Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Still in Canto V, but now the first circle of hell. Lust. Let the weirdness begin (or continue). There’s a wonderful visual of the stormy whirlwind that seems to echo very much the way William Blake depicted it. Actually, these sort of nude yet anatomically neutered images seem to be the way everyone in video game Hell are depicted; they remind me, too, of Rodin’s drawings, especially those he did to illustrate Baudelaire, but even his Dante-inspired ones.

Lust seems a strange circle, partly because video-game-Dante’s big sin is one of lust (i.e., first having premarital sex with Beatrice, then breaking his vow that he would be faithful to her by having his way with one of the young, attractive, female townspeople imprisoned under his watch during the crusade—and interesting that one gets the sense from the various bits of dialogue during the game’s non-playing scenes that everything would have been okay if Dante just hadn’t have strayed, that the promise to be faithful would have been, sin-wise, an acceptable common-law-ish arrangement vis-à-vis a marriage vow [yes, it’s a big paradox to think that a common law commitment would have bearing on one’s eternal soul; maybe that’s an imposition of 21st century mores on these olden times]).

Lust is also a strange video game circle because before whatever force it is that arouses (oops, bad word choice) the storm does so, a giant phallic tower thrusts (oops, again) up into the air for you to ascend. It’s hard (um…) to get into it, because it involves deflecting and redirecting these lightning bolts. But you do get in eventually and have to start battle. First with some temptresses. These things are weird. Their “weapon” seems to involve these mostly nude demonesses thrusting their pelvises at you and then something shooting out. I was too busy pressing buttons trying to defend my video game Dante man to pay too close attention, but I first thought they were giant phalluses. Upon reflection, it seems more like they’re unrolling their uteruses from their bodies (!?) at you like one of those little party horn things. No, not vuvuzelas, which by now may have their own circle in Hell, but these things called--oh my, considering--"blow outs." Okay.

Eventually it’s a full out battle with Cleopatra, who is a giant. A giant who—wait for it, you’re not going to believe this one—shoots those little unbaptized babies with knives for hands out of her nipples at you. Huh? I’ve read and re-read Cantos IV and V. Nothing about that in there. Dante describes some of the lusty ones—Semiramis and Dido—then (again in Pinsky’s translation), “After her comes lewd / And wanton Cleopatra.” End of sentence, end of Cleopatra. The Italian is “poi e Cleopatra lussuriosa.” Friends who know Italian: does that translate into something about shooting souls from Limbo out of the nipples? Or maybe I need to do some Cleopatra research--perhaps something historical is being blended with the poem here? (Maybe someone on a tour of London or NY's Central Park misheard "Cleopatra's Needle"? Side note: Let me recommend you not do a google search on "Cleopatra's Nipple." Really.) And why are these babies in Hell, not in Limbo? For a game based on a system of Hell in which everything (and everyone) is rigorously arranged, this seems pretty theologically haphazard and askew.

Also askew is the whole battle with Cleo. You fight her, then she sends Marc Antony after you. He’s a big, bruising guy (think of a Roman centurion with extra armor and a lifetime supply of creams, clears, and pills from BALCO), and after you defeat him (even if it takes a few video game Dante man lives to do so), Cleo gets all weepy at losing him. So, wait, when you’re an action hero poet in Hell, you fight some bad guys and can absolve or punish them, you find some just cowering along the way and can absolve or punish, and you fight some and end up just flat out killing them. Even though they’re already dead. Cleo seems genuinely sad that she loses him, that she loses out on an eternity in Lust with him. Shouldn’t she want absolution and heaven? Or is Lust just a swinging good time of a whirlwind of a circle of Hell? It’s not like the upcoming circle for Heresy, where everyone’s closed up in their crypts forever. Or the violent in boiling blood. No, it’s a giant stone penis shooting her up into a whirlwind¬—and that’s good? Apparently it is until Dante kills her lover and then, while pinning her down beneath his body, stabs her with a very phallic thrust of his sword. Ah, Lust….

So, there’s a circle coming up for the violent. But to get there (and beyond to save Beatrice) you’ve got to be violent? Didn’t Dante get the memo earlier that the bishop was lying to them when he said all Crusaders were given indulgences because their cause was holy? Shouldn’t the ghostly blue buffed out Virgil tell Dante to stop the violence. Dante’s (the poet’s, that is) Virgil led Dante through Hell without violence, why can’t this one?

Because then there’s no action hero. Then there’s no game. Then there’s just a movie. Or maybe a ride you sort of participate in, like It’s a Small World at Disney, where Dante goes along at someone else’s pace with a soundtrack guiding him. But without saccharine songs; instead, there’s Cereberus’s doglike barking at damned gluttons.

Friday, July 16, 2010


Canto V: After passing through Limbo, Dante encounters Minos, who hears the sins of those going to Hell and indicates which circle they will spend eternity in by wrapping his tail around the sinner a number of times corresponding to the level to which the shade will descend. Poetically, Minos is interesting because this Cretan King was the judge of the dead in Hades; Dante has placed his pre-Christian figure (as he does in so much of his poem) into a Christian Hell.

In the poem, Minos stops his judging to offer a quick warning to Dante—one line long in Pinsky’s translation—and Virgil, Dante’s attentive guide, essentially gives Minos a verbal smackdown and the pair go on to the first circle of Hell, Lust.

But not in the game, oh, no. Dante’s no weak-ass poet waiting for his guide to save him here. He’s the action hero, jumping in, talking back to Minos himself (think Bruce Willis in Die Hard telling off the terrorists or whatever the bad guys were), then jumping into battle. After lots of random button pushing and jumping, fighting off other demons coming into the arena, etc., there’s another of those Pavlovian scenes where you press the buttons quickly as they are indicated on the screen, and you end up wrapping Minos’s tongue around a spiky wheel which you then turn to pull his head into the spikes. And it’s yippie-etc., as Bruce Willis would have said, on into Hell.

Okay, so, here’s an issue I have with the narrative concept (of the game, not the poem): Poem-Dante is on this intellectual, spiritual quest, so he seems to have carte blanche into Hell. Essentially, he seems to be a witness. Game-Dante, I guess, belongs in Hell because of lust, yet he’s on that quest to find Lucifer and steal Beatrice back. Fine, but why doesn’t he say to Minos, “I’m going to straight to level negative-nine, please,” and wait for the elevator down? Or say, “Yep, I’m lustful, send me on to the first circle.” Save some of that fighting strength for the next battle, right?

No, when you’re an action hero, you leave destruction in your wake. When you’re a buffed-out dude with a cloth crusader cross sewn onto your skin, you can’t engage in subterfuge, right? For example, in the old TV show The A-Team, they’d never send Mr. T undercover, would they? Big guy with a bad-ass mohawk and jewelry that weighs as much as two or three German shepherds trying to be inconspicuous? No way. So, Dante is leaving a path of destruction in his wake—but now who will judge the sinners? Is there going to be a long line waiting, wondering what happened to Minos up ahead, they way I get pissed off at Wal-Mart (which is like Hell in many ways) when the cashier leaves the register to check on a price or when someone brings 45 items into the express lane? This is the narrative problem, I think: how can you kill off these shades/demons/beasts in the eternal underworld? Do they go on to a next afterlife?

Afterthought: why is it so difficult to get into Hell, anyway?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A thought on Limbo

In Dante's poem, after crossing with Charon, he encounters a place where reside souls who, Virgil tells him, "did not sin; / If they have merit, it can't suffice without / Baptism, portal to the faith you maintain." This, in Canto IV, is where Virgil, born before Christ lived, resides in Hell.

In the game, this area provides a pretty tasteless moment, I think. You are attacked by littler demons, with knife-blades for hands. After fighting a bunch off, you meet Virgil who tells you they are babies who died before Baptism. Of course, this would be theologically correct at Dante's time to assume such babies would be in Limbo, I suppose (though not the knife-hand business). But still, even in video game world, it seemed best in the battles to absolve such characters.

Of course, thankfully, the Catholic Church has moved to a more merciful position on the implications of a child dying before Baptism. The statement made there, though, focuses on "God's endless mercy," while there is not mercy in Dante's Inferno, poem (see my comment on Freccero's introduction to Pinsky's translation) or video game.

Actually, that's not true; the mercy--absolution--comes in the video game from the player, though absolving the demons or unbaptized babies you fight seems to inflict pain on them just as punishing them does. Either you obliterate them into blinding light (absolve) or you rip off their heads or sever them in two (punish). There's something theologically interesting about the player here being the potential instrument of mercy.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


So, there I was, on the boat ride into hell inside the belly of this talking Charon boat, and I can see Orpheus, the poet, on a platform in the back. But how do I get there? There's a box to move around and a platform. At this point, a fellow professor from the English department was around. He took over when I couldn't figure out how to do this. He couldn't figure out how to get up to the platform.

Hours later, we're still passing the controller back and forth, making action hero Dante jump around and accomplish nothing. Then a stroke of genius--look online.

"What, are you cheating?" my wife, who was then watching asked.

"It's what our students would do," my colleague answered.

We figured out how to get to Orpheus. Because he is a poet and because there's probably a circle in this hell for those who cheat at video games in which we will someday be asking for an action hero's mercy, we absolved him.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Incomplete Knowledge

A footnote to Canto IV (Limbo) from Pinsky's version: "Readers who experience Dante's poetry in translation will perhaps find comfort in the knowledge that although in this passage he reveres Homer as the greatest poet of antiquity, Dante could not read Greek. His knowledge of Homer would have come from translations--and not complete ones--and from other writers' references to Homer's works."

Okay, now will this statement bear up at all if we change "Readers who experience Dante's poetry in translation..." to "Readers who experience Dante's poetry in video game format..."? How about "Readers who experience Dante's poetry through a blog about someone playing Dante's poetry in video game format..."?

How close to the "actual" must one be to "actually" experience something? To fit this blog's title: Must the poet be an action hero in fact to be an action hero?

I'm still waiting to decide what to do with Pilate. Perhaps a poll will help?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Pontius Pilate: Forgive or Damn?

Here we go, into Hell. Well, not quite yet, merely on the shores of Acheron, the river before Hell. In the poem, we pass through the gates with their famous, previously mentioned quotation at the beginning of Canto III (are my readers at Canto III in their own reading?). Then we see those who, Virgil (in the poem) says, were "neither rebellious to God nor faithful to Him, // Chose neither side, but kept themselves apart-- / Now Heaven expels them, not to mar its splendor, / And Hell rejects them, lest the wicked of heart // Take glory over them." Essentially, video game Virgil tells Dante the same thing. (Sidenote: I always wondered if these shades were the ones Garrison Keillor said "in a time of crisis remain neutral." If so, I don't think this would be the hottest place in Hell. Readers: thoughts on this?)

To the point of this post, though: before getting across the river in the game, at a doorway, we meet the first shade that we must punish or absolve: Pontius Pilate. In a sort of odd-sounding stereotyped Italian accent (Did George Lucas have a hand in this?), Pilate repeats the line, "I find no fault in this just man." That's what we get from him, and then we have to decide, punish or absolve. The on-screen text tells us that he bears the weight of all the souls in Limbo. But he makes no argument for himself, no explanation. Should he be sent further into Hell or lifted to Heaven? Readers, what do you think?

Here's my problem with this part of the game. We're talking about eternity here, the redemption or suffering of a soul (okay, yes, it's just a game, but--insert here something about the psychology of play, maybe something Freudian about how play represents something deeper about us).

Part of me wants to punish everyone I meet in Hell. My scholarly argument for this begins with John Freccero's wonderful introduction to Pinsky's translation of Dante: "...there is no sign of Christian forgiveness in the Inferno. The dominant theme is not mercy but justice, dispensed with the severity of the ancient law of retribution." But I'm not in Dante-the-poet's world, I'm in Dante-the-video-game-crusader's world. So, does that mean that I should judge these souls based on the time of the crusades or the time of the Guelphs and Ghibellines? A third option: a less vengeful New Testament sense of forgiveness--how many times did Jesus say to forgive those who wrong one?

It's complicated, but the game gives you a moment only unless you pause it and walk away for more Cheetos or beer. (Russian River's Damnation seems apt for drinking now--or wait, should I try this one from the same brewery?) This kind of snap decision, instant gratification, ignorance of the complexity of the issue of forgiveness seems as 21st century as it does 12th. Or 14th. Consider it, why? Press a button and you can rip the shade of Pilate in two with your scythe. Press another button and you send him up to heaven on a shaft of light. There's a long way on this journey, so let's move on, whichever it is. I'd be interested to see what readers vote here. And why you make that choice. Comment below.

Two more things, putting the poem and game side by side:

1) Pilate? I don't remember Pilate in the poem. In Canto III, there's a bit about "him who made the Great Refusal." Some have read this as Pilate, refusing to punish or release Christ. The notes to Pinsky's translation only say this person's identity is debated; "The most popular theory is that the soul is that of Pope Celestine V, who abdicated in 1294, only five months into his papacy, when political pressure proved too much for him." I guess Pope Celestine V would be pretty uninteresting in the game, huh?

2) The famous lines inscribed over the gate mentioned earlier? They're spoken here, but the giant head on the giant ship that ferries souls across the river. I guess the head is Charon, so he's not just the ferryman, but the ferry--turning a metonymy into a synechdoche, I guess? Oh, and after beating up on some demons, you tear the Charon-head off the ferry and hurl it into the wall on the shore's other side. Let's leave Hell in a state of destruction in our wake!

Here's what the ride on Charon's back/deck looks like:

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Gates of Hell

The Gates of Hell--or at least a video game reproduction of Rodin's work of art complete with The Thinker up top--appear before you, and you finally meet Virgil. He explains--as Virgil in the poem does, too--that Beatrice has sent him. to guide Dante through Hell. There's no intercession by an angel in this version, though.

I'm intrigued by the use of Rodin's art in the game, in part because of The Thinker--also known as The Poet. So, here we have an artist's reinterpretation of Dante in bronze looking down over another reinterpretation of Dante in pixels. Meta-art, perhaps? So what is Dante's identity? Dante the poet, Dante the character in his own poem, Dante the bronze, or Dante the pixellated? It seems to promote anachronistic thinking: Are we in the crusades, in Dante's (the poet's) times, after Rodin's, or after Electronic Arts' time? Yes to all--Hell is eternal.

I want to think of these characters as on a spectrum ranging from poet (man of words) to video game hero (man of action). And put the Thinker somewhere in between, because his thoughts are so intense that every muscle in his body tightens, his toes grip at something, even, and the shock of hair comes out the side, an idea like a plume of water starting from a fountain. Muscular, yet his pose crunches his body in on himself, he is still the poet, the man of words and thought, yet he has a dense, taut body. He's not the wispy blue (yet very buff) poet Virgil in the video game.

But there's not much time to contemplate the art, because you have monsters to fight, including one beast with a demon riding its back. You have to get the demon off the monster then get on the beast and use its beastly strength to open the doors to Hell. What bothers me about this is that, as a game player, I don't really feel like an action hero, even imaginatively or vicariously through the video game figure's deeds. So far I've done battle mostly by banging the hell (yes, hell) out of buttons and my weapon swings around a lot or I shoot glowing crosses, and eventually the stuff dies. But after inflicting some damage on this beast, I get told to hit the "RT" button. Then the blue one. Yes, there are icons on the screen appearing when I need to time these button presses. Then another, then another, and I use my scythe to hook the beast, climb up its shoulder, leap into the air, and split its rider in half.

After learning to do these steps, I felt like Pavlov's dog--bell rings, it salivates; image of button flashes on screen, I press. Not especially action hero-y, eh? But I then get to control the beast, stomp on some little demons or zombies or whatever they are, and then push my way--finally into Hell.

Like Rodin's Gates, there's no "Abandon hope" phrase here. Maybe that's because when you're an action hero, you always have hope. Or maybe when there's a screen image telling you what button to press when to overcome even a demon on a beast the size of a garbage truck. Abandon hope? Screw hope--you've got a death-scythe that looks like a blade attached to a brontosaurus's spine--you don't need hope.