It certainly raised eyebrows. As impressively brutal and pummelling as Dante's Inferno appears, the question is why on Earth - bar it being a licence that's handily in the public domain - would you decide to take a 14th century Italian poem and turn it into a modern God-of-War-esque fighting game? A cynic could ask: what's next from EA? Grand Theft Hamlet?
Executive producer Jonathan Knight has a Bachelor's Degree in fine art and is more than ready to rise to the challenge along with your eyebrows. "It's funny you mention Hamlet, as I'd say exactly the same thing about Shakespeare," he says. "The more you actually look into Dante... well, Dante wrote in Italian in the 14th century. That was completely unusual for the time, when most people didn't read or write at all, and if they did, it was in Latin. What he did was set out to write pop culture.
"He wrote a poem, which was a love story, in the vernacular of the time, so people could read it aloud and share it with each other. It was highly unusual for him to do that, and it speaks to his desire to use the medium of the day to reach the masses. It might sound a little bit lofty to say that's what we're doing - or that he'd be proud of what we're doing - but I don't think it's that far off. Guys like Shakespeare and Dante would probably be working in videogames today, because they're all about taking the new technology of the time - whether that was the theatres in London or the Printing Press."
In other words, the question isn't why should we do Dante's Inferno as a game, it's why hasn't anyone taken this twisted vision of the afterlife and brought it into the popular vernacular of the fighting game before. That is, games with punching. "Entertainment will evolve and progress long after we're dead, and there's no real stopping that. Dante has been brought forth in every popular medium since he wrote the poem - and we're trying to carry on that tradition," says Knight.
As such, as a game, much of its charm comes from its attempts to visualise Dante's visions of the afterlife. It's not just relying on internal talents either, with Hellboy and Hellboy II character designer Wayne Barlowe bringing forth visions of characters from the book. And as far as books go, the Inferno is incredibly concrete. With its concentric rings of the damned, it's the GameFAQs of the underworld, allowing it to sidestep the Christian issue into the realm of fantasy. For all its crucifixes-as-ranged-weapons and general stink of damnation, Knight argues, it's not a theological game.
"The poem is fiction, is fantasy," he says. "Arguably Dante is the first fantasy writer of Europe. That's basically what piques people's imagination - that his imagination was so insane. This is a chance to bring some of that imagination to the screen." If in doubt, they return to the book. Which leads an interesting question of what the team decided not to include, and the answer seems to be allusion rather than straight excision. "We'll do a nod to that - we'll build a statue or an environment which gives a nod to [something] in the poem, but we'll move quickly through it because we don't really want to get mired down in it," says Knight.
That's key. It is, after all, a game about biffing. If you want to biff, you don't want to be worrying about Beatrice and Virgil and all that. "The game operates on two levels," explains Knight. "If you're really into the fiction, the mythology, the literature, that'll be there for you. As you punish and absolve these shades, you can just jam a cross in their head and absorb their solve... or you can see each one has a name. As you absolve them, that name will be called out and you can go into the menus and read about them, as all those names have been drawn from the poem. Virgil is in the game as a narrator, but he's optional - you don't have to listen to him if you don't want to. If you just want to kill demons and have a great time, you can do that. But if you want to have a little more a narrative, literary experience - with fighting - then it's there."
The shades pick up one of the game's key mechanics. While EA is keeping the actual details of the character improvement under wraps for now in a secret satanic EA bunker (probably), the coin with which you pay for upgrades are souls themselves. The shades are just the biggest source of them. "Those shades you punish are rich in souls," says Knight. "The choice you make is either to get a guaranteed payout with a satisfying animation if you punish - or absolve, which comes with a fairly involved skill-based mini-game in which if you fail you get nothing or if you succeed you get twice the payout. We really play with people's sense of risk/reward and how good they actually think they are." The link to BioShock is easy to make, but it seems that the choice is more about tactics than the moral aspect.
Stepping away from the fine detail, when approaching a genre with a clear reigning champion it's important to nail the fundamentals. I ask Knight what he thinks is the absolute key for a fighting game. "Number one for the genre is a really simple idea: that the character is my avatar, and when I tell him to do something he should do it immediately," he says.
"When we talk about responsiveness, that's what we mean. We've learned by studying other games - and of course worked on Return of the King at the same studio a few years ago - that the thing about the genre is that you can branch from one move into any other move. It's that sense of responsiveness. If I tell him to dodge, he immediately dodges. If I tell him to move, he immediately moves. What happens with that is that you get a lot of moves which pop. So if you looked at a game at a distance and examined it like a movie, you'd notice it - but who cares? I'm playing the game, not watching it. When I put the controller in someone's hands, I've never had that comment. It just feels great. You have to be dedicated to that principle that the responsiveness and control of the character takes precedence over everything else visually in the game... because it's a game."
While it's an asset in actual play, EA's devotion to enormous frame-rates does come with a price. It's far from an unattractive game, with some splendid vistas and set-pieces, but it's not the immediate knock-down oh-my-god-I-have-never-seen-hell-like-this-before culture shock you may hope for in a game that's trying to bring Dante's Inferno to our doors.
Simultaneously, its individual ingredients - slashing, quick-time-event takedowns and gargantuan bosses - are very much the unholy terrain of God of War. You wonder whether the initial descriptions of it as God of War meets Dead Space will prove prophetic in an unintended manner. As in, much like Dead Space, it could end up being a rock-solid genre game somewhat overlooked in the Christmas rush amongst games with more outspoken, obvious attention-getting assets. But that's something that no-one other than EA's accountants should worry about it. For gamers hungry for diabolic - in a good way - adventures, Dante's Inferno is highly promising.
As I leave Knight, I ask him off-the-cuffly what his favourite bit in the original poem is. "In the eighth circle, he meets a sinner who was so bad that he went to hell when he was still alive," says Knight, after a few moments' thought. "He was damned and sent to hell when his body was still alive. So when his soul goes to hell, a demon inhabits his body and lives out the rest of his days. That concept, which was introduced by Dante, is so powerful and so out of step with contemporary catholic thinking [which says] you can always save yourself if you go through these rites... and here's Dante saying, 'Nope. There's some people who commit enough sin, they go straight to hell before they die and their bodies are walking around with demons inhabiting them.' That's crazy".
And I'll say this: some of that crazy is definitely visible in the Dante's Inferno game. For example, you can come across pathways blocked by gargoyles, which you clear by pushing their spear through their stony chest. In other words, Dante's Inferno is a game so macho that you have to kill doors. Would Dante have approved? Who cares? I just killed a door.
Dante's Inferno is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2010.