Technology Conference:

“Recreating Dante’s Commedia in VR: The Intersection Between Virtual Reality and Literature,” DH2019, annual international conference of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations, Utrecht University, Utrecht, Netherlands, July 9-12, 2019

Poster Presentation:

Imagine if you could go to Dante’s hell, row over the river Acheron, meet Medusa (or try to avoid her), and take a ride on the back of the monster Geryon, as you descend to lower hell.

An early Unity prototype with audio by Francesco Bausi (2017).

Literary VR

Since the development of increasingly sophisticated virtual reality technologies, the medium of virtual reality has boomed in recent years, with video, gaming, filmmaking, journalism, and marketing companies exploiting VR for its immersive and interactive potential. At the same time, academic scholars have also begun to see the power and potential of archeology VR, anthropology VR, art history VR, etc.

One recent sub-field is “literary VR,” the adaptation or recreation of a textual work in an interactive, immersive, and three-dimensional space. Examples of literary VR include the NYTimes’ 360 Video representation of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, and Joycestick, the Boston College gamification of Joyce’s Ulysses. This project, Virtual Commedia, explores the potential of adapting a work of poetry as massively complex and visually rich as Dante Alighieri’s Commedia.

High Concept

Virtual Commedia is a first-person walking simulator game that combines elements of action and adventure RPGs in a gamified adaptation of Dante’s Divine Commedia. The point of the game is to walk the entire length of the poem—that is, the entire space of Dante’s Inferno, starting at the lake of Canto 1 and moving down the levels and circles of hell until the player reaches the center of the earth and Lucifer of Canto 34. Along the way, the player encounters the people, souls, sceneries, and mythological and imagined creatures that populate each circle in the poem, hearing their speeches, stories, and laments, and thus learning about the history of the souls, the theological reasons behind their punishments (the “contrapasso”), and additional questions about theology, human nature, and history, closely following the journey of the original poem.

Dante in the dark wood: Gabriele Dell’Otto (left) and Gustave Doré (right)

Recreating Dante’s Commedia in VR

Artists have long depicted Dante’s world, from Botticelli’s famous map of Hell, to Gustave Doré’s illustrations of all three poems in the Commedia, to the effective comic-book representation by Seymour Chwast. Few filmmakers or interactive artists have ever attempted a textually accurate adaptation of the poem (there is, of course, the commercial video game, Dante’s Inferno by Electronic Arts). In a way, this makes sense: each canticle in the poem is essentially a vast, immeasurable world in and of itself.

In designing a VR adaptation, then, we have a number of crucial questions:

  • How does one map a text onto the decidedly physical space of a virtual reality simulation?
  • What happens to the text’s narrator?
  • What role does the VR user play within the space of the VR simulation?
  • Does the user have control, or at least the illusion of control?
  • Does the user’s so-called “perspective” converge with or diverge from the original perspective(s) offered in the work’s textual form?
  • To what extent does or should sound effects, lighting, and physical sensations be created as part of the literary VR experience?
  • Finally, how can literary VR negotiate problems of textual accuracy and authenticity in the adaptation of an original literary work?

But the poem lends itself well to VR technology for three main reasons:

  1. The incredibly detailed descriptions of the realms of hell, purgatory, and heaven imply a virtual “visuality” already: readers are invited to imagine themselves walking alongside Dante as he undergoes the journey.

2. The poem’s narrative maps perfectly onto the text’s space: a VR user would be able to virtually retrace the pilgrim’s steps in both linear and chronological order, making the physical and textual journey through the realms of the afterlife one and the same.

3. The “experience” of the poem Commedia for the most part involves Dante the pilgrim’s witnessing of the afterlife and its residents. His arrival in each circle of hell, for example, often triggers the speech or actions of the creatures present there. This restricted agency simplifies the process of adapting to VR: the simulation would not rely on user agency, and though interactivity would be emphasized, the user would not be able to make choices to affect the simulation’s narrative.

A map of Dante’s mythological creatures in the circles of Hell lain over Botticelli’s map of the Inferno.

More than Just an Academic Subject

Literary VR has incredible potential to provide an access point into the artistic, historical, and scholarly worlds opened up by Dante’s poem, not only for students and researchers, but for readers of all kinds, and the general public who may otherwise never encounter the fantastical creations generated by the text. Virtual Commedia seeks to use VR both as a medium of interpretive scholarship and as a form of art in its own right.

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