While religion and an allegorical journey through a medieval hell remain the central themes of the video game adaption of Dante's Inferno, an exploration of love and lust and what separates the two is nearly as important in the game.
In both works, Dante Alighieri comes across different relationships in hell that ended poorly, from the lustful Cleopatra and Mark Antony, to the adulterous Francesca and Paolo; even Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships, has her spot in hell.
But in transforming the 14th century poem into a mainstream Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 title, developer Visceral Games overlaid a straightforward tale of love lost and a woman in distress upon the original work's gruesome descriptions of hell's seven circles.
In the video game, Alighieri finds his way into hell not while contemplating suicide, but in search for the soul of Beatrice Portinari, Alighieri's real-world love, who in the game he finds dead upon his return from the crusades.
"Love is very much the primary motivation for the hero," said executive producer Jonathan Knight. "He is morally bankrupt in so many ways, he has made a slew of bad choices. His love for Beatrice is possibly the only good he now finds within himself, and it's what guides him on his quest. Without her, he is nothing."
Beatrice, gamers discover early on, has given her soul to Satan, depicted through most of the game as shifting gray smoke in the form of a nude man. And it is through Dante's journey into hell, his visits to each of the underworld's representations of seven carnal sins, that the poet warrior learns how his love came to hell and what part he had in her fall.
The outcome of this secondary tale, told through animated flashbacks and conversations in hell with his forever fleeing Beatrice and Satan, paints a picture of the positive side of love: Romance, measured self-sacrifice, commitment and loyalty.
But Dante's journeys, and the decisions he made that lead to Beatrice's sacrifice, give gamers a glimpse of love's negative side.
The game's strongest cautionary tales about misguided love seem to be drawn from the classic poem and its depictions of the ring of hell destined for the lustful.
As the hero wanders into this level of the game the architecture shifts from the hellish to blatant sexual imagery. Lust's level is festooned with phallic columns and lewd carvings. The manifestation of this sin is depicted by lascivious female demons who mesmerize with red clouds that can envelope and hypnotize the hero, and attack with vulgar hip-thrusts.
Lust's final gate keeper, the level's "boss" in video game parlance, is a building-sized, topless Cleopatra, whose obscene attacks end only after she calls upon her fallen lover Mark Antony to take out Alighieri.
Antony is depicted as an absurdly broad-shouldered warrior, whose armor includes golden hands that tear the flesh away from the roman warrior's eyes, blinding him.
While not subtle, these manifestations of the worst bits of love do a good job of underscoring the subtleties of the game's secondary Beatrice plot, which deals with many of the same problems of love.
"We tried to tell a personal story of love, rescue, betrayal, and redemption," Knight said. "And in doing so, I suppose we naturally hit on the ups and downs of Dante's relationship to Beatrice and his family."
Ultimately the story of Dante's Inferno becomes less about a cautionary journey through hell and more of a traditional tale of personal redemption, of love lost and the fight to regain it.
Despite the sharp break from the source material that entails, Knight argues that the love story is fitting with Alighieri's life and his unrequited love for Portinari.
"I honestly don't believe The Divine Comedy would have been as impactful as it was, if not for Beatrice and her role – both in the poem as his spiritual/romantic/feminine ideal, and also in real life as his muse," Knight said. "She (along with Virgil) elevates the poem to something more than a treatise by Thomas Aquinas, which it might have otherwise been. She is the preamble to medieval courtly love.
"Now obviously we have done the 'action game' version of that story, but it's very much in the spirit of the real Dante story. "
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