Interview / Dante’s Inferno executive producer and creative director Jonathan Knight

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With just a few short days before Dead Space developer Visceral Games unleashes hell upon the gaming masses in the form of Dante’s Inferno, the game’s executive producer and creative director Jonathan Knight joined us for a roundtable interview to discuss comparisons to God of War, the game’s controversial marketing campaign, and Dante’s penchant for body modification.

What drew the team to Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy? Did you ever consider any other famous works of literature like, say, The Iliad or Beowulf?

Jonathan Knight: The original impetus for the game was [my interest] in the topic of the medieval vision of hell and the afterlife. That was the very first idea, to make a game that dealt with that topic head-on. Not an ancient vision of hell, or a folklore vision of hell, or a sci-fi vision of hell, but what medieval European Christians really thought hell would be like. That was a topic that I was researching, and in researching there is pretty much one name that rises above all the others.

Dante Alighieri incredibly synthesizes hundreds of years of thought about what the medieval afterlife would be like, who goes there and why, what are they punished for, what are the sins and how is it structured. He just kind of synthesizes all that thinking into a seminal work, which is The Divine Comedy. I read it and it was so full of material that it seemed like rather than borrowing a couple of ideas from it, we should tackle that vision in its totality and do a game loosely based on the poem.

And unlike any other source it actually already has levels.

Jonathan Knight: [Dante Alighieri’s] famously known for mapping hell. Pretty much any copy of the book you pick up has a map on the inside cover. That’s part of that ongoing creative impulse, to try to visualize and draw and map out his mental picture of hell, which is very structured. There are nine circles and each one almost has kinda a boss character, a guardian or a monster. Each circle has specific weather and geography and people categorized by the sins they’ve committed. It’s an incredible map, and for centuries people have been drawing that map in their own way. I just sorta feel like the game is an extension of that ongoing tradition of visualizing his world.

Considering the richness of the subject matter, were there any challenges trying to maintain focus and show restraint to make sure that you guys met you deadlines?

Jonathan Knight: There are always deadlines in game development. There’s always a box that you have to play in. Fortunately, EA’s been incredibly supportive of the project and we were given a lot of resources to build the game. We feel like we absolutely had adequate time to build the game…and we’re really happy. But honestly, I don’t think that we have achieved the full extent of Dante Alighieri imagination. There were entire monster and sequences that we just didn’t get to. I think his vision, his imagination is way bigger than what we could do in one game.

There are whole elements of the poem that operative on different levels, political levels and theological levels. We said from the beginning that we wanted to do a game that was super fun to play and entertaining. That we were going to be focusing on his vision of geography, characters, setting and theme. That we were going to do all nine circles of hell. And we scoped the project to that vision. When it comes to some of the more sophisticated elements of the people, some of the highbrow aspects of the poem, I think those are kinda best left for a reading of the original material. The game is not meant to be a replacement or even remotely a substitute for the original material.

What we’re hearing from fans is that actually more and more people are wanting to read the poem now [because of the game]. They’ve picked up a copy and are learning more about Dante and more about The Divine Comedy. [The game is] more of a gateway into that whole world, and it’s pretty cool that it’s worked out that way.

In the gameplay, the user can focus on the holy or unholy powers; how important is that to Dante’s character development and how does it affect the game’s storyline? Are there different endings depending on which power you focus on?

Jonathan Knight: That aspect of the game is largely a game design decision. It impacts the gameplay throughout the game [but] we never intended it to be something that diverts the story into a truly holy story and a truly unholy story. The game does come together at the end with one ending. For us it was a way of saying “Here’s a guy who is very conflicted, he’s done a lot of bad things but he has a lot of good in him also, like most people.” He has very opposing weapons [to represent that conflict]. He’s got this holy cross power, that’s kinda magical and spiritual in nature and is more about crowd control than bludgeoning people and then he’s got this brutal, savage scythe that he can cut people’s heads off with. We wanted to offer those two types of animations, those two types of play styles, those two upgrade trees. The whole system really ties into that. There’s holy magic. There’s unholy magic. There are holy relics. There are unholy relics. But at the end of the day, it’s all about crafting your version of [Dante] in terms of how he kills things and how he treats the damned. But the story kinda comes together at the end with one ending.

Since the The Divine Comedy is essential a three-part book, are you considering a full trilogy?

Jonathan Knight: I don’t have any plans to announce today with regards to future projects. We’re just really focused on Inferno. I can say that we’ve got some really exciting downloadable content coming for Inferno. It’s going to be more than just items and skins. There’s definitely going to be an extension to the fiction, there’s definitely going to be some pretty significant DLC associated with the game. That’s what the team’s focused on right now.

When Inferno comes out there, we’ll obviously see how people respond to it and hopefully have more to talk about in the future, but right now we’re sort of focused.

Did you guys draw upon artists who have already made depictions of The Divine Comedy such as Sandro Botticelli and Gustave Dore, or was this something you guys devised straight from the text?

Jonathan Knight: Well, a little bit of both. I think we definitely had a really tremendous and exciting research phase. There’s so much material out there, like Botticelli who was one of the first artists to do an illustrated version of The Divine Comedy roughly a generation or two after Dante and kinda reprints the poem with his illustrations. That sets off a long tradition of artists coming to the material and figuring out a way to visualize it. We studied all of that and plastered our walls with it, were influenced by all of it.

I would say Auguste Rodin was probably one of the bigger influences. You see sorta Rodin-inspired sculptures throughout the game. His Gates of Hell are literally replicated in the game in the first level, as you break into hell. Rodin spent ten years with the poem, and he really captured the torment of the damned. Dore was a huge inspiration. I think you’ll see his King Minos looks a lot like ours, although ours is a little darker and angrier because it’s a videogame.

I actually came across a series of watercolors by Salvador Dali based on The Divine Comedy kinda late in the production. I didn’t even know that Dali had done The Divine Comedy.

William Blake…. you know a lot of those medieval painters like Boche and Bruegal who did themes from the afterlife, they’re not specifically Dante but they’re kinda in that medieval weirdness, those crazy visions of hell. I think that inspired a lot of the gluttony stuff.

One of the biggest influences was Wayne Barlowe, who’s kind of this 20th century guy who bit off Hell in his paintings. He’s a working concept artist in the film business and we contracted him and he did a lot of the initial drawings for us. We wanted something that felt like it was in the tradition, but we also wanted to do our own thing and branch out and give it a fresh feel.

How do you feel about the comparisons to God of War and other action franchises, and what are you doing to set yourself apart from those titles?

Jonathan Knight: We’re super flattered by those comparisons. God of War is the granddaddy of the genre right now. They were influenced by Devil May Cry before that. There’s definitely a strong tradition of Japanese fighting games that has influenced what’s going on in this genre in the west. We’re big fans of Bayonetta and I think all those games are influences, and we’re just kinda flattered to be mentioned as part of that.

We tried to set ourselves apart in a couple of key ways. One was really tackling that medieval Christian mythos, specifically The Divine Comedy, and seeing if we could take a piece of literature – obviously a lot of things changed about it in turning it into an action game – and deliver an adaptation of that existing piece of literature. [We wanted to] do levels that have never really been done before in terms of the horror of those specific sins.

On the gameplay side, we wanted to create a character that had a duality to him. Rather than just one style of finishing off enemies over and over, we wanted to give two halves that allow you to earn experience down either a holy path or an unholy path. To have that effect the moves of the character and over time effect which abilities you gain. That was something we tried to bring to genre, that moral question of whether to punish someone of absolve them. You can do that with enemies but also with the damned once you’ve learned what their sins are. But to do that in an action way, not in an RPG way. [We wanted to] do it in a way where you have to make those decisions in a split-second in combat. We wanted to create giant demons that you could drive around hell like giant vehicles. When we bit that off six years ago, that’s not something we had seen done before. Other products have tried to do that since then, but that was something we really wanted to bring to the game, give that sense of power.

Making the game run at 60 frames per second was really important to us. Certainly in Devil May Cry and Bayonetta, that’s really important to them but not necessarily something that everyone in the genre is doing, and we wanted to do that.

At the end of the day, the story is very unique to the game. We think people are going to find the story fresh and special. Those are all the ways we think we are setting ourselves apart.

In regard to the branching powers and abilities, is Dante’s journey through hell linear or more open ended, and what does this mean for multiple playthroughs?

Jonathan Knight: The game is linear from the standpoint of the story. It’s a journey through the nine circles, so you’re obviously going to end up in the ninth circle. It’s very much a pursuit of Beatrice. Like I said earlier, the game comes together at the end with one ending, but what is open ended is how you power up Dante. We wanted an upgrade tree, we wanted collectibles and relics and all those things to be really open ended.

So right from the beginning you’re choosing to be more about magic powers or more about melee combat. There’s about thirty plus relics in the game that you can find, and each one of those is upgradeable and you can equip or unequip them. It’s a somewhat hardcore system but it’s incredibly open ended.

Believe me there we a lot of permutations that we had to test with the relics. Some of them are just passive modifiers and others are more interesting. There’s a lot of customization you can do to your fighting style. That open-ended system was important to us.

How close did the creative teams for the game, anime and comics series work together?

Jonathan Knight: We spend a lot of time overseeing those projects. We co-produced all of them and it was really important that the creative team at Visceral be directly involved in creating and approving all of those assets. We definitely wanted a unified feel for those projects. It was tricky because at the end of the day, there’s the poem and this journey through the nine circles, and it’s not like you can do a comic book in circles ten through fourteen or do the prequel story. The story is about the journey through hell. That’s what Dante’s Inferno is, so we really had to be very hands on with our partners about being faithful to that but also making sure that each one of those projects had its own personality…We approved all the writers on all these projects, supervised the scripts, supervised casting. I even did some voice direction for the animated feature. We spent a lot of time and energy on them and we’re definitely happy with those projects and how they came out.

How did EA’s surprising and substantial downsizing of more than 1,500 employees, which included the company’s headquarters and Visceral Games’ stomping grounds at Redwood Shores, impact the development of Dante’s Inferno?

Jonathan Knight: People come and go from companies like ours in the regular course of business. It didn’t really impact the production of Dante’s Inferno. We were well on our way. It’s sort of cliché, but it takes a lot more than one person to make a game. It’s very much a collaborative team effort with a lot of different people involved, that mix of talent that makes a game. We had that locked in on Dante’s Inferno from the beginning, so [the layoffs] really didn’t have any impact on us.

We’ve heard that there are achievements for killing babies, drowning priests, hanging the pope, being defecated on and performing rhinoplasty on the sphinx – are these real or rumor?

Jonathan Knight: There are definitely some fake achievements out there that are generating some discussion, but I wouldn’t believe everything you read. I’ll give you a hint. We do a marketing campaign for each of the nine circles every month, and this month fraud is the topic.

How exactly does leveling work?

Jonathan Knight: Basically there are experience points that you can earn. When you are able to finish off enemies or you encounter the damned, and there’s about 30 of these characters that all come the poem that you can encounter along the way and you can walk up to them and see what their sin was, you are given a choice to absolve or punish the damned or the enemies. Each time you make that choice you either earn holy experience for absolving or unholy experience for punishing. Those experience points are part of the leveling system, so once you earn enough experience you advance to the next level and that opens up a new branch on the tech tree. So once you [upgrade] to holy level three there’s all new powers that are open to you. There are seven levels of holy and seven levels of unholy.

Dante’s Inferno isn’t all unicorns and puppies – some of the imagery would make Clive Barker’s dream journals seem like a children’s book. Did working on this have a psychological toll on the team?

Jonathan Knight: I can’t speak for everybody on the team, but for me it did not. I’m not sure why. Maybe it should have, but I was definitely able to separate the fantasy from reality. I think we all see the game as very much a fantasy.

Certain kinds of horror where it’s very real and very close to home, dealing with real people in a contemporary setting, can be more disturbing. Whereas we set out from the beginning to do kind of a medieval period piece where you go into a very fantastical vision of the afterlife. I think there’s a certain emotional distance created when it’s so clearly a fantasy. That’s really more what the game is to me.

I didn’t want to make a game that was disturbing to play. I want people to be entertained. Granted, not everybody’s going to be entertained by a fantasy that’s this dark, but I do think there’s a big audience of mature adult gamers who want that dark fantasy because it’s something that they’re not going to experience in real life. We want to go there with them, to give that to them, but not in a way that is going to give them nightmares.

Do you think the marketing campaign has had a positive or negative impact on people’s perception of the game?

Jonathan Knight: What we’ve been doing is a nine month lead up to the launch where we named each month after one of the circles of hell: limbo, lust, gluttony, greed, anger and so forth. It was really intended to refresh people’s memory about Dante Alighieri and The Divine Comedy and the notion of the nine circles of hell, which is very unique to Dante. We wanted to use each month as an opportunity to show off that circle of hell, talk about that particular sin, show assets from the level. A small part of that, but often the most notable part has been a kind of stunt to draw attention to that month’s sin. Some of those I think were more successful than others. But they were all meant in a sort of tongue in cheek fashion to bring attention to those sins, which definitely have humorous elements to them. If you go to the website each month, you’ll see how we’re unveiling a whole new circle of hell and there’s a lot of artwork and sound and visuals. The stunts are just one piece of that.

It’s been announced that the Dark Forest DLC will be available upon release as part of the PlayStation 3 premium version, but what about Xbox 360 owners – will they be getting this downloadable content as well?

Jonathan Knight: Yes. Dark Forest is going to be available for the Xbox 360. The PlayStation 3 Divine Edition comes with that DLC for free, but it’s going to be available on both platforms for sure.

How does the level design differ from circle to circle, and how do you travel between them?

Jonathan Knight: Were really proud of the level design in the game. We had an amazing team that was assembled to do that, and out philosophy was to mix it up and have each circle of hell feel really different. To have each zone or region of the game always introducing a new design element. There’s a lot of combat in the game, and that’s what we’ve focused on showing because it’s pretty eye catching, but there’s also a lot of puzzle in the game. There’s a lot of adventure.

One of the cool things about the game is that it never goes black, it never says loading the next level. It’s really a continuous decent down the nine circles. You really feel like you’re making this physical journey. From one circle to the next, there’s a decent sequence where Dante’s using ropes and he’s basically spelunking and rappelling down the cliffs. Sometimes there’s combat and sometimes there’s puzzles. Those are sequences that I think really kind of mix up the gameplay. There are environmental puzzles. There are bosses. There are sub-bosses. We just really wanted it to always be mixed up so that there’s a pretty good variety in the gameplay.

It’s definitely an action piece. It’s in the genre. It’s not an adventure game. It’s not an RPG. It’s mostly action, but like I said there’s a lot of different things going on.

What are you and the rest of the team at Visceral feeling coming up to launch?

Jonathan Knight: The team is super excited. One of the things we’re getting known for at Visceral, and I hope this game really help solidify that, is how we’re committed to the polish level of each game. If people are spending a lot of money on them, I think [they] have the right to expect really, really high quality software and really polished experiences. We had a healthy polish period at the end of the game and we feel like we addressed everything we wanted to. So now it’s the waiting game to see how it’s received.

The team is very, very committed to [Dante’s Inferno]. We have a lot of post-release content planned. Dark Forest is one of the first big releases after the launch of the game, a prequel level that takes roughly the first canto of the poem where Dante is lost in the dark forest. It sorta bridges his journey back home to find Beatrice. It’s a really cool level, a really big piece of the gameplay. And that’s just the beginning.

Considering how quick the mainstream media jumps on the videogame hate wagon, are you worried about the reaction some of the more mature content?

Jonathan Knight: Certainly once the game is out there and more and more people are out there, we might see more reactions to the content. I’m sure we will. I really feel like the game is very fantastical in nature, like the original vision of hell from Dante Alighieri is very fantastical in nature, and I think people sort of get that. We’re taking these concepts like lust and gluttony and anger and violence and we’re doing the videogame version of those sins.

I think if we didn’t push the boundaries of that topic and that imagery then we wouldn’t be doing a game about hell. We would have a different kind of disappointment from our audience who’s expecting us to explore what that would be like. We’re pretty confident that all those [mature elements] are appropriate to the content. They’re definitely stylized and exaggerated because it’s a videogame. It’s not something that feels like your next-door neighbor or your real life. It really feels like a fantasy and I think that may be the reason people are more accepting of it. But that’s just guesswork – I wouldn’t want to presume to think for everybody, it’s just kind of my guess.

How do you respond to the criticism that you’ve bastardized the original poem?

Jonathan Knight: We have done a very loose adaptation. Sure, it’s bastardization in the sense that it is kind of the bastard child of the original material. I think that’s completely fair. We definitely used the source material as the foundation for the game. We definitely are very, very familiar with it and I think anyone who has read the poem, when they play the game they’re going to recognize hundreds and hundreds of references and touch points. They’re going to see that we really injected the game with a tremendous amount of material from the poem. But the main thing I would say is that the game is pushing people to read the poem.

Lots of people are going to read The Divine Comedy that otherwise would not have. Dante’s in the spotlight after 700 years, and if you’re a Dante fan that can’t be a bad thing.

What’s up with Dante’s chest?

Jonathan Knight: The idea is that he’s a fallen crusader and he’s taken his crusade uniform and done this deep seeded Catholic guilt thing with it. He’s taken this red fabric, and in this red fabric is a tapestry of the sins of his past – there’s little scenes in there and each one represents one of his sins – and he’s literally sown it into the flesh of his chest in an act of guilt. Every time he goes to a new circle of hell, the camera pushes into one of these scenes and it comes to life in a 2D animated sequence that’s really dark, illuminating the actions of his past. Then you’ll pull back out of that and you’re back in the game. It’s a storytelling vehicle, but it also represents his guilt over the sins that he’s committed.

How do you think Dante’s Inferno has influenced the role of literature in videogames? As jokingly intimated by Penny Arcade, can we expect a videogame version of Moby Dick?

Jonathan Knight: I think that we put our toe in the water. I’m the first to admit that this version of Dante’s Inferno is much more a videogame than it is a piece of literature. It’s definitely a jacked up videogame version of the poem, and it’s very loose when it comes to the story elements though it’s faithful in other ways. It was a challenge and I don’t know that there’s a lot of works of literature that are going to work that way.

Lord of the Rings is probably the best example in recent memory. Here’s a guy that penned an incredible universe of characters and environments and settings and mythology and rules about why things are the way they are, and it’s made great fodder for movies and videogames. It also has a really strong narrative, a hero with conflict, which The Divine Comedy didn’t have. We really had to help that part of it along. But there’s definitely works of literature out there that do that; they create worlds that you feel like you could visit, characters you could meet, and then there’s other pieces of literature where it’s just a story. It’s not enough of a world – you’d just be inventing the rest of it anyway, so why bother.

I think Dante’s Inferno exists in that middle space where there’s just enough to make a game. There’s probably not a lot more like it.

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Author: Kristen Spencer View all posts by

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