming sexy demon; takes over as the new mistress of Fraud, the eighth circle; and tries to kill Dante by sending ten waves of demons after him that can only be defeated in gimmicky ways like not using your block button for the entire wave. And yet somehow, all it takes is for Dante to beg for her forgiveness and she’s back to being virginal and pure and worthy of ascending to Heaven.
The best I’ve got is that originally the game was supposed to be an adaptation of the 1985 Ridley Scott film Legend.
But for all it’s derivativity, the game does manage to create a novel, if disturbing, take on the old tired Virgin/Whore dichotomy. Beatrice begins the game as Virgin Who’ll Still Totally Have Sex With You, and ONLY You, and then while in Hell becomes the Whore Will Have Sex With Everyone BUT You, Including Satan. And at the game’s end, I guess she’s back to being the Virgin, and we’ll have to wait until Dante’s Inferno 3: War on Heaven to find out who she’s having sex with while she’s there.
When I started this review, I was certain I’d have something to say about all four of the game’s principles. I even made a clever graphic! But now I realize there’s nothing to say about the game’s take on Virgil. Other than giving him spikes growing out of his head and some weird veiny roots on his chest, the game is absolutely faithful to Dante’s original conception of Virgil, so faithful that every line of dialogue he utters is taken word-for-word from the Longfellow translation of the Inferno.
This faithfulness does lead to some incongruous moments in the game, though. Virgil blithely natters on about things like the Harrowing of Hell and the evils of usury, completely disconnected from the phantasmagoria of weirdness all around him. But they don’t force him to explain how your buttons work in the tutorials, as I’d feared they would, so really it’s all good.******* You Latin teachers and Classicists can breathe a sigh of relief.
Satan The Adversary The Emperor of the Woeful Realm Hell, let’s just call him “Lucifer” after all, it’s not like the Christians will really mind
If you need any further proof that the game is really Dante’s Inferno: Super-Fun Legend Edition, you need look no further than the game’s antagonist, who the designers can’t really decide if they’re going to man up enough to call the Devil or not. Half of the time they use some vague euphemism, but then they turn right around and call him Lucifer right after that, so I don’t know what to do. Even the achievement text for beating him can’t make up its mind:
But regardless of what you call him, he’s basically a palette-swapped Darkness, the Luigi to Tim Curry’s Mario, if you will, with a little bit of Milton’s Paradise Lost thrown in for good measure.
During the game’s ending cutscene, we learn that–SHOCK!!–Dante is as dead as he appears to have been when the Saracen stuck a knife in his back during the cutscene at the end of the tutorial, and the whole stealing the princess thing was just bait to get Dante, “the evilest man that ever eviled”, down to Hell to break him out. Now, some internet types have taken this as evidence that the entire game takes place in Dante’s mind, that everything we see after the blade sinks between Dante’s shoulder blades is one big illusion from Satan, the Prince of Lies. But if that were the case, Satan really shouldn’t have cast illusions on Dante that made him wander through Hell collecting all the souls he’d need to defeat him at the end of the game, should he? Classic double-double cross, I guess… or is it?
Emnightshyamalanry aside, Lucifer does, by default, manage to come off as the most consistently motivated character in the entire game, but I guess it’s not that hard to write the Devil consistently. Dude just wants some revenge on the Almighty, and if he can get that revenge through mankind’s unquenchable fallen desire for porn-star quality boobies, more’s the better.
*Meaning “the guy in the title”. Just because the game is 85% boobs** doesn’t mean you can titter*** every time I use a word with the syllable “tit”.
**10% platforming, %5 lemon custard.
***Now what did I say, again? Don’t make me come over there.
****Here I’m paraphrasing, because I don’t have a save file close to this scene.
*****Even if it’s equally well established that said princesses are always in another castle.
******The girl said, “My name’s Beatrice, and it might be a sin, but I’ll take your bet, you’re going to regret, my man’s the truest there’s ever been.”
*******I don’t want to oversell my “fear” there. I don’t mean to suggest that I spent restless nights tossing and turning over the possibility that they might make the greatest Latin poet of antiquity say, “Pusheth the A button whence thou wishest to useth thine scytheth, Dante!” Though I must admit, it would be awesome if they made him say “Eyes of Skull Has a Secret!” or “Lucifer Dislikes Smoke!”