by Jason Lipshin
So I have to admit that my gut reaction to Electronic Arts’ newest project was definitely not a positive one. I mean, once you get past the sheer audacity of adapting a fourteenth century epic poem into a hack-and-slash adventure game for the Xbox 360, you’re bound to come to your critical senses and realize just what you are doing: adapting a fourteenth century epic poem into a hack-and-slash adventure game for the Xbox 360. But as I began to work past my initial stages of surprise and snobbery, I tried to remind myself that there really wasn’t any essential reason for any of this anxiety: textual, visual, aural, and algorithmic forms are all equally viable platforms for the generation of art (whatever that may be…). And at this particular point in time and space, it just so happens that some forms are better respected than others, and this judgment is largely dependent on slippery issues of taste and the age of the form in relation to the developmental history of others. As long as I can remember, the most popular criticism used to be “the movie is never as good as the book,” and yet increasingly it seems that the favored scapegoat medium is shifting from the filmic to the gamic.
But if Marshall McLuhan’s infamous aphorism “the medium is the message” has taught us anything, we might be able to look past our initial, facile perceptions based in taste to look at how Dante Alighieri’s written classic and this piece of electronic software are actually a match made in heaven. While much has been written in recent years about the spatial and architectural specificity of immersive video game environments, few tend to talk about literature in this way. I would agree with these critics that the material of narrative literature is definitely time-based, but a few authors definitely evoke a writing style that I would say at least approaches spatial considerations in an interesting way: Dickens and Calvino, in their cross-sections of urban-industrial life, come to mind. To me, Dante seems even more immediately “gamic.” Consider these serendipitous translations: the ”nine circles” of hell can become nine levels that the player traverses, the nine “guardians” of these circles can become nine “bosses” which the player must defeat to advance, and each “sin” that represents each of the nine circles can become a theme upon which a game designer can construct the look of each level (a la Square Enix/Disney’s “Kingdom Hearts”). Dante even has the stock masculine heroism endemic to so much of the medium built in as a narrative catalyst: the crusader goes on his quest in order to save his beloved Beatrice from Lucifer, just as Mario puts his plumming on hold to save Princess Peach from evil king Bowser….
All that being said, I have not yet had the chance to play the game first hand (I’m Xbox-less), but in reading up on the concept and thinking about it a little, I guess it’s safe to say that I’m at least in interested in the idea of this game. After spending twenty minutes writing a blog defending its merits, I just hope that the developers didn’t screw it up…. 🙂