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.