Devil may Cry: Michelangelo’s Pieta turned inside out


In 2013 the Japanese studio Capcom published the 5th installment of the Devil May Cry series, effectually a reboot with a complete new narrative. Developer Ninja Theory (Heavenly Sword, 2007) did a fairly good job. The DmC series is known by gamers for its hard core hack ‘n’ slash game play and for very crappy pc porting. Fortunately enough this DmC is very well ported. The graphics are beautiful and the fighting system is average for the genre. The narrative however is more than promising: a marriage of heaven and hell of which a super race of Nephilim are born.

In Devil May Cry a staggering amount of two and a half hours of cut scenes is shown. Many of these cut scenes, especially in the first part of the game, are dedicated to explaining the past of the game protagonist Dante. He and his brother Vergil are born from an ‘unnatural’ union between a demon (Sparda) and an angel (Eve). Sparda’s former boss and blood brother, the demon kind Mundus, is so enraged by this union of heaven and hell, that he rips out the heart of Eve and enslaves Sparda in eternal tortures.

The boy Dante (and probably Vergil) witnesses this gruesome event and he is shown with his death mother in his arms, while angels are depicted in an almost Renaissance style. It is the famous ‘Pieta’ from Christian tradition, of which Michelangelo’s example is the most famous, but then inside out. In the classic pieta Mother Mary carries her dead beaten son Jesus. In DmC it is the son who carries the mother. The proportions are grotesque: mother Eve is by far to heavy to be carried by a ten year old child. But also many of the traditional pieta’s are deformed: the figure of Jesus is usually shrunken to ‘fit’ on Mary’s lap.

The game narrative of DmC is invested with references to the Christian tradition. The names of both Dante and Vergil are taken from the famous Medieval masterpieces Divina Commedia: Dante is the name of its author and main character, Vergil the name of Dante’s guide through the rings of hell. The angelic mother Eve takes her name from the biblical narrative of Eden, chapters 1 through 3. The half demonic, half angelic family enjoys a time of relative peace in a mansion called ‘Paradise’. Mundus’ girl friend and bearer of his child is appropriated called ‘Lilith’, after the legendary ‘first wife’ of Adam in Jewish folklore.

Both Dante and Vergil are called ‘Nephilim’, both angel and demon in one. There even seems to have been a whole race of Nephilim, but they were slaughtered by Mundus. The name ‘Nephilim’ (actually a plural by its self) is derived from the 6th chapter of Genesis, verse 4: ‘The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.’ In Genesis the Nephilim are the children of God’s sons and human females, in DmC of angels and demons. The Nephilim as a concept are very popular in modern game narratives, where they form a sort of hybrid, a bridge between two principally separated world (the Diablo series, Darksiders).

Because the incorporate both angelic and demonic traits, the Nephilim are the only one capable of destroying the demon king Mundus. Mundus, presented as a trillion dollar investment banker, means ‘world’ in Latin. Het effectually rules the entire world by depts. As a international super banker he controls the financial system. And everyone is indebted by him. Everyone has to pay him more or less. This is not only a pun to the financial crisis, but also a theological reference. Mundus does not control mankind by financial depts alone, but also by moral depts. (sins). The notion of sin is closely tied to depts in this game narrative. Mundus is the ‘Lord of the World’, the biblical Mammon, a godhead associated in Christian tradition with money and wealth.

The game is heavily culture critical. Not only the financial crisis is a topic to be reflected upon, but also the role of (orthodox Christian) media in framing the world for its viewers. Mundus dominates mankind by control and docility. Control is maintained by a vast network of video cameras (a reference to the discussions about safety versus privacy) and by the largest media network in the world, the Raptor News Network. Raptor is clearly a criticism on the American news channel FOX News. Bob Barbas, the disguised demon news reader, repeats constantly he is ‘just doing God’s work’. Quod non off course. Mundus keeps mankind docile by the use of a energy drink called Virility (a pun to drinks like Red Bull). It promises weight loss and sexual potency, but it works just the opposite.

As said before, Dante and Vergil are Nephilim, incorporating both angelic and demonic traits. This is mirrored in the wapons the player can use while controlling Dante and by two kinds of grappling hooks, unavoidable in any game with some serious acrobatics. The first kind of grappling hook is ‘Demon’s grab’, the second ‘Demon’s grab’. The first hook pulls something (walls, etc.) or someone (enemies) to yourself, while the second propels your to something or someone. This is not without theological significance. The demonic ‘grab’ is egocentric, centered on yourself, making yourself the center of the world to whom everything and everyone has to come. Your king in your own castle, the rest are peasants. The angelic ‘grab’ pulls to ‘the other’, is directed to the outside world, involves movement of ‘the self’. Nicely done, Ninja Theory.

The world as we know it, is not the real world, as is the case in many works of fiction, philosophy and religions. In the case of DmC the ‘real’ world is the world of Limbo. In Limbo reality as we know it is distorted, leading to all kinds of amazing level design. Ninja Theory creates a credible excuses to molt buildings, bridges, towers, streets, rocks and even music into a psychedelic and chaotic world in which the eternal battle between heaven and hell is fought.

Dante is dragged into Limbo many times to fight the legions of Mundus. But he can only leave Limbo (and sometimes enter it) by the help of the withcraft of Kat. Kat is by far the most likable character in the game. While Dante is a kind of Justin Bieber with a bad hangover, Kat looks like a gentle version of Lara Croft (as she appears in the Reboot, that is). She is a witch, a medium and a psychic. And she prevents this game of becoming even more a machismo game as it already is.

Limbo off course is a reference to the theological notion of the limbo infantum, the ‘limbo of the children’. Within roman catholic doctrine it was long held that unbaptized children who died at a very young age could not go to heaven. But at the side, they hadn’t done anything wrong. So a new place was created, more a concept than reality, that these special category received a fitting afterlive ‘in limbo’. Many games feature their own interpretation of Limbo, like Limbo and Master Reboot.

The love affair of the demon Sparda and the angel Eve disrupted the cosmic balance between heaven and hell, as was the case in earlier games like the Diablo series. Sparda managed to slip his two children away and hide them from sight before he was captured and punished by Mundus. Sparda brought Dante and Vergil to two separate places in the human world, while wiping out their memories.  Young hero’s are constantly brought into some sort of exile, to be saved against the evil powers they are not yet capable of fighting against. Think of Luke and Leila from the old Star Wars series, which appeared to be brother and sister (like Dante and Vergil). And also Harry Potter from the Rowling novels is placed under the custody of ‘low people’.

In the end DmC is a fairy crafted hack ‘n’ slash game with a great narrative. Ninja Theory gave themselves quite a amount of space to run their story by 2.5 hours of cut scenes. The game almost seems to be a movie, with interactive fighting scenes. This has no have to be a bad thing. On the contrary. But while this most promising narrative opens  with flair and a sense of freshness, it soon runs out of steam, clinging to all the clichés of the genre. And that is a real pity.

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