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Xbox's 'Dante's Inferno' is a love story, sorta

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, February 14, 2010; G01

After this blizzard-y past week, I'd say there's never been a better time for Washingtonians to fire up the Xbox and pay an early visit to the warm and toasty depths of hell, as featured in a new videogame from Electronic Arts. And Valentine's Day, after all, is all the more reason to take a look at this epic title, called "Dante's Inferno," which is also a love story.

In the game's story, Dante -- a soldier with a checkered past -- travels to the underworld to save his gal, Beatrice, who has been swept away by Satan as punishment for Dante's sins. To rescue his damsel, Dante goes to hell, and all of its nine concentric circles, where he meets a rogue's gallery of monsters and ancient historical figures, all spending an eternity of punishment in a manner befitting their earthly sins. Sometimes, Dante has the opportunity to condemn them; sometimes he absolves them. Either way he racks up points that give him powerful new moves for his chief weapons: A scythe and a cross.

If this sounds . . . sort of familiar, that's because the game is based loosely on the first part of Dante Alligheri's 700-year-old poem, "The Divine Comedy," though even the dimmest of former liberal arts majors will grasp that something's a little off here. Did the poem really feature a lot of hack-and-slash action, complete with killer boss levels? Did I buy the wrong translation?

As in the poem, the poet Virgil is your guide, a ghostly apparition who appears now and then to explain the road ahead, in words directly translated from the original work. Dante's circles of hell, as it turns out, provide a more than decent structure for a videogame.

Lust? You got it. Keep the kids out of the room during the battles with the giant Cleopatra monster and her topless minions. (This title is rated "M," for "Mature," and definitely not intended for children.)

Gluttony? Oh, absolutely. The level is packed with large-mouthed monsters that might have stepped out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

The game's images are stunning, though there's no avoiding the fact that the tools at Dante's disposal during this action-packed adventure come off a bit silly. Make the right moves when fighting the hordes, and Dante's "Redemption Meter" fills, giving him an extra burst of power in his attacks. If that doesn't work, hit another button combination to trigger "Sacred Justice," a blast that sends your attackers flying into the air. Monty Python's "holy hand grenade" wouldn't seem out of place in this arsenal.

As videogames, with their increasing complexity and visual power, develop higher ambitions to emotionally connect with audiences, it's perhaps natural that this industry might sometimes turn to the classics as potential source material in the same way that Hollywood sometimes does. But don't brace yourself for a wave of new versions of the Great Books canon just yet, says Jonathan Knight, the game's executive producer.

"There are fewer literary works that make sense than you might guess," said Knight, who writes in an introduction to a new edition of "Dante's Inferno," published for the game's fans, that he originally considered Macbeth as possible fodder for a videogame. Dante accomplished a rare feat with the creation of a textured and complex virtual world in his poem -- and that world is the main star of this title. "It's not the story we're taking, we're taking the universe he created," Knight said.

Knight says that the game is primarily intended as a piece of entertainment, though he regularly reads notes from fans at the game's Facebook page who say they picked up the poem as a result of the game. "The game is a gateway," he said. "If you want to learn more about the poem, the game introduces you to Dante. If you want to just have a good time killing demons, you can do that, too. I think it's kind of a win-win."

Ever since the poem was published, people have used state-of-the-art technology to bring Dante's world to life, said Frank Ambrosio, an associate professor at Georgetown University's philosophy department. It's a tradition that dates to the illustrated manuscripts created during the work's earliest days. Ambrosio himself has employed technology to help bring Dante to life for modern readers with an online project parked at Georgetown's Web site, called "My Dante," designed to let users read "The Divine Comedy" online while keeping a personal journal of their thought.

I was able to get Electronic Arts to send Ambrosio a video disc containing the game's cinematic moments, in order to get his take on this version of Dante's tale.

The story, Ambrosio said, after taking a look, isn't what Dante wrote by any stretch of the imagination and is more a mishmash of four or five stories, pulling from sources ranging from Milton to Francis Ford Coppola's version of "Dracula."

In dealing with Dante's poem, the game's creators threw out some parts, invented others and turned some important details of Dante's quest upside down. It almost goes without saying that some of the poem's most important messages didn't survive the videogame treatment. And on top of all that, Dante's new backstory in the game doesn't exactly seem to add up, in Ambrosio's estimation.

But that's not to say he didn't like it. Actually, he was kind of impressed.

"It's not based on some superficial glance at a synopsis of the story," he said. "Somebody spent a lot of time getting to know what's in 'Dante's Inferno.' "

Although the professor said that he found the game's story to be "interesting, imaginative and enjoyable," he also expressed mild concern that players might come away from the game with an impression that the poem is some sort of simplistic cartoon.

"It's not like the game is good or bad in itself," Ambrosio said. "It's both, potentially. Which is why I think it's fascinating."

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