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Petersen's Inferno

26 Jun 20 | Re: Contemporary eschatology | Link-U-Post

One thing I've been doing in lockdown is playing old computer games. Truthfully it may not be because of lockdown: I tend to go through phases of replaying the best of the games I had in the 90s anyway, and it's generally time well spent because Dungeon Keeper, Commander Keen, Colonization and others really do still stand up. It's hard to believe the amount that gets spent on making modern computer games, even though I sort of understand the reason for it, when you think how many hours I've had out of games that used to fit on a few floppy disks. Surely the cost-benefit has gone wrong somewhere. But you could say that about all kinds of things - cost-benefit is not how human endeavours work.

You'll be pleased to learn that this isn't a 90s-nostalgia post. The game I've been playing most recently is DOOM (never owned it at the time; did you know it costs £1.99 now?), and while that could give you a book's worth of 90s nostalgia, it's not what I want to write about. You might know that during my degree course I went for Dante in a big way, and since then I've always been interested to compare different ways that people have depicted Hell - Milton, Quevedo, various illustrators of the Inferno, Chris Rea, though so far avoiding Will Self. Well, I've realised that Episode 3 of the original DOOM (Inferno - levels designed by one Sandy Petersen) is a depiction of Hell that quite possibly has been experienced by more people than any contemporary. So what can we say about Petersen's Inferno?

The first thing to note is that this depiction of Hell is, from some points of view, nonsense. The main priority is to design fun, engaging computer game levels and setting them in Hell is just window-dressing. Very seldom can Petersen have come up with a cool idea for a bit of a level and then thought, "No, that wouldn't really exist in Hell". Most obviously, every area is bursting with medikits, body armour, more exotic bonuses such as invulnerability, and loads of regular, non-supernatural guns and ammo. Most of that is not at all realistic or in keeping. The only defence I can offer is a comparison with Paradise Lost, when the devils first arrive in Hell and immediately build a huge palace for Satan out of gold. There's a fun coup de theatre where Milton says "Aha! Bet you didn't think Hell would be full of GOLD, did you? But GOLD causes EVIL, so of course Hell is full of the stuff!" So, maybe the guns and ammo in Petersen's Hell are like that. The health bonuses are harder to explain.

Sticking with gameplay considerations a little longer, it's worth looking at the layout of some of the maps. I will say that compared to the techbase levels in Episode 1, the Inferno levels do tend to have more optional areas that encourage exploration. The levels Slough of Despair and Mt Erebus can each be completed very quickly, but feature several extra areas that are either decoys, distractions or extra rewards depending on your point of view; maybe only maps 1 and 4 of Episode 1 have similar sidetracks, and then not to the same degree. The levels Unholy Cathedral and Gate of Limbo are also much bigger than they need to be be and, on first play, entail a lot of wandering around. So Petersen has definitely taken the time to give players the chance to explore a bit, see a bit of what Hell has to offer, and in the larger levels, maybe even get a bit of the Tantalus or Sisyphus experience first-hand. Given this, it doesn't feel totally quixotic to evaluate some of what we find there.

Before we get into that detail, let's just list the level names. They draw on a variety of sources, creating a kind of mixed Hell where anything from any tradition could conceivably appear:

So we've covered Dante, Milton, Christianity, the classics, and more modern ideas about Hell. The gang's all here; let's get on with the show.

As far as the geography of Hell goes, here are some Petersen elements that also appear in Dante: stunted trees, rivers of blood, stonework, rocky areas, lakes of fire (though there's a lot less fire than some might expect), trenches that you fall into and can't get out of. The larger structures, particularly the Unholy Cathedral, recall the satanic palace in Milton. Most areas are decorated with skulls or demonic faces, which is quite in keeping with Dante's City of Dis. On the other hand the DOOM levels include a lot more wooden panelling than I would have envisaged being in Hell; a better addition are the occasional pillars that seem to be made of human viscera, or lifts that seem to be made out of bits of backbone. I can't recall anything like that in Dante (the only time people become scenery is the suicides being turned into trees), so I expect those come from other modern sources.

The more striking environmental differences between Petersen and Dante are in what's missing, specifically darkness and ice. Many of Dante's circles of Hell are described as being pitch dark, although this is a little confusing because he and Virgil can still somehow see what's there. DOOM is famous for being maybe the first computer game to use darkness deliberately to add atmosphere or confuse the player (graphics finally having got good enough that people would accept a failure to show something clearly as intentional), but it actually does that a lot more in the military bases of Episode 1 than it does in Hell. Hell itself is pretty well-lit, by and large. I can think of one level that has the light-correction power-up, but even that one isn't very gloomy so I'm not even sure why it's there. As for ice, one of the best moments in Dante's Inferno is the shock of the lowest circle, after the grotesqueries of Malebolge, being a simple, brutal, frozen lake. A bit like that Borges story where the most fiendish maze is the bare desert. But Petersen doesn't touch on that at all: not everything is in flames, and the atmosphere is often cool, but there's no sign of ice or snow or the cold causing any discomfort. You can be burnt, poisoned, shot, bitten or crushed, or doomed to go round in circles forever, but not frozen.

The biggest difference between Petersen's Inferno and Dante's, by a long way, is the denizens. In Dante, Hell is full of sinners. We meet occasional custodians, who are often being punished themselves - Minos, Phlegyas and the centaurs having been conscripted like prison orderlies - and there are a couple of places where mischievous devils and even gorgons appear. But the focus of Hell is on the sinners, its purpose is to contain and punish them, and the main interest in being there is getting to talk to them. In DOOM, this doesn't seem to have been considered very much. There are a few moany faces trapped in walls, there are baddies called Lost Souls who might possibly be souls of the sinful, and there are a lot of zombie shotgun guys wandering around, but Hell's punishment function is not much in evidence, even in the House of Pain. Instead Hell is mostly populated with various types of demons and imps.

That leaves two possibilities: either the sinful are housed in some other area that Doom Guy doesn't need to visit in order to fight his way through and out; or they aren't there at all. I think it's probably the latter: the idea here is that Hell is the residence of Satan and his followers, who are hostile to humans and everyone else that lives in normal reality. So why would Satan be helping God by punishing the sinful? Dante explains this by making Satan a miserable being who doesn't really rule in Hell at all; Milton avoids the issue by showing us Hell before any people have sinned or been banished to it; CS Lewis confirms that the White Witch was the Emperor's hangman, but has her seeking opportunities for betterment. Petersen seems to suggest that in his version, it has been a mistake for the theologians to conflate the devils' lair with the afterlife: the nasties here are concerned with punishing the living, not the dead. That seems like a sensible way forward for modern creators who want to serve up the demonic to people who mostly aren't concerned with religion.

Overall I would say that Petersen's vision is probably closest to Milton's - even down to the detail of supernatural beings inexplicably fighting each other with recognisable earth weaponry. If you want something Dantean then levels 2 and 6 (the open air ones) are your best bet. Chris Rea I'm not sure about: Wikipedia claims that "the song was inspired by the frustrations of M25 and M4 motorway peak-hour traffic" so you might be better off with Grand Theft Auto.

Posted by MR COLLINS at 22:13

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