Mediating Immersion in Moving Images of Dante’s Inferno: From Silent Cinema to Virtual Reality
Mads Larsen (University of Oslo)
Dante’s proto-humanist Divine Comedy represents a point of acceleration for the medial evolution toward subjective immersion. From the humanist perspective, reality no longer consists of objective truths that merely have to be conveyed; a subjective reality should arise from the experience that a narrative produces inside of meaning-making audiences. Such experiences are thought to have the potential to transform how people think, feel, and act. Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321) adapted religious practices of affective devotion to draw readers into the Comedy’s virtual hell. Katherine Powlesland refers to the result as a first-person participation mode, one that offers immersed readers an illusion of embodied interaction. Dante’s desire to immerse audiences in the story world is shared by many storytellers; such an impulse has driven the evolution of moving-image media. The humanist sacralization of subjectivity has contributed to a process of interiorization that informs what André Bazin refers to as the myth of total cinema, a quest for neurally replicating lived experience. Analyzing Dante remediations from film and TV formats to digital gaming and virtual reality (VR) offers insights into how this Bazinian myth influences how filmmakers utilize new technology to facilitate presence—the experiential counterpart of immersion (IJsselsteijn). This study attests to how greater presence, which is often thought to facilitate interior transformation, works in more complex ways than what one can get the impression of from contemporary discourses, especially those related to VR.
Dante opens his Divine Comedy with an invitation to the reader: “In the middle of the journey of our life” (27). In the first of his epic poem’s 14,233 lines, Dante employs the plural possessive “our” to motivate readers to view themselves as participants in the story Dante is about to tell, as fellow wanderers through the Comedy’s three parts, Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Readers are encouraged to view themselves as protagonists for whom the text should serve as a medium for immersion and affective participation. What the reader takes away from this experience should, ideally, lead to personal transformation—a key concept in humanist thought that sacralizes individual self-creation (Harari). Works of art became conceptualized less as representations of an objective external reality, and more like tools whose primary value lie in triggering internal processes for the audience. After the big break in perspective from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance (Crary), immersion and participation became increasingly important.
Drawing on videogame critical theory and cognitive neuroscience, Powlesland suggests the term “first-person participation” to describe the reading mode that can make the Comedy such an exceptionally participatory text. Presence occurs when a work engages readers/audiences/players to such an extent that they experience “a perceptual illusion of realistic embodied interaction in a virtual world, not simply as spectator but as agential participant” (12). Dante makes possible such a state through textual mechanisms that, if successfully triggered by readers, reward them with visceral, somatosensory, or affective responses. Such impact can be achieved by text alone, but for modern artists who remediate the Comedy their media could offer tools with potential for even greater—or at least differently facilitated—presence.
This article analyzes six adaptations of Inferno to investigate how different moving-image media are utilized to facilitate first-person participation. Of particular interest is how these modern storytellers pursue technologically driven immersion to make more effective an audience participation that is meant to contribute to interior transformation. Little evidence suggests that fictional narratives commonly have a long-term effect on how people think and feel, but tenets of humanistic storytelling create a cultural imposition on striving for such an outcome. This manifests itself most clearly in how post-Classical Hollywood structure builds toward a climax choice in which the protagonist earns an interior transformation by overcoming a personal weakness that was established at the beginning of the film (Larsen “Workshopping”). For audiences to experience this transformation vicariously—thus perhaps motivating a similar change in their own interiority—it is thought beneficial if the story maximally engages their senses. This belief has informed the priorities of the past two centuries’ inventors of new story media.
The modern process of placing the audience at the center was well under way by 1820, writes Jonathan Crary. This was a new acceleration point for subjective immersion. No longer was text the primary means for facilitating deeper engagement. With the optical and acoustical revolutions of the late nineteenth century, machines began to “take over functions of the central nervous system . . . The age-old dreams of humankind are no longer sufficient. The physiology of eyes, ears, and brains have become objects of scientific research” (Kittler 16). Predictably, these technologies were put in the service of facilitating greater presence. Bazin brings attention to how from the first experiments with moving images, there was a teleology of “complete representation of reality . . . of a perfect illusion of the outside world.” All leading inventors wanted to provide the “complete illusion of life.” They seemed convinced by modern ideology that such a medium was possible, but realized that it was “still a long way away.” The guiding myth of cinema, writes Bazin, was thus one of “integral realism, a recreation of the world in its own image, an image unburdened by the freedom of interpretation.” Every technological innovation, whether it adds sound, color, or other sensory stimuli, therefore brings cinema “nearer and nearer to its origins. In short, cinema has not yet been invented!” (Bazin 20–1).
Not everyone bought into this myth. Luigi Pirandello and Béla Balázs offered thoughtful arguments against talkies in the 1920s. Shortly thereafter, sound and speech were taken for granted, as those elements—once possible—felt integral to moving images. A similar evolution occurred around later moving-image innovations. We may think we are progressing toward ever greater verisimilitude, but new technology affects both our expectations and experiences. A format that in one era draws audiences in, can in a later era feel alienating. This suggests a relativity with regard to our medial experiences that should undermine our belief in the Bazinian myth, yet my case studies attest to its appeal. Tracing how Dante adaptors use new technology to promote immersion gives the impression that those who have contributed to the modern media evolution have been driven by a desire to neurally replicate lived experience—and that they conceptualized this as a form of progress that could facilitate interior transformation.
The silent film L’Inferno (1911) externalizes visual imagination and uses special effects to immerse audiences within a hell thought to be so transformative that, at least apocryphally, an American lawyer stood up in the cinema to confess his sins (Fletcher). Dante’s Inferno (1935) relies on sound, music, and the visual imagination of its director, a post-impressionist painter, to draw audiences into a sequence from hell that has been praised as “one of the most unexpected, imaginative and striking pieces of cinema in Hollywood's history” (Halliwell 205; see Figure 1). A TV Dante (1990), critiqued as both “TV’s first masterpiece” and “terminally pretentious twaddle,” uses Inferno to renew TV and video aesthetics (Phillips 239). The digital game Dante’s Inferno (2010) offers spectacular graphics and intense interaction that add presence for players, but the format inspired such dramatic changes to characters and narrative that many critics were left aghast. Inferno VR (2016) immerses theme park visitors in a five-minute virtual reality ride enhanced by “motion base, air blast, water blast, leg ticklers, vibration, wind, heat, [and] aroma” (Red Raion 2020a).
These works let us trace the evolution from what was, arguably, cinema’s first blockbuster to an early version of VR. They illustrate how storytellers are often driven to utilize any means a new media affords in order to enhance presence and thus trigger audience introspection. Analyzing how this plays out, my case studies suggests that presence and transformation have a more complex relationship. Media choice affects how a story’s message, too, often must be remediated to fit a new format, which again influences what type of introspection a work promotes. These remediations of Dante’s Inferno attest to how technologically driven immersion, while adding presence, must not equate to enhancing a work’s capacity for inspiring meaningful transformation.
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Remember, reader, if ever in the mountains a
fog caught you through which you saw no
otherwise than a mole does through its skin,
how, when the moist, thick vapors begin to thin
out, the sphere of the sun shines weakly through
and your imagination will easily come to see
how I first saw the sun again, which was already
setting. (Alighieri 277)
If you, the reader, accepts Dante’s invitation to “remember” a scene similar to the one the author describes, perhaps “your imagination will easily” let you perceptually experience yourself in Dante’s position within his narrative. Can you sense the sunset? What does the vista evoke for you? Such direct address is the tip of the iceberg for the narrative techniques Dante uses to offer up his own spiritual journey as a fictional pilgrimage that also readers can embark on by merging their own experience and imagination with his text. Erich Auerbach notes that for Dante’s groundbreaking realism, “imitation of reality is imitation of the sensory experience of life on earth” (“Farinata,” 228). Such imitation should contribute to an immersion in the story that would increase its chances of affecting the immersed subject—this was the humanist wager. As a result of his medial strategy, argues Auerbach, Dante—more so than any previous literature—was able to present the history of humankind’s “inner life and growth” (242).
Dante’s achievement has long been read as a consequence of his innovative approach to his own era’s media revolution. Books became copied in new ways and spread through networks for individual reading or public performance. The previous century’s educational progress had improved literacy, leading to a large increase in reading communities, which created a market for widespread translation of Latin texts (Corbellini). In this new media reality, the Comedy became pivotal in European literary history for being high literature composed in the vernacular. The work also lent itself to oral dissemination through its use of a frequently sung meter, and from being divided into brief, easily performable units in a style so simple that—in Dante’s own words—even the illiterate could follow the narrative. Dante’s ambition was to reach “the widest possible audience” (Iannucci 5). An additional goal was to facilitate deeper investment for some readers so that they could participate more significantly “in the production of meaning” (6).
Powlesland conceptualizes the Comedy to invite first-person participation through three types of presence: (1) spatial presence, through describing how it feels to exist inside the narrative; (2) social presence, by narrating gestures, postures, and expressions meant to solicit kinesthetic empathy with fictional characters; and (3) self-presence, through helping readers experience themselves as protagonists. The latter is achieved by, for instance: direct address, leading readers to imagine that they are looking around, training of reader imagination through progressively more demanding exercises, and a vast network of gaps in the text that readers must use their own experience and cognition to fill in if the narrative is to make sense. Techniques that engage embodied, pre-rational cognition help readers immerse in ways meant to make the story feel more like their own. Dante knew—and his story attests to—how “true knowledge must first become self-knowledge . . . a reliable, concrete experience” (Mazzotta 151–2). For humanist stories intended to inspire self-creation, presence is therefore viewed as key. To what extent such transformations actually occur is hard to assess. Dante was likely inspired by his era’s practices of affective devotion. Religious texts were written to make readers meditate on concrete, visual events of the crucifixion in order to “incorporate the subjectivity of another,” that is, to simulate in their own bodies the pain of Jesus (Ritchey 341). Dante’s intervention was to remediate this religious practice for his own proto-humanist literature.
Although many view the Comedy as a near optimal mediation of a pilgrim’s journey for its medieval context, Auerbach considers Dante’s view of history and his rhetorical style to lose relevance not long after the author’s passing (Literary Language). Part of the work’s power came from how effectively it dramatized the political and moral challenges that defined the period of change that led up to the Italian Renaissance. As the fifteenth century progressed, Dante’s work lost some renown, at least among general readers. In the nineteenth century, the Comedy anew became a bestseller and was widely heralded as one of humankind’s most notable literary achievements. New generations of artists borrowed Dante’s fourteenth-century vision to make sense of their own era’s change.
1911 Silent Film
With L’Inferno, directors Francesco Bertolini et al. seek not to relocate Dante’s story to a modern context, but to retell it through the novel medium of moving images. What is commonly viewed as the first cinematic blockbuster bridges its era’s cinema of attraction with classical film narration. It does this so successfully that the film medium itself gained considerable prestige among cultural elites. New media are often marketed with great confidence with regard to their ability to add qualities that former media lack. The American promotor of L’Inferno claimed that Dante’s work “whose beauties until now were accessible only to a small band of scholars, has now after a sleep of more than six centuries become the property of mankind” (qtd. in Fletcher 99).
Dante’s cinematic journey was a contemporary sensation, yet its archaic narrative and cinematography would be unlikely to captivate today’s moviegoers. Long tableau shots keep audiences at a distance, reducing the potential for spatial presence. Instead of being in the middle of the action, you often observe from a non-impacted position, which was a choice informed by contemporary format conventions. Similar to what many mid-2010s VR filmmakers believed, early-1910s silent filmmakers tended to think that cutting back and forth between shots would be unmanageable for audience cognition (Olsson). This tableau technique leads to the inhabitants of hell often being foregrounded, while Dante (Salvatore Papa) and his companion Virgil remain in the background (see Figure 2). Such mise-en-scène can promote social presence by providing closeups of those sufferers with whom audiences are led to empathize. Saverio Bellomo finds that this backgrounding turns Dante into more of a spectator than a protagonist. The film’s subject matter can be read not as the pilgrim’s journey, but the state of the condemned souls. Alas, self-presence through identifying with the protagonist has limited potential for immersion, as Dante’s journey never feels like something audiences are invited to be agential participants in. Both narratively and visually, the film unfolds more like a guided tour through which we get to see with our own eyes what hell could be like.
For contemporary audiences, the social presence this inspired could trigger considerable affect, as could the spectacle of cutting-edge effects. L’Inferno‘s elaborate production design—enhanced by double, triple, and quadruple exposure—staged visual storytelling unlike any previous attempt. Experiencing the era’s best cinematic style and technique as applied to a long-form fictional narrative provided captivating novelty for those eager to immerse themselves in Dante’s epic (Welle). As the new medium found its narrative footing in this decade, cinema’s capacity for presence—especially of the empathetic kind—inspired many to speculate regarding its social potential. Narratively impressive Ingeborg Holm (1913) had direct influence on Swedish poverty legislation, which became more generous due to audience uproar. Such impact led its director to place great hope in cinema’s ability to transform audiences in a progressive direction (Larsen “Investigating”). Similarly, L’Inferno inspired elites to think cinema could contribute to Italian cultural unification (Welle 38) and civil consciousness (Brunetta 144). A few years later, The Birth of a Nation (1915) testified to cinema’s potential for impact, but that nothing about the medium dictated that the transformation it inspired had to be progressive.
1935 Sound Film
Spencer Tracy, one of the most prominent stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, plays Jim Carter, a manual laborer tired of being at the lower rungs of society. Harry Lachman’s Dante’s Inferno begins with Carter inside the engine-room on a cruise liner, shoveling coal in infernal heat. From the opening closeup on intense flames, the added sound is a significant step toward total cinema. A convincing soundscape places audience in the midst of sputtering fire, roaring machines, and hard-working bodies. No musical accompaniment could have facilitated a similar sense of being there. Audiences have been brought experientially closer to Carter by the time he gets fired. We gain a more embodied insight into his grueling work conditions, encouraging us to emphasize when Carter, in response to losing his job, decides to do whatever it takes to win socio-economic success. He makes this immoral decision after having observed the capitalists who now rule the world. We hear them mock Carter from their higher-up positions within the ship’s interior.
Lachman, a renowned post-impressionist painter, structures his film as an argument for the importance of presence in art. He makes this humanist case with regard to his fictional characters and his audience. Carter gets a chance to shine when he is put in charge of Dante’s Inferno, a theme park installation. It is like an art gallery—with paintings and sculptures—that the old owner employs to impart spiritual lessons to old visitors who fear death. Carter understands that relying on such ancient media makes commercial success impossible inside a trendy theme park. He turns the small art installation into a gigantic attraction with elaborate sets, smoke and flames, and many performers (see Figure 3). Such total-cinema-aspiring, spatially oriented entertainment has its roots in the immersive, fourth-wall-breaking theater of the nineteenth century, from which a line goes through theme park attractions to today’s VR formats. These are media, writes John Bucher, that attempt to create “a ‘real-life’ experience [through replicating] the sounds, images, and feelings we have become familiar with in given situations” (81).
Carter's spatial attraction captivates the crowds who are guided through its immersive horrors. For them, spatial presence is actual, and social presence is promoted by performers and an in-character guide's explicatory narrative. On the opening night, self-presence is embodied by a man from whom Carter took the large theme park lot by using business savvy. The now bankrupt man’s agential commitment could hardly be stronger. He stares out from high up in the attraction, saying “nothing left for me now but hell,” then jumps to his death. In contrast to this external mediation of hell, Carter’s inner torment is dramatized when the old owner reads the Comedy to him. The protagonist’s experience is made visual through an eight-minute sequence in which Lachman stages an inferno that in terms of facilitating audience presence, arguably, can stand up to anything cinema has produced (Halliwell). Artistic lighting, staging, acting, and effects—everything pulls in the same direction. Visuals are stunning and deeply captivating. Lachman’s use of sound is particularly impressive. Even the most elaborately prepared in-cinema orchestra could not have performed something similar for a silent feature. An orchestra, a choir, and actors in agony place audiences inside a sensory overwhelming hell. Lachman’s early sound film reaches a high-water mark for the medium that, arguably, stands today.
The visuals effects also impress. They are simple compared to what later film would offer, yet no seams are visible that could undermine a viewer’s feeling of presence. Lachman choreographs parts of his alleged 4000-person cast to move as one in what Fox sold as the “greatest spectacle ever attempted in cinema history” (qtd. in Havely 274). In almost every shot, from foreground to background, hell plays out like never before seen or heard. Juxtaposed with the film’s cruder theme park attraction, Lachman seems to make a case for the film medium’s unrivaled ability to offer mass-mediated presence. In the sequence’s final seconds, dozens of bodies appear actually to be ablaze (see Figure 1). A similar inferno is repeated in the film’s climax sequence, in which Carter makes an active choice to overcome his character weakness—the structural element that would become near ubiquitous in post-Classical Hollywood (Larsen “Workshopping”).
As his new casino ship catches fire, the protagonist is no longer an egotist; he puts himself at great risk to save passengers. Throughout the film, Lachman has given audiences abundant reason to imagine themselves in Carter’s position. The handsome man marries an intelligent woman for whom he is a loving husband. They have an admirable child. Although Carter adheres to business morality, he is also a likable, fun guy. Still, the film clearly moralizes against contemporary capitalism. Business people, even those who follow the law, are immoral because good people should prioritize relationships over profits. If they do not, they—like Carter and Dante—risk going “through a hell of [their] own making,” which is what Carter realizes in the end. As a man who has finally succeed in transforming himself, Carter tells his wife that he will not have “anything to offer you now but just my love.” Fortunately, her final words of the film are “that’s all I ever wanted.”
The sentimental ending brings home Carter’s self-creation. His breakthrough would have been impossible without him experiencing presence within Dante’s literary inferno. For his fictional characters, Lachman dramatizes how a convincing experience of hell can motivate change. In line with the demands of humanist storytelling, the director attempts to facilitate something similar for moviegoers. His strategy for doing so seems suboptimal. Perhaps Carter’s active climax choice adds to the self-presence audiences could feel. Yet it seems unlikely that many would relate to an egotistic millionaire’s moral challenge, even if he was an everyman as the film began. Only his immoral first-act choice of doing whatever success requires would be a relatable dilemma for most. Audiences could root for their hero’s return to his old self, but as spectators, not as agential participants in a quandary that relates to their own lives.
1990 TV Video
A unique contribution was made to the history of moving images when Channel 4 sought to fulfill the artistic obligation that came with its public transmissions order through an adaptation of Dante. The channel gave remarkably free reins to Tom Phillips, a renowned painter and graphic designer, and Peter Greenaway, a painter and self-taught filmmaker with a big name in New British Cinema. With four 22-minute episodes that aired in 1990, the pair sought to “develop television as a ‘new vernacular”’ (Taylor 149). Similar to the way in which Dante experimented with Italian vernacular to get more out of the emerging mass medium of his day, Greenaway and Phillips wanted to renew the existing television and video aesthetic, which the artists felt were not adequate to the potential of these media (Kretschmann 236).
The creators would use the story itself as no more than a hook (Gras and Gras 52). Their primary concern was the medium’s form and structure through which Inferno would be translated into symbolic TV language. The result, if you are a media and Dante scholar, is mesmerizing. But this was neither an academic video essay, nor an art film. Andrew Taylor argues that the series’ “problem is that the very choice of television as a medium implies an address to a mass audience” (Taylor 147). With so little story, and expert commentary that, at times, is comically highbrow—in addition to creators obsessed with dramatizing their own interiority—A TV Dante offers regular viewers content that is challenging to digest. The series can be read to communicate on three levels: narrative, informative, and immersive. The story from Inferno is dramatically recited, which gives insight into the narrative, but without letting a comprehensible story emerge. To inform, frames pop up with experts who attempt to explain the narrative and its context. To immerse audiences, dramatic images and sounds contribute to a spatial presence that grows increasingly uncomfortable as hell intensifies. Sitting alone in front of your TV, you can feel pulled into a reality that makes little sense, but which captivates you through bodily sensations. Seeing up close how shiny, writhing bodies are tormented triggers social presence (see Figure 4). Self-presence can be even stronger. Those who recite narrative stare into the camera, as if to say that this remediation of hell relates directly to you.
Although TV seems capable of facilitating strong presence, those the medium communicates to generally require more from a production. If we lived in a reality in which audiences wanted to tune in to a narrative nearly impossible to follow, with erudite scholarly commentary, while staring at repulsive bodies and listening to suffering groans—A TV Dante might have had its planned 34 episodes funded. In our reality, the experiment attests to the intimate presence that an audiovisual in-the-living-room medium can facilitate, but which the same medium’s social context can make insufficient. I cannot help but think that the artists could have created a similar, more successful work with internet as their medium—had it been available at the time. A TV Dante’s synchronous use of three levels of communication evokes the practice of web browsing; then, at least, viewers could have interacted to shape the experience to their own preference. The creators must have sensed that TV was an ill-suited medium, stating that their work “is designed to be recorded on video and then watched by the audience at their own speed, stopping and starting at will like reading a book” (Vickers 267).
2010 Digital Game
There are good reasons both for and against classifying digital games as moving images (Meskin and Robson). For our purpose of tracing the mediation of presence, it is useful to view gaming as a medial evolution that—in addition to including moving images and sound—empowers people through interaction within a computational volume. Such agency can be viewed as another significant step toward total cinema, as it contributes to the “integral realism” of what Bazin calls the “perfect illusion of the outside world.” Alexander Galloway draws a line from literature to images and digital gaming with an added element of realism for each step. To facilitate presence, a story must be experienced as real in one way or another. Galloway conceptualizes that good literature offers realism in narrative; painting, photography, and film strive for realism in image, while digital games should offer realism also in action. Dante’s Inferno, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 game, should therefore provide realism of narrative through its story, of image through its graphics, and of action through its gameplay.
When Visceral Games/Electronic Arts released Dante’s Inferno in 2010, its stunning graphics were widely praised, as was, mostly, its fun and engaging gameplay. Its story left some critics aghast at how the medium inspired its creators to transform the narrative and characters; the poet Dante became a hyperviolent crusader, “a scythe-winding badass” (Ayo; see Figure 5). Teodolinda Barolini finds “the sexualization and infantilization of Beatrice,” the main female character, to be “the worst [because in the poem] she is not to be saved by him, she is saving him. That’s the whole point! Here, she has become the prototypical damsel in distress. She’s this kind of bizarrely corrupted Barbie doll” (79).
Game designers made these changes to motivate Dante by something more relatable for age 17+ gamers. To defend himself against accusations of “desecrating the original poem,” a gameplay engineer explains that they took Dante’s text very seriously but “without being literal and bound by the exact text because, come on, that would suck as a game” (Electronic Arts). This lack of fidelity needs not detract from how gamers immerse themselves in and thus perceive narrative reality. Denise Ayo argues that the game’s success suggests that having Dante fight his way through nine circles of hell—defeating a boss on each level, with Lucifer himself as the final boss—was a functional remediation. She writes that as a literary and gender scholar, she was “left to wonder why this game does not offend me” (101). She finds that the game quite effectively remediates Dante’s authorial intent, brings the story to a contemporary context of religious pluralism and modern thought, and critiques “video-game conventions, especially in regard to gender and religion” (102).
In terms of inviting presence, the game medium offers a range of new tools. In the introduction sequence, the creators cite Dante’s first line but omit the plural possessive “our.” Holding the game controller, players know they are an indispensable part of the journey about to unfold. Such agency can greatly add to the level of immersion, as can computer-generated visuals. Compared to these graphics, cinema and TV visuals seem flat and uninviting. The game engine produces a three-dimensionality of such detail, flow, and complexity that spatial presence is greatly enhanced. High-resolution images and a framerate twice of what was usual at the time result “in a game world that feels more alive and interactive” (Welsh and Sebastian 167).
Throughout the game, which an expert can hurry through in six hours, players must engage in non-stop battle, movement, choice-making, and watching of narrative that informs the actions they are about to take. Everything seems constructed to maintain the illusion of embodied, agential presence within this digital inferno. There is a learning curve in terms of narrative and interaction. In gaming, “the gap between avatar identity and player gradually lessens as the player progressively naturalizes the skills she has learned,” which in this medium is the basis for Powleslandian self-presence (37). Once the story world and its objectives are understood, and the controller mastered, Ayo emphasizes “the unique ability of the video-gaming medium to invoke player identification with the avatar” (111).
“The mode of engagement,” Linda Hutcheon writes about gaming, is “one of real participation and thus the degree of immersion intense: we feel physically present in the mediated environment, rather than in our real world.” Even during narrative cutscenes, designers want players to remain physically connected to the playable character. So-called quick-time events entail that players must perform scripted button presses that mimic the character’s on-screen action. Players are asked to connect morally to some of the characters they slay, having either to forgive or condemn their souls. To what extent cutscenes and interaction with in-game characters inspire social presence is open to interpretation. The game’s overly theatrical dramatization of interpersonal relationships is meant to fit the medieval setting, but the scripted content seems unlikely to inspire strong empathetic engagement. This game is about you as the player-protagonist and how you experience having to fight your way through hell. The game’s executive producer confirms that their main goal was “to create a journey that will make gamers truly feel like they are going through hell” (qtd. in Damrosch 161). This is not Dante’s Christian hell; as the game’s Lucifer makes clear, “it’s yours.”
2016 Virtual Reality
Red Raion is an Italian CGI studio specializing in media-based attractions meant to make audiences “feel the most intense emotions” (2020b). Inferno VR is their five-minute theme park ride for which visitors put on head-mounted displays (HMD) and sit in contraptions that add to their sensory experience through movement, vibration, wind, water, heat, smell, and “leg ticklers.” Paratext promises a “horror story that will leave you breathless. [Monsters] will try to catch you: run away from them. [Dante] will guide you through hell to finally reach the outer world. Just follow his suggestions and find the way out” (2020a). In reality, you have no such agency. Like with much mid-2010s cinematic VR fare, this video steers away from the emergent medium’s shortcomings by constructing a story that lets you, the protagonist, sit passively while the action occurs around you (Larsen “Virtual”). Similar to the way in which Oculus Rift’s early media campaigns featured a VR roller coaster, Red Raion turns Dante’s Inferno into a high-speed thrill. By emphasizing horror, the creators lean further into strengths of the medium (Bucher).
Presence through sensory immersion has been VR’s raison d'être since the medium was conceptualized by sci-fi writers in the 1930s. Since the 1960s, engineers have applied whichever technologies their era offers to make VR-enabled presence feel as close to our base reality as possible (Greengard). The underwhelming effect from these technologies, and their impracticality—compared to expectations—have tied the history of VR to a discourse of hype. The 2010s brought new optimism, but the medium is yet to deliver on its promise of mainstream appeal. Red Raion’s video is representative of the current state of cinematic VR and offers a presence similar to that of non-Dante VR roller coasters. How impactful the added sensory effects are I cannot attest to, as I have only experienced the ride through an HMD.
Paratext is crucial if you are to draw a story from this experience, as is some familiarity with the Comedy. As your cart approaches the tunnel, Dante stands outside in his familiar red garb with a copy of his book. This intertextual approach continues throughout the ride. Those familiar with Dante will know that they are descending through circles of hell, that there is a purpose to this visit, and that Dante is your guide when he intermittently flies past (see Figure 6). When Lucifer grabs you at the end, this also resonates somewhat with Dante’s story. Still, no meaningful narrative or anything resembling a lesson is offered—just the thrill. As such, this 2016 VR film—with sensory addons—offers the greatest spatial presence of all our case studies. Self-presence is also strong. You are the protagonist, albeit without a digital body or any agency beyond closing your eyes if the ride becomes too scary. Social presence is negligible, as your main company, the mute Dante, is a mere visual reminder of the story world’s origins. This hell lacks any condemned with whom one could empathize.
These limitations seem primarily informed by the medial characteristics of cinematic VR at the time of production. Agential virtual reality within a computational volume, which we already have with VR gaming, affords movement and other elements that add presence. With technological progress, such affordances seem likely to be incorporated also in works of narrative VR. What ultimately stands to be gained from this ongoing evolution is not clear. Studies have long focused on the connection between medial immersion and its effect on feelings triggered by stories. Giuseppe Riva et al. conclude that presence is important as a “mediating variable between the media experience and the emotions induced by it.” Their VR study suggests “that if a medium is not able to induce a feeling of presence, the affective responses might be low independently from the emotional content provided by it” (55).
Inferno VR restricts its affective ambitions mostly to the thrill of speed and horror. Red Raion’s ambitions are to let “spectators live the story through the point of view of the hero” (2020c 8). Their current productions leave much to be desired, attesting to how the medium, using Bazin’s words, is “still a long way away” from total cinema. The VR medium is expected to continue to evolve toward greater correspondence with what Auerbach—referring to Dante—calls “the sensory experience of life.” What future VR remediations of Inferno could offer, we can only speculate. Considering the medial evolution of cinema, from L’Inferno’s awkward staging of hell to Harry Lachman’s convincing dramatization twenty-four years later, a more mature VR could be a very effective medium for allowing people to experience their own personal hell.
Through the evolution of moving images, we can identify an arc that bends not toward a more perfect representation of an objective reality, which was the classical ideal (Crary). The modern emphasis on the subjective drives a medial evolution toward neural replication of life as humans experience it—toward making real the myth that cinema’s early inventors let guide their efforts. This is an important epistemological distinction, one that Bazin does not fully engage. The modern humanist truth is that there is no underlying reality that can be medially represented. But the human experience can; this is but a question of subjective verisimilitude. Such a total cinema can be possible. Whether it will—to what extent technology will be able to delude our brains—only the future can tell.
Irrespective of how closely tomorrow’s VR will be able to replicate humankind’s lived experience, our drive to create such a medium speaks to something deeply human. Our evolved preference for storytelling seems to include a desire for mediating stories so that they feel like something our audiences experience themselves. Like Dante, we want to invite others to perceptually enter our narrative space; from this desire the Bazinian myth arose. Since the cognitive revolution, which Yuval Harari places 70,000 years in the past, our species has been driven not only to create fiction, but to externalize our inner creations. Through oral storytelling, cave painting, wood carving, sculpture, and other arts, we have tried to bring others into our own creative imaginaries so that they can be shared.
Since the modern media revolution, this process has accelerated through innovations that let artists manipulate an increasing range of senses with ever-more convincing stimuli. Dante relied entirely on his readers’ imaginative powers for making his epic poem come alive. When his work was performed—that is, read out loud—the reader’s dramatic skills could help listeners experience greater presence. Painters and sculptors would later add visuals and materiality that could stimulate people’s imagination—a kind of immersion through form. Later still, theatergoers could witness the story be played out. With cinema, the theater’s sets, masks, and effects were replaced by visuals that could carry audiences further away, in ways that depended less on their own imaginative powers. Sound film added another layer of immersion. As medial practices matured, adaptations of Dante’s story became more narratively complex and, often, reimagined to fit a modern context. With the digital revolution, audiences became players who entered the narrative space to interact. With virtual reality, presence has become primary. Immersing in the story world can be so intrinsic to the VR narrative that audiences have no choice but to become participating characters if the story is to happen at all.
Analyzing how Inferno has been remediated through this process of technological change shows us that increased presence—which humanist storytellers consider key to personal transformation—is no guarantee for audience impact. Our case studies could be interpreted to suggest the contrary. When Dante’s text was published, it had significant impact on many of its readers. Seven hundred years later, the Comedy still motivates people to spend years—if not decades—immersing themselves in the text. As far as I know, none of my case studies have come close to inspiring such an investment. Perhaps no medium will ever be as effective as words for activating our ability to construct an immersive presence for ourselves within a space that does not materially exist; language was, after all, what our brains evolved to facilitate. Perhaps we need to develop a deeper understanding of different types of presence. Immersing oneself in in a narrative facilitated by text seems to have fundamentally different potentialities than surrendering one’s sensatory apparatus to digital and mechanical manipulation.
Thinking in terms of historicity instead of an absolute end point of total cinema also seems productive. The Comedy was experienced as exceptionally immersive by many medieval readers. Most people, if they pick up Dante’s text today, will probably not derive much narrative pleasure from his archaic poem—let alone much presence. Some argue that we are entering a post-literary age (Damrosch). Fiction is mostly consumed via serialized TV and increasingly through digital gaming. Once virtual reality not only becomes more technologically convincing, but also finds its narrative form, we could be entering a post-cinematic age. After several false starts, it is hard to predict when VR will reach maturity. Galloway suggests that new media have a lag time, “a thirty-year rule,” from invention to “its ascent to proper and widespread functioning in culture at large” (85) If we consider the 1960s as the birth of VR, we are long overdue.
Tech optimist Ray Kurzweil predicts that total cinema is just around the corner. He believes that already by 2030 nanobots “will provide fully immersive, totally convincing virtual reality.” Most experts expect a longer wait. Today’s bulky equipment and narratives of attraction—yet with some examples of effective storytelling—suggest that we are in a phase similar to the one cinema was in around the time of L’Inferno. We can imagine how if VR becomes sensory indistinguishable from, or at least close to, our lived experience, the medium would offer experiences that could make stories on two-dimensional screens feel as unsatisfying as silent film is to most audiences today. This is an important aspect of our modern media evolution: we habituate and want more. With the agential affordances of the digital realm, future stories could offer modes of participation that would make mere spectatorship, for most people, feel as archaic as Dante’s poem. It only took a few years of social media participation before people took for granted public arenas through which everyone can voice their views. Similarly, the VR format could engender audience expectation of being Dante’s “virtual sidekick” if they are to accept his invitation to go on a journey (Larsen “Virtual”). Such stories would require narrative innovation similar to the way in which cinema needed its first decades to figure out how best to immerse moviegoers. Galloway identifies the same need within digital gaming, for alternative ways of constructing gameplay. Once these innovations of content and technology are in place, immersive digital media could overtake the cultural position that previously has been held by oral storytelling, literature, cinema, and TV.
If our digital future allows us to become first-person participants to a greater extent than what previous media have, Powlesland suggests that we could return to a medieval mode “we might now consider as cognitive co-creation” (196). Triggering embodied affect is key to this mode. We could view such a return as bookending the humanist period between Dante and the post-humanist future many scholars predict we are entering (Hayles). Throughout this period, Delio De Martino notes how modern and postmodern adaptations have reduced the Comedy mostly to fragments. From these efforts, he draws hope of new media one day being able to produce moving images that live up to Dante’s poem. Perhaps then, Dante’s invitation to join him in “the journey of our life could,” again, offer such a novel and effective form of immersion that some audiences could experience that the protagonist’s transformation is theirs too.
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