The Accidental PreacherS

Traditionally, historically, video games and religion don't mix.

Make a game with strong religious context that deals seriously with the issues and you're often left with something heavy-handed, preachy and self-righteous.

Make a strong video game that is fun to play that also happens to include religion and often you're left with something distasteful.

But somehow, when Visceral Games created an action adventure game that has players exploring hell, banishing demons and forsaking the wicked as Italian poet Dante Alighieri, they managed to make a relatively theologically sound game that is engrossing, fun to play and, seemingly without religious critics.

Ironically, Visceral Game's initial concept for Dante's Inferno wasn't meant to really explore the religious aspects of the source material: The first part of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, a deeply religious work that describes the soul's journey to God and helped to cement the western view of hell.

Instead, the idea was to use the visceral descriptions of a hell as a backdrop for a button-mashing action adventure game, not to create a religious title, said Zach Mumbach, associate producer for Dante's Inferno.

"The initial goal was to create a game based in this medieval hell," he said. "We had this concept that we wanted to make a game about hell, but we were naive about how much we were going to get into religious issues."

As Visceral Games worked to craft a story loosely based on Dante's Inferno, planning only to use the epic poem as a backdrop, an increasing amount of the Divine Comedy's religious and allegorical nature slowly seeped into the video game apparently unnoticed by the team.

When they were finished, nearly two years after pitching the idea to Electronic Arts, the team realized that what they had created was almost a morality play.

As with the poem, Virgil serves as the guide in the game. Before entering each ring of hell, Virgil explains what sins were committed to land the demons and lost souls there. While playing, gamers learn that if you're not baptized, if you're lustful, gluttonous, greedy, angry, commit heresy, violence, fraud, or treachery than there's a good chance you're going to hell.

Despite the innate controversy that surrounds crafting a game that essentially preaches about the dangers of immoral behavior, publisher Electronic Arts stayed completely out of the way of the game's developers, Mumbach said.

That doesn't mean that Visceral didn't censor themselves though.

For instance, in the poem, Mohammad serves as one of the cornerstones of the ring of hell dedicated to fraud. But he didn't make the cut for the video game.

"There are things in the poem we didn't want to deal with, like Mohammad," Mumbach said. "Clearly we are not going to touch that, we're not trying to upset people."

That didn't stop the team, though, from building one of the central gameplay mechanics around the concept of sin and punishment. During his journey through hell, the player controlled Dante gets to choose whether to punish or absolve the sinners he comes across, battles and defeats.

It was this concept of sin and punishment that first attracted the developers to the idea of a game set in hell, Mumbach said.

"I don't think we are trying to hand out moral lessons here," he said, "but I think the basic thing we're trying to say is that people should be morally good."

And Visceral Games doesn't appear to be done with the notion of blending religion and literature with gaming. Inferno ends with Dante stepping out onto the precipice of the Mountain of Purgatory, the starting point of the second part of the Divine Comedy.

Mumbach declined to say if the team was working on Dante's Purgatorio as a game, but it certainly appears they are.

More interesting, though, is the notion that that second game may blends two great works of literature in its examination of christian ideals.

While Dante's Inferno starts very much in the realm of the first part of the Divine Comedy, the descent into hell, and the need for stronger plot devices, slowly shifted the work from an homage to Dante Alighieri's works to something more reminiscent of English poet John Milton and Paradise Lost.

By the time the player reaches the final conflict of the game, Satan is the fully-realized product of Milton rather than Alighieri.

To turn Dante's Purgatorio into an action game the developers would likely have to lean even more on Milton and the stories told in both Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, something that the team is rumored to have already starting doing.

Despite the heavy religious overtones of their game, the inescapable moralizing of what can lead a person to eternal damnation, Visceral Games still says that what they created wasn't a religious game.

"We are a video game first that happens to deal with religious subjects," Mumbach said. "Whether you believe the bible or not, it is a hell of a read. The mythology is entertaining. There are some great, great stories there."

And, he adds, games like Dante's Inferno could make it easier for more game developers to explore those ideas.

"Hopefully Dante's Inferno getting out there and doing religious stuff and not getting backlash will open it up to other people," he said. "There is so much in religion that is fascinating from a story-teller's point of view."

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