Enter The Story: The Divine Comedy

Posted by Peter Rootham-Smith.
First posted on 28 March 2010. Last updated on 15 August 2011.
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Enter The Story: The Divine Comedy
In Heaven, Peri learns of her purpose from Archangel Michael.
Enter The Story: The Divine Comedy
The gate to the city of Hell looks rightly intimidating.
Enter The Story: The Divine Comedy
The circles of Hell are where sinners are punished for eternity.
Enter The Story: The Divine Comedy
Virgil and Dante stand in the depths of Hell.
Enter The Story: The Divine Comedy
St. Peter waits in front of the pearly Gates leading to Heaven.

Game ratings are a misleading lottery. Even for a normal game, ratings are very subjective, and opinions vary. Still, the Enter The Story series is special, as evident from the good intentions listed on the developer's website. Chris Tolworthy is creating a super-narrative out of various classical literary works. He is defying the market trend towards fancy graphics and lightweight stories. He is trusting the gaming community rather than copy protection. He is not afraid to break with traditional inventory and dialog puzzles. Above all, he is going to help improve world poverty with his games.

Enter The Story: The Divine Comedy (also known as Dante's Divine Comedy) is the second game in the Enter the Story series, after Enter The Story: Les Misérables. It is based on Dante's epic poem Divine Comedy written between 1308 and 1321, which continues to influence works of art and literature even to this day. How faithful the game is to the original poem is not a question here. Rather, the question is how well the game stands or falls on its own, not depending on the source material which inspires it. The game's plot has you guiding Dante through the 9 circles of Hell, then Purgatory, and finally the planetary realms towards God. Unlike a traditional adventure that relies on inventory and dialog puzzles, the game works by having you suggest ideas to Dante and the other characters.

It is very hard to play The Divine Comedy without having first played Les Misérables. The former not only makes references to and draws characters from the latter, but it also has puzzles whose solutions lie in the latter. The game is best played by gamers who are thorough note takers and who do not mind lots of mouse clicking.

The game installs easily. It writes save files into its own install folder which can be specified at installation time. There are unlimited save slots (S for save, O for open saved game). M brings up the map, which sometimes lets you jump between locations. The displayed text can be clicked through, and the text speed is adjustable. Esc skips through the animations. F1 gives a good incremental hint system. Ctrl-H activates an emergency help system (detailed on the developer's website) if the game gets stuck because of technical problems. Ctrl-A displays the names of characters in a scene. Spacebar identifies the room exits.

Gameplay starts with a scene in Heaven between Peri and Archangel Michael which acts as a tutorial for playing the game. (Peri is the guardian spirit you play to put thoughts into other characters' heads.) Be careful where you click here and elsewhere as you can end up in previous game or games of the series that come installed with this game. After the tutorial, you meet Dante in the depths of a forest and start guiding him through Hell to Heaven. Dante soon gains another guardian spirit in the shape of Virgil. The game plays from a third-person perspective, but it may be argued that the game also plays from a second- or first-person perspective too.

I experienced a few random crashes while playing the game. Several times when playing Virgil, I also got stuck behind Dante or a part of the scenery from which I was unable to escape. I resorted to using the emergency help to bypass the scene in order to continue.

The graphics in this game are different than those in other adventure games. The background arts are very good, muted depiction of classical ideas of the afterlife. The foreground arts of what you can interact with (like other characters) are indistinct, sometimes just nondescript blobs. All the hotspots have text labels so you know what the cursor is over. Some of the hotspots are pixels in size (and can be moving around too). The worst bit of pixel hunting comes when you are hunting some characters in smoke on a screen that is all grey.

All of the scenes are wide panoramas, which is a mixed blessing. Panning is jagged and slow. It also makes navigating around tedious, though pressing the arrow keys will move to the extremes of the scene quickly. There are a good number of animations. Some of them are very effective, such as a whirlwind of lovers in Hell.

There is no voice acting. Interactions are entirely driven by onscreen text. There are a lot of dialogs in the game and conversations waiting to be triggered. Oddly enough, different characters give exactly the same dialog when asked about Dante or bits of scenery. There is a background soundtrack of classical music that is very suited to the scenes, but I have found it to be too obtrusive.

You control other characters' actions by suggesting ideas to them. You right click on a character (which can be Dante or Virgil or any character) and then right click on an object to make that character think of that object. This in theory is interesting but in practice is cumbersome and tedious. The scheme of suggesting ideas gives rise to extensive backtracking. The object which needs to be clicked to suggest an idea may lie many scenes away that takes (in the worse case) minutes to arrive. The game may be better off by simply implementing a conventional inventory and dialog system.

The puzzles are adventure gamer friendly. There are no sliders or mazes, and there are no sound or color or timed puzzles. You cannot die (which is ironic given the subject matter). For a few puzzles you need to right click on hotspots that are moving around, and if you miss them you will need to right click on Dante or Virgil once more before trying again. There is a particular puzzle which requires more rapidity and accuracy than what I consider to be fair.

The developer claims that there are millions of combinations between characters and ideas to be tried in the game, but I think this may be a case of too much of a good thing. Effectively, you play as both Dante and Virgil. This means that you have to try every interaction twice. The puzzles are integrated into Dante's journey, but some of the solutions do not make sense to me.

The game is very linear. However, the backtracking defeats the sense of progress in the game, not to mention the added distraction of having to leave this game altogether at points to go into another. A game author has much less control than a book author has over how the player or reader consumes the story.

The game's story also feels as if that a number of different approaches to Dante's original story have been jumbled up together, making no coherent sense in the end. A game does not have the same framework as a book or poem does. So even if Dante's original work can be faithfully converted into a game, the conversion is likely to be fragmented and Dante's message may be confused.

So, what is to be learned in the end? Satan is a von Danïken alien lounging in a superconducting jacuzzi. The demons in hell have a scrabble championship. There is a dig at the English driving to the left. Not to mention the cast of Les Misérables intruding in. These oddities lift the game above the tiresome narrow-minded dialog from Dante himself.

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