A Classic Poem Hits the Xbox

A Classic Poem Hits the Xbox
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Electronic Arts is currently in production of a video game called Dante's Inferno based on Dante's great 14th century epic poem The Divine Comedy. Production costs on the ambitious attempt to fuse classic literature and "hack and slash" gaming are expected to number in the tens of millions of dollars. Think they're nuts? Early indications say otherwise. While the game is a long way from store shelves, EA has already sold its movie rights, sight-unseen, to Universal Studios for millions of dollars. The game actually sparked a bidding war.

I'm not surprised that EA would see Inferno (the first section of The Divine Comedy), with its elaborate mapping and description of Hell, as a lucrative launch point for a game about killing demons. I am surprised though, at how determined the studio is to not just make the game about killing demons--to remain, in fact, as faithful as possible to Dante's masterpiece. Jonathan Knight, the executive producer and creative director for the game, is making a point in interviews to point out all of the game's connections to the epic poem. According to Knight, the main plot line is still Dante's quest to reach Beatrice, and the Roman poet Virgil still plays his part, as do more minor characters like King Minos (the judge of the damned) and Cerberus. The team has even created new characters based on what's known of members of Dante's real-world family. Knight told the popular gaming website IGN that the team took almost all of their cues for designing Inferno's setting directly from Dante's text, and that the game features many of its landmarks. And while developers obviously couldn't fit all 14,000 lines of the poem into the game, Knight claims that many lines will be quoted (or at least paraphrased). The newly released trailer for the game, which can be seen here, indicates that he's telling the truth. It begins with a voice-over translation of The Divine Comedy's first lines.

At the midpoint on the journey of life
I found myself in a dark forest,
for the clear path was lost.

Of course, EA also wants the game to make a buck, and that means pleasing the masses of gamers who couldn't care less about poetry, and want action, blood, guts and that sort of fun. So it shouldn't be surprising that EA's Dante will be brandishing a massive bony sword-looking thing and swinging it at demons (I have to admit, I laughed out loud when I saw that). The released game play also includes--and I'm not making this up--an army of unbaptized babies with deadly, extendable arms, which the website TeamXbox describes as "perhaps the nastiest batch of enemies that you'll ever face in a video game." I guess that's how you make a buck.

While Knight acknowledges that his team took some major liberties in turning Dante into a video game hero, he points out that the Italian poet had real-life experience as a soldier in the Guelph cavalry, fighting in their war against the Ghibellines. And take heart, poets, in addition to his big boney sword, Dante sports a mean-looking set of laurels on his helmet.

I thought about whether the game (and the movie, if it's produced) might sully The Divine Comedy, but I don't think it will. EA has been upfront about the liberties it's taken, and I'm intrigued not only that they feel compelled to be faithful to the poem, but that they believe that they can do so and still make a profit. Not that it's the point, but lord knows poetry isn't very profitable in the U.S. these days. And while the game will no doubt give some a mistaken impression of the poem, those people probably currently have no impression of it. The game might also do the poem some good. It might convince some that classic literature is more relatable than it appears in English class. And it's far more likely that after playing the game a teenager would be interested in picking up the book.

That said, if you have a teenager, and this winter he tries to sell you on allowing him to buy Inferno based its connection to classic literature, just remember the army of unbaptized babies.

Dante's Inferno is set to be released later this year.

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