Other People’s Stories: An Examination of Gaming’s Literary Adaptations «
In Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno,” the epic poet Virgil leads the author down the nine circles of hell, unveiling the tortures and terrors that await sinners in the afterlife. In EA’s Dante’s Inferno, an angry crusader with the poet’s name kicks ass through nine circles of hell in pursuit of his abducted love, with a ghostly Virgil reciting 14th-century poetry to him. Executive Producer Jonathan Knight maintains that this adaptation is faithful to the spirit of the original poem.
“The game’s story starts as this heroic rescue mission… but as the plot unfolds, it because clear that he is on a mission of redemption, that [Dante’s true love] Beatrice has been condemned because of Dante’s sins.” Knight sees parallels between the poet/character’s mission of understanding through “The Divine Comedy” (“Inferno” is part one of the trilogy) and his action character’s violent trek to understand himself.
“The guiding principle was that Hell is about humanity. It is made up of people, and that’s what separates it from [“The Lord of the Rings'”] Mordor as a setting.”
Knight is so convinced by the legitimacy of his controversial adaptation that he wrote the introduction to a Random House republishing of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1882 translation of “Inferno,” an edition that includes images from the game and color plates of artistic impressions depicting Dante’s Hell. Knight’s introduction is an eloquent plea for the right and duty of creators to re-imagine and revisit classic settings in original (and sometimes shocking) ways.
Setting the Stage
It’s commonplace to hear people say that the movie is never as good as the book — see 2009’s film adaptation of “The Road” for exhibit A. But, “The Lord of the Rings” aside, few books have established themselves in the gaming world, and you can make a convincing case that the film version of Tolkien’s magnum opus is more responsible for its recent success in games than the books (of course, Tolkien is the grandfather of all fantasy literature and therefore fantasy games, but that’s a degree of separation we’ll put aside for now). Though works as diverse as “Discworld” and “The Ring Cycle” have been translated to interactive entertainment, they are still relatively rare.
The reason for the disparity is clear: Movies are adapted to (and from) games because they share a visual idiom, and those most-adapted are the action fare that dominates various gaming platforms. Going from literature to a game means you have to decide how to translate text descriptions into gameplay and decide what to do with character and dialog — things whose importance varies with each genre and is debated within the gaming community.
So it’s no surprise that it was the striking images of Hell as imagined by Dante that made it the perfect setting for an action/adventure game. The more vivid the description, the easier it is to conceive of it as a game location. And Dante’s Hell has other features that make it conducive to gameplay.
“It’s akin to Middle-earth,” Knight says. “You open ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ and there’s always that map. It’s the same thing with ‘The Divine Comedy.’ Hell has a very specific geography, and [here’s] the culmination of centuries of thought on what the afterlife looks like.”
“[Alighieri] even slots in boss monsters for every circle,” Knight exclaims. All the guardians that the poet puts in the path of his wandering duo are transformed by EA into creatures that must be defeated if Action Dante wants to descend. Knight notes that the poem is, in many ways, laid out like a game: Levels must be traversed in order, and Virgil and Dante overcome myriad challenges, even if they need divine help sometimes. The setting is more game-like than most other poems. One EA employee was even tasked with noting “adventure moments” in the original text (i.e., “here’s where they turn left”).
“The ideas are so big,” Knight notes. “I think the creative team had more fun on this game than on any other they’ve worked on. More bodies. More torment. More eyeballs. More teeth.”
Much of the controversy over EA’s adaptation is rooted in its transformation of one of Western literature’s canonical texts — a religious and political testament of the power of God’s anger and (in the rest of “The Divine Comedy”) love — into a bloody slasher game. Ukrainian developer Neocore experienced less of an uproar when it turned Arthurian myth into a strategy/role-playing game that, it could be argued, also tinkered with why those stories have such enduring power.
King Arthur: The Role-Playing Wargame is a Total War-esque game with adventure elements. You raise armies and conquer territories, all the while recruiting legendary knights and completing quests via a Choose Your Own Adventure-style dialog menu. The Arthurian themes of doomed perfection and the temporary nature of everything man-made sometimes feel lost. Neocore’s Viktor Juhasz admits that the importance of player agency inspired some changes.
“I certainly hope that King Arthur evokes the important themes of the Arthurian mythology, the tales of chivalry, the importance of bringing peace to a war-torn land, accomplishing seemingly impossible feats, exploring the unknowns, or the fight against otherworldly darkness,” Juhasz explains. “In the case of [our game], where you can choose radically different pathways to reach the final goal, we had to keep in mind the need for game balance; in the Arthurian mythology, for example, rightful, noble heroes mostly triumph over the bad guys… but here, you can be the tyrant king, so that side should be equal to the rightful knights.”
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