Friday, August 20, 2010

Angel is a Centerfold: An Infernal Walkthrough

 The famous scene when Dante loses his compassion for the Damned and starts pummeling them.

So, I'm doing our reading group on Dante's Inferno and, as usual, for the sake of a visual element when I write about the week's reading, I seek out images to go with my posts.  I usually try to go with public domain images which, as most of you know, usually fall in line with my sensibilities anyway as "public domain" in this case usually means visual art excellent enough to have endured the passage of time.  In the searches for this text, however, I grow increasingly depressed to find that at present about 95% of images associated with Dante's Inferno have to do with a video game.  And not just any video game.

I looked up information on the game (so you don't have to.)  The Dante's Inferno video game reminds me very much of an experimental music project I once did of "covering" songs I'd never heard before and had only had described to me in the vaguest of terms.  The cream was a "cover" of One Tin Soldier, my version mainly being about a tin soldier walking into a time vortex controlled by actor Red Buttons while desperately trying to ride off into the sun which was a giant glowing face of Jonathan Winters.  The main difference being, now that I've heard it, I still think mine was better than the original One Tin Soldier.

The video game does seem to have a main character named Dante travelling through Hell, a character named Virgil, a character named Beatrice, and a few other similarities like Cerberus and some of the other important figures in the Infernal regions.  The similarities to the original seem to end there.  It's a game about a guy who died in the Crusades of all things, who goes through Hell fighting Hell-Critters to try to get his love Beatrice away from Satan or some such nonsense.  It does get much worse.  The behavior of the creators of the game in interviews and at Conventions suggest they are very likely better acquainted with gross out films and cartoons about children who swear than they are with classical literature.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have not played the game and have no intention of ever seeking it out.  As I mentioned, I gained the information I require to judge the merits of the game through word of mouth by those who have played it, but also through the self-damning words of the game's creators. Loath as I am to give more of a platform to this sort of thing, it occurs to me that some readers may think I am overstating or succumbing to some Puritanical/Classicist squeamishness.  I am not.  I almost linked to a rather graphic (as it were) example from the video game, but decided against it.  If anyone is adamant that I produce the corpse, I will, but otherwise please, for the sake of maintaining some decorum, believe me when I say that the creators of the game have taken great pains to disrespect the piece.

Trying to fit the theme into the box of a "fighting things" video game yields a legion of websites discussing the video game and, to the great revulsion to classicists everywhere, seriously bandying around phrases like this one in discussing how one might best play the game:
"Following the Holy path is the way to create a character who is far more defensible and able to survive. He attains two spells that will aid him on this route: Divine Armor and Martyrdom."
The game is to the actual Inferno by Dante Alighieri what toga parties are to ancient Roman civilization.  It is like going to the National Treasure movies for American History.  Part of what's so unfortunate about it is that the idea of a visualization of the source material could very well sound like a good idea if it were, you know, a skillful and accurate representation of the source material.  

Now, I do want to make myself clear.  I am not making some turgid "purity in art" argument (at least, not at the moment.)  I think that video games could probably be high art (I wouldn't know.  More on that in a moment.)  Nor am I saying that great art can't be made of other things.  Great art can be made out of pre-existing art or entertainment which far surpasses the source material in aspiration and quality.  Just yesterday, I stumbled upon this wonderful, beautiful ambient piece created simply by slowing a Justin Bieber song down to 8 times slower than its original speed.  And, of course, I'm not making an argument that we can't make great new art out of other great art and I'm certainly not saying we shouldn't communicate with the arts we experience.  There are many many examples of great art being created out of existing, well known art.  A few examples: O Brother, Where Art Thou, jazz, almost every play by Shakespeare, a great deal of opera, John Gardner's Grendel, the sort of thing Neil Gaiman writes, the bulk of Warhol's work, and the list goes on and on.  The Dante's Inferno video game has nothing to do with any of this.

Laurie and I were talking about rhetoric this afternoon and how it was viewed as a bad thing by Plato.  Now we know it is a useful tool and, indeed, something every writer (or even every communicator, which is just about everyone) needs to employ.  Of course, we can find many examples of rhetoric being used to wicked purposes or toward disingenuous ends.  Rhetoric in and of itself is neutral.  I believe that most formats and/or tools are.  I don't think the tools are wicked, but so often we find that those who wield them are.  I would refer you to Newton Minnow's wonderful "Television is a Vast Wasteland" Speech, delivered to the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961, and a speech which had a tremendous influence on me.  If you've never heard it before, you should.

I remember when Twitter first began, so often I would hear people talk about how Twitter was so vapid.  Soon after getting my own Twitter account, my mother went into the emergency room (and was, in fact, instructed at one point to say her goodbyes.)  I was able to keep everyone I knew updated instantly (as well as giving me something positive to do and tethering me to a large world outside of an ER and then ICU waiting room.)  I realized that Twitter is not vapid in and of itself.  Certainly there are some (occasionally me I'm sure) who use the tool to vapid ends, but the form is innocent of bad qualities.  I would suspect that the same is true of video games. 

I say all of this to say that I know very little about video games and I know that snobbish types like me tend to save up their most powerful snorts for the subject of video games.  I do not have that strong of an opinion on the medium itself.  As I mentioned above, this is not a direct critique of the video game itself, this is merely the thoughts of a Classicist on the existence of the Dante's Inferno video game as it exists.  I have never owned an entertainment gaming system (my folks did provide us with educational ones when we were children.  I can't tell you how many times in my life I've watched a pixelated covered wagon fail to successfully ford a river) and I currently have no video games installed on my computer.  It's not a qualitative judgment on my part.  It's just not a habit I've ever cultivated and I should infinitely prefer a book.  I do see examples of stunningly beautiful games (I'll even go so far as to say the Dante's Inferno game screen caps I've uncovered are striking, but I'm probably not the best judge.  Having no coding skill and little experience with high end video game graphics, I'm easily impressed.)  I also know the arguments that video games boost dexterity, strategy, and brain function.  They engage the player in their free time much more than, say, television does, by having them interact with their entertainment.  In doing so, they may even be one of the more creative entertainment outlets.

I'm not here to sing the praises of or deliver indictments towards video games.  I think taking the hard line on either of those points of view fails to fully grasp the many aspects of the issue.  I think what I really come down to is that a video game of Dante's Inferno could have been a really great work if it had been properly executed. 

Why are we making this?  Dante Alighieri wrote his Divine Comedy to explore theological concepts, make social and political commentary, to talk about existence and, yes, on one level to offer some comfort over morality (which becomes evident in the final installment of the Divine Comedy.)  Sometimes a person creates a work because they have something to say, sometimes because they just want to tell a story or evoke an emotion or make the world a more beautiful place (or, on the opposite side, to illustrate some of the uglier sides of existence.)  The creators of this video game, somewhat by their own admission and somewhat by way of accusations leveled by people who understand video games far better than I do, made the game: 1) to make some really gross images, 2) shock people with the use of a great work of art in this manner, and 3) apparently try to cash in on the raging success of a similar video game called God of War (which everyone I've read who is in the know in the video game world seems to instantly recognize this.  I assume the similarities are fairly obvious and crass.)  Those last two are key.  It would seem that there was a much more popular game based on Greek mythology and with such a brazen and over-hyped adaptation of Inferno they may have succeeded in cashing in on some of the success of that other game.  And they would have gotten away with it if it weren't for you pesky kids.

So, in short, I am saying the issue is a two-pronged pitchfork.  Put simply, the game creators exhibit almost no respect for the original material and, even worse, they fail to make something beautiful/amazing/important on its own.  And then they hype it and slap a $40 price tag on it.

It is my belief that just because humans can do something doesn't necessarily mean that we should.  But ultimately, this brings me back to a point I often find myself faced with.  At every step, we have choice as individuals and, collectively, as a society.  We could seek to do good, work together, treat one another as equals, make sure no one lacks anything, love one another, eradicate loneliness, end war forever, as Newton Minnow says, work toward the "public interest," and so forth.  But we don't.  Faced with cotton candy or a nourishing meal, we take the cotton candy.  Although I do find hope in the financial failure of the Dante's Inferno video game.  I guess I've not abandoned all hope after all. 

We can also take a stand with our economic vote and simply not buy crap which sends a message that vendors would do well to not offer crap if they want to keep making money.

I think that, in spite of the title of this game, an actual video game version of Dante's Divine Comedy has yet to be made.  It is my earnest hope that no one ever takes steps of remedy that void.

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