With its elaborate cataloguing of every layer of hell, purgatory, and heaven, Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy remains a popular touchstone 800 years after its writing. The text has inspired artists in many different media. Among the most recognizable of homages are a series of woodcut engravings done in 1861 by French artist Gustave Doré. Famous from an early age for being both gifted and prodigious, he created a formidable body of work in his lifetime, including illustrations for novels, fairytales, and the Bible. His work on all three books of The Divine Comedy was made into woodblock engravings that were so impactful, they’ve become nearly inseparable from Dante’s original text. Doré’s stark, monochromatic vision of hell is subdued but oppressive, displaying a masterful grasp of subtle lights and darks.
Electronic Arts’ 2010 video game adaptation, Dante’s Inferno, has none of that. The success of Sony’s God Of War series, where a sentient grimace methodically disembowels the Greek pantheon, propelled EA to create its own entry in the unlikable-protagonist-murdering-his-way-through-mythology genre. As a plus, the soft theology of The Divine Comedy also benefits from a structure that complements video game design in fundamental ways: You travel down nine levels of demon-infested hell until you reach the biggest bad guy, Satan. However, the format does require tweaking to turn the passive persona of the poem’s Dante into a steroidal bruiser. The game could not be more tonally opposed to Doré’s pensive compositions. Dante’s Inferno is a first year seminary student on PCP barreling through a county-fair haunted house—all neon and raw sensation.
This is not a comparison meant to demonstrate EA’s mercenary contempt for classic literature by pitting the game’s art direction against Doré’s singular genius. It’s an exploration of two very different depictions of Dante’s text. In some ways, the differences aren’t so vast. The original text isn’t strictly high-minded, and Doré took exceptional care in showing the gruesome horrors awaiting those who fall short of God’s grace. His renderings of a decapitated man addressing Dante and Virgil with his own severed head held aloft like a lantern and writhing bodies consumed by serpents belong to a long legacy of using the ostensible morality of religious messages as an acceptable, sanctified way to provide the audience a prurient thrill.
Doré spent his lifetime vocally wracked with self-loathing after failing to find success as a painter and sculptor. He was famous for his illustration, which was considered a base and commercial pursuit. If anyone working for EA felt equally wracked over the ongoing debate about whether video games are art, they seem content to have let a fistfight with a ludicrously well endowed Lucifer articulate their stance.
Doré’s depiction of Dante appears modeled after a portrait by the Renaissance painter Botticelli. He bears a long, thin face with a severely downturned mouth and wears a simple cap ringed by laurel leaves. To become the main character in an action game, Dante had to be weaponized. No longer a scholar, he is imagined as a Templar Of The Third Crusades. Square-jawed and blunt-featured, the author’s skullcap is replaced with a chain mail coif, and the laurel leaves of learning are transformed into a crown of jutting spear points. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but only if that pen is 4 feet long and bristling with spikes.
Doré demonstrates how a mere mortal would flinch when confronted with the torments of hell. His Dante is a slight figure, often depicted in a protective crouch or finding safety in the folds of Virgil’s robes. Conversely, video game Dante runs screaming through the nine layers of perdition, swatting away devils with Death’s own scythe. His every movement is straining, lunging musculature.
There is a term—“abominable fancy”—that describes the belief that a reward for the souls who enter paradise is the gift of looking down from heaven in amusement at the souls being punished in hell. Dante did one better. He placed his real-life enemies in hell and wrote out their punishments. At one point in Dante’s travels, he must cross the River Styx where the wrathful are punished. Doré drew them as turbulent waves rocking across the river’s surface in eternal, directionless rage. One man reaches onto the boat, only to be cast off by Virgil as Dante looks on, frightened and pitying. The man Virgil throws from the boat is Filippo Argenti, one Dante’s political opponents.
In the game, Dante will come across sinners who he can either punish or absolve to gain power. Game Dante meets Filippo as well, but he is not nearly as humble in his reaction. Dante grabs the man by the neck, his absolution looking more like Batman dispensing vigilante justice than a fellow lost soul offering mercy. In this instance, the power fantasy of the game succeeds in creating emotional honesty that’s lacking in Doré’s otherwise beautiful depiction. If you’re the author who places someone in hell, being the macho judicator of their fate is actually less gross than sadly shaking your head, full of false pity over the wretched fate you have scripted.
More than any other element of his illustrations for Inferno, Doré’s hell feels the most removed from modern sensibilities. The landscape Dante’s characters inhabit looks uninviting with its rocky, sterile expanses, but it’s nothing as dramatic as you’d expect the evilest place in the universe. Doré’s hell is built around the 19th century concept of the sublime landscape, an aesthetic principle that sees nature as a wild, untamed place. It is meant to convey the limit of man’s ability to completely dominate the ferocity of his environment. Peaks are higher and cliff sides more steep; rivers foam with the violence of their current. It all seems impossibly mild now. Our contemporary romanticizing of nature makes it difficult to find menace in the natural environment. The inherent danger of simply being outside had much greater resonance in an era where a person could die horribly while walking to the outhouse at night.
This relatively unassuming depiction of Doré’s hell ensures the focus stays on the suffering of the sinners and the artist’s command of human anatomy. Every torture is an opportunity to render the human form in a dramatic range of contortions. His illustration of the devil flogging panderers shows the sinners wildly grasping at their flayed backs and ineffectually scrambling up the hillside to escape the whip. In the Forest Of Suicides, the souls have atrophied into twisted tree forms that harpies perch upon. Instead of an elaborate depiction of hell itself, Doré relies on these exaggerated postures to communicate the horror of eternal punishment.
Hell in EA’s Dante’s Inferno is a dense, teeming environment. At its best, the game’s vision of hell is more in the style of Hieronymus Bosch or Auguste Rodin’s “Gates Of Hell,” where the prominent figure is the landscape. Rodin’s piece is even directly used as the game’s entrance to the underworld. Both of these classical influences are, like everything in the game, filtered through the sensibility of a teenage boy. Nothing is mundane or understated; it all has to be badass. You can’t even open a door without eviscerating the demon that grows from the front.
Periodically throughout the levels, the player glimpses large figures jutting from the terrain, contorted in agony or draped over pathways. The most dramatic implementations of human form as architecture are in Gluttony, the entirety of which is a tumorous lump of teeth and eyes, and Lust, where the level is a massive purple phallus Dante must scale. More often, though, Dante is running through a series of uniform corridors decorated with a few half-hearted upside-down crosses and wailing faces—sitting there like the requisite pentagram posters hanging in a teenage metal head’s bedroom.
Dante’s journey culminates in the deepest ring of hell, Judecca. There, Satan lay trapped, frozen up to his waist in the ice of Lake Cocytus. In the poem, Lucifer is not the master of hell, but a slobbering, idiot beast suffering his own eternal torment alongside the other sinners. He has three faces dripping with bloody foam, each mouth gnashing a sinner for eternity. His four massive wings do nothing but beat a frozen wind across the desolate wastes, further tormenting the unfortunate souls locked in the ice.
Doré’s Satan is more brooding than tumultuous. The composition is stark and imparts a sadness capable of stirring sympathy for even this creature. In the foreground, a few souls are dashed against the shattered ice. In the middle ground, Dante and Virgil look on Satan, who rests alone across the distance of the lake. It creates an oppressive desolation that accentuates Lucifer’s greatest punishment: his complete isolation. Furrow-browed, Lucifer idly chews on Judas, a pastime that seems driven not by diabolical madness but the fact that he has nothing better to do.
Initially, the game’s Satan follows the description of the original text. A giant with three heads and batwings blooming from every surface, it hammers at you with massive fists. But halfway into your battle, Lucifer splits himself open at the belly with his own claws and a little Lucifer steps out. Apparently, the Devil rides around in a giant Satan like he’s piloting a robot in a Japanese anime—an Immobile Suit Gundamned. Little Lucifer monologues with Dante for a while before he is defeated and locked away again inside his giant roadside attraction form.
The game’s depiction of Lucifer as a prisoner inside a larger, uglier Lucifer is a good encapsulation of its overall aesthetic. It’s weird but not weird enough, stopping short of being so off the rails as to really work. If the decision is made to turn a centuries-old theological treatise/revenge-porn diary into a derivative action game, the justification for doing so rests entirely in the execution. In a few gloriously absurd places, EA’s Dante’s Inferno delivers on the promise made by its questionable thesis. But overall, it has the somewhat tepid delivery of a game that lacks the passion of conviction.
Perhaps time will be kind to EA’s foray into totally extreme faith-based evisceration. Whatever gulf Doré felt distanced his illustrations from fine art is a distinction that has eroded away over the past 150 years. His work is now as well regarded as the masters he envied. Perhaps, 100 years from now, I can look forward to my great-granddaughter downloading her art history dissertation on that classic video game masterpiece, Dante’s Inferno, into my brain jar.