Visceral Games, developers of Dante’s Inferno: The Video Game and Travesty, have released as a marketing tie-in a version of the actual poem. The book is translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and accompanied by sixteen pages of “stunning art,” which is probably true but not how they mean.

Listen, I can’t possibly do justice to this thing. Here’s the cover, and the marketing copy from the back:

The timeless classic of a journey through the horrors of hell
The action adventure blockbuster that’s rocking the video-game world

All hell is breaking loose. Electronic Arts’ thrilling video game Dante’s Inferno has exploded onto the scene, and this is the book that provides insight into its creation. Go back to the source with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s celebrated translation of Dante’s epic poem. Presented in its entirety, here is the foundation and inspiration for the game. Then learn how the game’s creators turned Dante’s notorious Nine Circles of Hell in to the hottest game around.In sixteen pages of stunning art, you’ll discover how the poem’s monsters and villains—from King Minos and Cerberus to Lucifer himself—evolved into the darkest creatures in video-game damnation, and witness how the environments fashioned by the game’s creators bring to hideous life the tortured netherworld of absolute evil. And in a fascinating introduction written exclusively for this book, executive producer Jonathan Knight shares intriguing details about the process of adapting Dante’s masterpiece into this epic video game.

Welcome to Hell—let the nightmares begin.

Nightmares? Actually, reaction to this news on gaming news and opinion sites has been generally positive. Wired’s Gus Mastrapa and Penny Arcade’s Tycho both express a hope that this gambit succeeds beyond the wildest dreams of the marketing wonk who must have thought it up. As for me… well, I’m the kind of snob who won’t pick up an edition of a book that has a picture from the movie adaptation on it, even if it was in fact the movie that prompted me to read the book. And I’m in total agreement with them on all points:

  1. If this gets anyone to read Dante’s Inferno, that’s great.
  2. That is one of the ugliest covers I have ever seen for anything.

This is probably a good marketing move, given that the text is in the public domain and thus free, but I’d be surprised if the game’s target audience was able to sit through even a single canto. A comparison, for your edification:

Dante’s Inferno, official trailer #2

Now the text, in translation:

The sepulchres make all the place uneven;

So likewise did they there on every side,
Saving that there the manner was more bitter;

For flames between the sepulchres were scattered,
By which they so intensely heated were,
That iron more so asks not any art.

All of their coverings uplifted were,
And from them issued forth such dire laments,
Sooth seemed they of the wretched and tormented.

Excerpt from Longfellow’s translation, Canto 9

What is the experience of watching that video like, compared to the experience of reading that text? Are the same people likely to enjoy both? I say no. I usually appreciate adaptations between different forms of media—I got a very cool Beowulf graphic novel for my birthday—but this game is so far from the source material in terms of presentation, aesthetics, pacing, tone and frequency of exposed breasts that anyone lured in by it is unlikely to appreciate the poem.

This is hardly the first video game to have one or more tie-in books (if the game does well, I bet we see Dante’s Purgatory and Dante’s Paradise games, plus the corresponding reprints), however. Gamers bought Halo: The Fall of Reach in droves, and books based on gaming IPs are starting to show up in classrooms as a way to entice kids to read. Shout-out to teacher Kristie Jolley, whose paper Video Games to Reading: Reaching Out to Reluctant Readers contains some very practical suggestions about how to gradually move kids from more visual storytelling media to more textual ones, based on case studies conducted with her own students.

Dante’s Inferno has been a creatively marketed game from the start. EA hired fake Christian protesters to picket the game at E3 2009, an industry expo (best sign: “Cheat codes won’t save your soul!”), which sparked some press but also a real online protest movement from Christians who didn’t appreciate being pigeonholed as shallow and closed-minded. The company followed up by testing the ethics of industry bloggers and journalists, sending several individuals $200 checks along with notes that read in part, “By cashing this check you succumb to avarice by harding filthy lucre, but by not cashing it, you waste it, and thereby surrender to prodigality. Make your choice and suffer the consequence for your sin.” Whether these stunts will pay off is anyone’s guess, but the game itself has been getting poor pre-release buzz, with the consensus hovering somewhere around “wait for God of War 3 instead.”

Giant Bomb‘s “quick look” at the game (NSFW for language and game content)