Today marks the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri—and the world Dante created in The Divine Comedy has influenced creators across the globe for those 700 years. You can take a look at the art Dante inspired through a new digital humanities project that maps his impact, but today we’re fondly remembering an unconventional Dante tribute: the 2010 Dante’s Inferno action video game, and the bizarre marketing strategies used to promote it.
Developed by Visceral Games and published by EA, Dante’s Inferno (the game) was a third-person action-adventure game; players play as Dante, reimagined as a Templar Knight who’s committed atrocities during the Crusades, and best the nine circles of Hell to rescue their love interest from Lucifer. Even though Oscar Isaac (!) called Dante’s Inferno “terrible” and “a shitty game” (to be fair, he was fired from voice-over work there), gamers largely enjoyed it, even unsuccessfully petitioning EA to remake Dante’s Inferno for new game consoles. And for the non-gamers, or gamers who wanted even more Dante’s Inferno, there was good news: Dante’s Inferno: An Animated Epic, an 88-minute movie based on the video game. (You can watch it here.)
Although the game wasn’t particularly unusual—it’s very 2009—more unusual was the involved marketing campaign surrounding it. To promote Dante’s Inferno, EA invented fake products, Rickrolled game critics, and staged protests. Most of the advertising involved getting audiences to demonstrate a given sin (corresponding to one of the nine circles of hell), condemning them for that sin, and then telling them to play Dante’s Inferno.
One of EA’s prime targets, obviously, was game journalists: EA mailed game journalists $200 checks to promote their game, with a note that said, “In Dante’s Inferno, Greed is a two-headed beast. Hoarding wealth feeds on beast and squandering it satiates the other. By cashing this check you succumb to avarice by hoarding 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. And scoff not, for consequences are imminent.” One blogger burned his check. Another cashed his but donated the money to a women’s charity, possibly a clapback at EA for another questionable Dante’s Inferno marketing stunt, a contest asking Comic-Con attendees to “commit acts of lust” with models working at the Comic-Con booths and send photos to EA. (EA also mailed journalists cakes shaped like severed limbs . . . because, you know, gluttony?)
A month after these mailings, EA sent a series of packages to games journalists; each package contained a box which played Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.” (What circle of Hell is “being annoying”?) The only way to stop the music was to smash the box with a hammer provided inside the box; upon destroying the box, the journalists found a chiding note which told them they had given into Wrath.
Meanwhile, to the public, EA promoted the fictional company Hawk Panther, which promised to help users steal their best friend’s girlfriend, but then condemned them to the ninth circle of Hell when they clicked on a link to find out more. More excitingly, EA also promoted a fake game called Mass: We Pray, ostensibly a devotional game where users could participate in religious ceremonies. (Tagline: “Bring your family closer . . . to Heaven!”) When users tried to order the game, the (now defunct) website sent them a message warning them about heresy and telling them to play Dante’s Inferno. Engadget referred to Mass: We Pray as “the latest move in the Dante’s Inferno marketing campaign’s fight against good taste.” (If you want to gauge the taste level for yourself, you can watch the fake Mass: We Pray trailer here.)
Though some of these stunts were fun in isolation, both gamers and reporters quickly grew irritated with the Dante’s Inferno promotion: Yahoo called it “one of the most bizarre, imaginative, and downright troublesome marketing campaigns of recent years.” Most angry at EA was a group of protesters at the 2009 Electronic Entertainment Expo protesting Dante’s Inferno, calling EA the Anti-Christ . . . until it was revealed that the protesters had been hired by EA to protest the game to drum up publicity.
. . . To be fair, Improv Everywhere was very popular at the time.
Take a look at the Dante’s Inferno trailer below and decide if it was worth all the hype: