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The Road To Hell: The Creative Direction of Dante's Inferno

Jonathan Knight, creative director of Dante's Inferno, discusses the thinking behind the path he and his team took in choosing and adapting the classic poem for use in the Visceral Studios action game.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

February 5, 2010

20 Min Read

As The Simpsons Game wrapped up, creative director Jonathan Knight approached his boss, Nick Earl -- now general manager of the Visceral Games studio at Electronic Arts Redwood Shores -- about creating a new franchise. Based on the work of poet Dante Alighieri, the games that would become Dante's Inferno evolved from early prototypes into an adaptation of Inferno, the first part of his epic poem, the Divine Comedy, originally written in the 1300s.

Of course, as we now know, the adaptation is rather loose -- recasting the protagonist and historical figure Dante as a Crusader, and profoundly changing the story of Beatrice, his real-life love interest, as well. In the end, the poem has been dramatically reworked to fit the format and tone required of a contemporary action game.

Here, Jonathan Knight discusses the process behind those changes, and the creative philosophy that guided his reimagining of both Dante's story and his foundational conception of Hell, which has guided popular thought for hundreds of years, and also serves as the setting for the game's action.

How can works of literature be adapted to games, and which ones will work? To find out more, read on.

You must be pretty excited because you're finally getting to ship the game. About how long was the development process?

JK: Um, you know, it was... gosh, good question. I started working on the concept in about the middle of 2007. Production was a little over two years.

I found it really interesting that you guys picked this source material. Obviously The Divine Comedy is one of the fundamental classics of Western literature. What made you think to go in that direction?

JK: Well, we were really interested in doing a game set in Hell, and I think that was really the initial impulse: it was to craft an experience around that kind of dark fantasy of Hell as a real place.

And I was interested in, specifically, the medieval, Christian vision of Hell, you know, as a place of structure, where sinners go and are punished; and I think that a lot of us had a sense that that was a really sophisticated mythos. And when you start researching that topic, one name kind-of always goes to the top, and that's Dante Alighieri.

Like a lot of people, I was familiar with the title, and you know, probably was supposed to read it in school, and didn't, so I picked up a copy -- I had it on my bookshelf at home -- and sat down with it to go through it, just being really interested in this topic, and was blown away at the amount of detail in the poem, in terms of how he envisions this place.

Dante Alighieri synthesized hundreds of years of medieval thought, as well as ancient thought, about the afterlife. And he just creates such a vivid depiction of it that I thought there was plenty of material, enough material there to create a whole game. And rather than just borrowing ideas here and there, we set about to systematically bring his vision to life in the game.

There's also been a lot of discussion about the ways in which the game deviates from the source material. I was wondering if you would be interested in talking about that as well -- in terms of the character, for one thing: the main character has gone through quite a change, and some of the other elements have as well.

JK: The first big challenge was Dante himself. In the poem, he casts himself as the main character, which is very unusual for his time. He was a poet and politician and thinker.

When you read the poem, it's a travelogue of him and Virgil going through the afterlife. They're on a pilgrimage; there's an objective there, which is to reach Beatrice -- who is also a biographical figure from Dante's life -- who died when she was quite young, and he really writes the poem as this way to visit her in the afterlife.

We knew we were going to make an action game, a video game, which needed to have a strong conflict, and we needed a guy who had a background as a warrior, who could fight his way through the nine circles, instead of just talking his way through them. And so, that's where we took that bold step to say, "Well, let's reimagine this guy. Let's cast him as this fallen Crusader who has this morally questionable background."

And rather than Beatrice being waiting for him on the other side, let's have her being a captive that's been kidnapped and taken down into Hell, and Dante sets out on a mission to basically rescue her. And what he finds is that, she's really there because of him, and the things that he's done, and so it really does become less of a rescue mission, more of a redemption story, as you move through the game.

So that was really the place where we needed to make that strong departure, so that there was a story there, of conflict, and the guy had a reason to fight.

When you were working on the adaptation, and working on the way that you would have to change the story, did you look at any other adaptations of classic literature? What about other adaptations in game media? Did anything help provide a guideline for the way of your thinking?

JK: Well, we are always looking at stuff. I didn't specifically try to do that, no. I mean, our take on it was definitely original, and it developed here on the team, and we ran with it.

I think, in retrospect, I've always found it interesting that Bram Stoker's Dracula, which Francis Ford Coppola made in [1992] was actually reasonably faithful to that book, and yet he also felt compelled to introduce this crusade narrative, where Dracula had this medieval past, where he's fighting in the Crusades, and the love of his life dies, and that sets in motion these events.

And that was not part of Bram Stoker's novel, and, you know, that's one example that brings to mind how the Crusades have permeated culture... it's a modern idea that people continue to be interested in.

But we obviously looked at everything that's been done with Dante over the centuries, from illustrations and paintings, to sculpture.

There's a really fun sort-of animated puppet movie, almost, that was done a few years back, that updates it with Dante and Virgil starting out in a very urban environment, and descending down into a subway, and there's politicians boiling in hot tubs, and that's a very clever piece that's a little more tongue-in-cheek.

There's been a pretty broad sweep of stuff. There's a novel entitled Inferno; it was written in the '70s, it's by Larry Niven, it's a science fiction novel. He reimagines it as this fascist state, which is fairly literal to, again, the structure, and Virgil is replaced with Benito Mussolini, and Larry Niven basically casts himself as this guy who dies and goes to Hell, and tries to get out. So there's been a lot done on it, and it's definitely a fascinating and rich source material.

When it comes to talking about the Crusades being evocative and popular source material, did you have to do any research on the Crusades? And what did you think about what you discovered, as you were working on the project?

JK: Well I was compelled by this one particular historical event in the Third Crusade, or the King's Crusade, which was a failed attempt to reclaim Jerusalem. And Richard the Lionheart takes the city of Acre, and from there attempts to take Jerusalem but is ultimately repelled.

And in that summer, in the city of Acre, the Christian Crusaders took a bunch of prisoners -- about 3,000 prisoners -- and were holding them, and Richard was trying to negotiate a deal for their release, and ended up just ordering their slaughter. And so, one morning, they just trotted out these 3,000 people and slaughtered them on the spot. Whereas Saladin, when he captured Jerusalem earlier, had spared the prisoners that he had taken, and so it just created, obviously, a really bad dynamic.

And, to me, that was a really interesting historical moment, and as we look for a way to craft the path of our Dante, and sort-of reimagine him as this guy who has gone through a lot of really morally questionable activities, that felt like kind-of a really powerful hotbed of bad choices, and was thematically appropriate. [We] made him part of that event.

And then he comes home to Italy, to find that Beatrice has been murdered, and as he goes into Hell, he basically has to relive that past and face the things that he's done, and the sins that he's committed.

We spent a little bit of time looking into that little slice of history -- and it doesn't coincide exactly with Dante writing The Divine Comedy, which is a little bit later -- you know, Dante's born in the 13th century, and the stuff I'm describing is 12th century, but, you know, it's in that medieval period. And so we played with the timeline a little bit, and it provides kind-of the right backstory for our guy.

How much did gameplay and genre considerations drive the evolution of the story for you?

JK: Well, I mean... a lot. Again, it's an action game, and it's a game in which you do a lot of combat, and that combat is the heart of the game; that's what it is, first and foremost, and that's why it's entertaining, is that the combat feels so good.

And so, we absolutely had to craft a narrative around a very aggressive protagonist with supernatural weapons, and the ability to break into Hell and fight through the nine circles. So, knowing that that's what video games are, and that's what video games are going to be, we definitely had to craft a narrative around that.

And, you know, there are origin stories about how he gets his scythe from Death, and how that plays out. We wanted the acquisition of weapons and the unholy abilities and so forth to really make sense in the story. So, yeah, that was a big consideration, for sure.

Going back to when you were originally coming up with the idea, was it inspired by Dante's Inferno, or did you always have this concept of altering the story, and changing the protagonist, at the very genesis of the project?

JK: Well, at the very genesis, it was definitely Dante's Inferno, and his vision of Hell. And I think the idea of reimagining him as a fallen Crusader was our way of addressing the issue that the poem, while providing us a roadmap in so many ways, doesn't have a strong motivated action hero. And so that was our response to that; that was really the way to bridge the gap between the poem and the video game.

I definitely get the sense that maintaining the stuff with Beatrice... It's a gap we're starting to bridge with games, I think -- having that sort-of romance motivation, character motivation. How did you blend that successfully with this hardcore action game, and keep that tone appropriate? Was that a challenge?

JK: That was the part that worked really well for me. I think everything is a challenge about making the game, but having that clear romantic goal in mind is the backbone of it.

And so, there were a few necessary components -- knowing that Beatrice was a real person, that Dante was a real person, that their biographical story is actually written and interesting -- that gave us a lot of confidence that that was a universal story.

I see him as a guy who is deeply violent, and troubled, and is led down a bad path; but ultimately you've got this one, like a lot of stories we've seen over the years, he does have good in him, and he really does care for this person. He's come back from the wars hoping to forget his past, and forget about everything else, and be with the woman that he loves, and start over, and live a normal life.

And she represents the only source of light for him, and so when he comes home, and finds that she's been brutally murdered, and then her soul is denied going up to Heaven and is pulled into Hell, it sets him off. And he wants to make things right, and I think that provides a strong motivation.

And when you're playing a game, you want to know how that's all going to work out. You know, is he going to save her? What's he going to learn about his past? Why is all this happening? Who killed her? Why is she dead? And the story starts to unfold.

Working with source material that's actually medieval is incredibly rare for games, but also, contemporary sensibilities are quite different. Obviously, that's what led to a lot of the change. Was there anything about the story that you felt couldn't work in this market, or couldn't work in this medium?

JK: Well the poem is incredibly sophisticated. The Divine Comedy is a three part piece that's 14,000 lines, and... there's a lot going on there, and I think the game is clearly taking the top couple of layers of that, but it does not go deep into the more theological, or philosophical, or what-have-you elements of the poem. Ultimately the game is this gateway into Dante's vision of Hell, but it's not meant to replace a reading of the poem, obviously, which is much more sophisticated.

We were pretty deliberate about saying, hey, his description -- the adventure moments that are in the poem about how they descended down this cliff, and they crossed this river, and they encountered this monster, and they talked to the judge of the dead, and all of those kind of moments are what focused on delivering.

A lot of the secondary characters that he stops and talks to -- whether it be historical characters like Emperor Frederic II, or a mythological character, or these Florentines that are mentioned in the poem -- we wanted those to be in the game, but where they might go on and on for three paragraphs about their life story in the poem, they get like a line or two in the game so just get a brief sense of the sins they committed.

Whereas you might mention a hundred of them in the game, we did fewer of them, because ultimately there's only so much talking that you can handle in a game. It's about the action, and the combat, and so forth. It was heavily abridged, and I think that gave us the opportunity to pick and choose the stuff that was more appropriate for the game.

And, you know, it's very medieval. Like, there's some stuff in there about certain sins that are punished, or certain religious figures. There were things that we stayed away from because it wouldn't serve the game to go deep into that stuff.

Do you see a game, or a potential for a game -- not necessarily in this franchise, but a potential for games to explore some of the stuff you guys couldn't tackle? You know, through a different genre, or different storytelling techniques?

JK: Well, that's a big question. I think that there are certain genres -- like the role playing genre -- where there's like more dialogue, and there's more, I think, appetite from gamers for a lot more narrative.

Thematically, I think we're starting to see these stories be more compelling, more emotionally resonant. I think we're getting to the place where the production values, where people are caring about the characters more and more, and the performances of these digital characters are becoming just more and more realistic; and I absolutely think that's going to continue, and that as those production values increase, the sophistication of the stories and the themes is going to continue to grow, for sure.

The roadmap of Visceral Games is concentrated on action, and is focused on the PS3/360 audience. That offers certain creative constraints, I'd imagine, about the kind of avenues you guys go down. Which is not necessarily a negative thing.

JK: No, sure. For sure it does. I think any time you start to develop an expertise in something, it closes off other things. We're not going to suddenly work on an MMO at Visceral, because we don't have the expertise there. And we're really focused on getting better and better at what we do here, so, yeah. The choices we're making about what we're going to get good at definitely close off other avenues, but that's kind-of the nature of the beast, I think.

At the same time, it helps me think about how you make these creative decisions with your project, when the way you look at something in the source material, like Dante's Inferno, and what you can pull from the original poem.

JK: Yeah, exactly. I mean, we set off in the beginning to do the action game version of Dante's Inferno, and that was, you know, that coincided with the decision to use that source material, so that those were one and the same, and that kind-of set off a series of decisions about how to adapt that.

I think it certainly resulted in a looser adaptation, because there's more of a stretch to make there. I'm not sure there's another genre, frankly, that wouldn't have an equally difficult time -- maybe a sort-of old-school adventure game, where you're not really doing a lot of fighting, but you're mostly doing exploration, and reading, and listening to narrative.

You know, I can imagine that might be a little close to the source material, for sure, but that's just not what we do here, and so, again, as a result it's definitely a bit looser take on it.

Typically, games that are based on existing source material, or based on contemporary licenses that are usually struck as licensing deals. Conversely, a lot of Hollywood creators -- like you said, with Francis Ford Coppola -- will go back and reexamine literature, for the sheer sake of the story. Do you foresee that as a wellspring, as games get more mature, more sophisticated?

JK: It might be. I think that the list is probably not as long as people might think, you know. I think what works Dante's Inferno, and I think what works about some of these big works of literature that I can imagine as video games, is when they really do more than just tell a story, but they spin a whole world. They create an alternate reality that feels really believable.

The Lord of the Rings is the ultimate example, where Tolkien just creates this -- he tells a story, but he also creates a universe called Middle Earth that you really believe, with rules, and history, and characters, and structure, and geography. And you open The Lord of the Rings, and you see that map of Middle Earth, and it just so believable.

And, similarly, with Dante's Inferno, there's always that map at the beginning of the book; there's always that schematic of the nine circles of Hell, and the rivers, and the city of Dis, and Lake Cocytus at the bottom; and that map's been drawn over and over throughout the centuries, just because he was so meticulous, and detailed, and specific about his vision of that place.

I think there's not a lot of great works that do that. They may tell a great story, in a sort of average setting, but to tell a great story and to also create a world that's going to live on as a believable alternate reality, that's stuff you want to make a game out of, because you want to recreate that world in 3D, and you want to allow people to go there and explore it. And, you know, that list is not as long, I think, as you might imagine. But I do think there are others out there that could be great starting points for games.

One thing I was really gratified by was your decision to go at 60 frames a second, which I think is pretty essential for a combat action game. Was there trouble getting buy-in on that? Because I find that most developers usually decide to go with 30 for performance reasons. Sixty is a little bit rare, even in this generation.

JK: Yeah. There was a fair amount of angst over that decision. And there was definitely a strong feeling from myself, and my boss, Nick [Earl], the lead engineer, Brad; and the lead designer, Steve. Most of the leads understood why we were doing that... But we, yeah, we had to evangelize that decision.

I think any artist would be lying if they said that they didn't prefer to have more bandwidth. Any milliseconds you give them, they're going to use it on just one more effect, or what-have-you. But what we found is, it's more of a question of willpower than a technology question. And you just have to commit to it, and say, "Here are your budgets. Here's the box we're gonna play in."

Thirty frames is a very challenging box to play in as well, and so once you just get everybody bought into that, then what I've found is that the visual effects artists, and the environment artists, and so forth, they just found ways to make stuff look good at 60, and you just have to hold them to it.

But it's definitely a challenge to stick to that, month in and month out, and I'm really glad we did. I'm totally convinced that it was the right thing to do. And it's not just for gameplay -- in my opinion, it's not as simple as sacrificing visuals for gameplay. I actually think the visuals benefit from the higher framerate.

If you were to take a screenshot, you might be able to point out, like, "okay, here's the compromise you made because of your framerate," but when you sit and play the game, the overall visual experience is enhanced by the fast framerate. So, I can't really decouple graphics from framerate; I don't feel like it's an either/or situation.

I feel like it's great. It's just not that common. I think it's pretty essential for fast-paced games like this, though. Particularly in this genre.

JK: Yeah. I agree. I agree with you, yeah. I don't think it's essential for Dead Space, for instance, which has a different pacing, and it's a different genre. But for Dante's, it was definitely a must.

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About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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