Dante's Inferno Interview (PS3)

Dante's Inferno. You've all heard of it. Maybe because you like the genre, maybe because you've read the poem, or maybe you've noticed EA's more aggressive marketing campaign. Either way, Dante's Inferno has done a good job of making itself 'known' to gamers. Strategy Informer recently had a chance to sit down with Visceral Game's Senior Producer, Juston Lambros:

Strategy Informer: So, in Dante's Inferno, you've made a couple of design choices consistent with the genre. Auto-view, combos, etc... what made you want to design the game the way you did?

Juston Lambros: Well we really wanted to make an action-adventure game that EA doesn't have and that would fit well in its portfolio. Some of the guys on the team actually helped work on the Lord of Rings Games, so we had some experience with that. We also wanted something that fits the epic nature of the content, so with the auto-view camera, we could show off this great vistas. Really the star of the show are these nine circles of hell. A lot of these designs choices stemmed from what would serve the poem best, what serves its epic nature and this medieval vision of hell that we wanted to create. So the game started off as a medieval-based combat game, so we looked at different weapons, like swords, until we hit Death's great scythe which was this amazing weapon we could create, and that lead to the cross so that we could add a different feel to the game with ranged attacks.

Strategy Informer: This type of melee action game has been done before. God of War, Ninja Gaiden, Viking: Battle for Asgard... Combo's and hack'n'slash action isn't new. How do you see this genre evolving?

Juston Lambros: For us it was one of those thing - we really wanted to make a strong entry into the genre and one of the most important things to us is fast & fluid gameplay, we wanted 60 frames per second, we wanted a weapon that had a variety of different attributes and moves - and that's why we have the dual weapon system so you have the ability to upgrade those, and we also wanted a game that was very responsive. Every time you touch the button you get a different move, and you get to chain all these different magic powers together with the Holy Cross and the Scythe. For me that is what the core of the game is, and we wanted to make sure we could deliver something that was a fun, dynamic experience where we felt very powerful and very in control.

From there we wanted to add elements that were really thematic to the Poem, like the righteousness system, that idea of free will that was so important to Dante - It's your choices that determine your future, your path, whether you will be a sinner or a saint. Our character is very much an anti-hero, so we wanted to give players the ability to punish or absolve not only the enemies that you face, but also the prominent characters from the poem. As Dante and Virgil travel through hell they meet all these different people like contemporaries of Dante or historical/mythological figures and this feeds into the system where, depending on whether you absolve or punish these people, you get to upgrade your holy or unholy skill tress.

Strategy Informer: Obviously Dante's Inferno is about the nine circles as much as anything, and there's a lot you can do creatively with the themes. However there's always a danger that you could take it too far and make the 'visuals' as it were over shadow the game play and the story. How did you keep the balance?

Juston Lambros: Yeah that really was a trick for us, we wanted to create some really weird, wild, amazing visuals for each moment. But at first it was all about the game play, back at the beginning we were working through a version of our surface level, getting the combat in there and getting the movement and the feeling in there. Another thing that was important for us was that we had a narrative and a story that could pull you through. The original text of the poem is all about Dante and Virgil travelling through hell trying to look for Beatrice, and we wanted to add a layer on top of that. We kept that basic story in, but we also added a more active antagonist in the form of Lucifer and gave you a reason really to fight through those nine levels of hell. Everything should feed back into the gameplay, which is one of the reasons we added the whole 'descent' mechanism - makes it 'feel' like you're climbing down through hell. It's been hard to balance, but even though the story is important it's really the moment to moment gameplay that see you through.

Strategy Informer: In a past interview a member of your team recounted on how they had come up with some weird and wonderful ideas for some of the levels, like Lust, but that they had to scale themselves back. Do you think that games like this, especially games based on works like this, need to have a line they shouldn't cross?

Juston Lambros: I think it was Wayne Barlowe who helped inspire us to see how far you could push things into the 'weird'. But there was two things mainly: first off you don't want to stray too far from the original poem, you want to make sure it's based on the descriptions of the horrific yet amazing and imaginary world that he created. So we did some things like the Circle of Lust, the Sins of Lust etc.. Would be different today than they were 700 years ago, and that was probably one of the circles where we saw the most ideas that were like "whoah, I don't think we can do that".

The whole idea of sex and sexuality isn't really something that is tackled in games that often. I don't think there were any core concepts form the poem that we felt we couldn't get in. If there was anything that was really horrific, like a punishment or something, we'd simply turn it into a statue so that the visual is still there, but not all the intestines and guys and stuff. It was a tough balance but I think we had a good idea of what served gameplay and what made sense. We felt very unrestricted in the sense that we never thought "Oh no, EA wouldn't like that." Visceral games has a very wide range of responsibilities and we're meant to push the envelope. We did it with DeadSpace and we hope to do it here too.

Strategy Informer: In the original poem there's actually two people making the journey through hell - Dantes and Virgil - Did you ever think about adding in a co-op element to the game?

Juston Lambros: Yeah there are some elements where co-op is really cool, for instance in Return of the King, but in this game making Virgil a playable character seemed to be a bit of a stretch. We really wanted to focus on Dante and making him this hero that you can explore. Also looking at some of our puzzle sequences and adventure elements some of those are specifically tuned for a single-player experience.

Strategy Informer: Speaking in more general terms, videogames are basically about finding a new idea, or improving on an old one. Do you think materials from our past like this are a good source of inspiration?

Juston Lambros: Absolutely, I think they're a great source for all kinds of media. There's just this eternal truth that are in these stories that are very human and amazing experiences. That's one of reasons I came to EA to work on this project, I thought it was a fascinating challenge and something that very much interests me. As games evolve and get more advanced storytelling and the ability to show more impressive visuals and other things we couldn't do five, ten years ago. I'm excited to do more things in this genre like that.

Strategy Informer: Do you think Dante's Inferno can evolve as a franchise? Do you think you can do anything else with this project?

Juston Lambros: Well we do want to establish Dante as an on going franchise, you know the idea of doing comic books and toys and animated movies and all that stuff is very much pushing for the continuation of that. Obviously this is only the first chapter of three for the Divine Comedy, so there's extra material there that Dante wrote about. We didn't cover all of the material we could have, but we would have loved to have included a few more characters and done a few more things and you know made every level even longer - every level ended up a little smaller than the original plans, so there's still content left over.

Strategy Informer: So what do you think the probability is of a 'Dante's Inferno II', as it were?

Juston Lambros: *laughs* Right now we're just focused on the first one as a singular experience to make sure it's the best it can be. Hopefully things will go well and people will like it and so a sequel will make sense. So I think we'd probably be looking at Dante's Journey through the other areas of the Afterlife - I think it would be a great thing for us to tackle.

Strategy Informer: Dante's Inferno has become slightly notorious for EA's 'unique' take on marketing. What do you think about all that?

Juston Lambros: I've actually been really excited about what our partners in marketing have done. The text was controversial at the time and it had a lot of ideas that not everybody agreed with. It went against the direct belief of the church and things, and I think they [marketing] are just drawing a little bit on that, mix things up, get people talking whether it's pro or con and I think that's really interesting. Some of the stunts, some of the things they've done like the E3 protest, and the boxes, I think it's just some really fun stuff. It's gratifying for me to see all of this creative stuff inspired by the poem just like we're doing with the game. I think they've done a great job in getting people thinking and talking about it, so I'm really pleased.

Strategy Informer: Do you think all games could benefit from 'inspired' marketing like this?

Juston Lambros: Every project that I've ever worked on I've wanted inspired marketing to get the word out there and get people talking. It helps raise awareness for the project, and you know it's such a crowded market right now, very blockbuster driven franchise and if you get that awareness and get people talking about your game, that's very important. Not every game should take the same direct approach as we did, but I think it's really great as a developer to have engaged marketing partners. I believe Marketing is a huge part of the games creation process, and it's good to see it all come together.

And there you have it. Musings and opinions from a man very much at the heart of the game. If you would like to learn more about the game itself and our impressions of it, be sure to check our preview.