Bungie's Inferno

A seemingly unlikely source for references to Dante's poem.
A seemingly unlikely source for references to Dante's poem.

I’m sure many of you remember the 2010 action-adventure game Dante’s Inferno, based on the famous 14th century poem by Dante Alighieri, the Divine Comedy. The game generally received fairly good reviews, but a recurring criticism from fans of the original poem seemed to be that not only did Dante’s Inferno stray a fair bit from the original story, but also that it was a rather ridiculous and over-the-top interpretation of the original texts. For some, what was needed was a more subtle retelling of the original poem, but strangely enough the current-gen game to do that might have already come out, and weirder yet, the game I am talking about was a Halo title.

Not long after the release of Halo 3: ODST, various Bungie fans started picking its narrative and drawing parallels between that game and the Divine Comedy. Now this may start off sounding a little crazy, but I believe I can convince you that ODST does in fact make heavy reference to Alighieri’s work, so let’s sit back and take a look at the two of them side by side. Of course, major spoilers follow for Halo 3: ODST.

Sadie’s Story

Halo is obviously no stranger to religious references, having made nods in the past to Greek mythology, Norse mythology, and most frequently the Bible. While the main story of the game does have some parallels with the Divine Comedy, most of the references to the poem seem to be found in the game’s audio logs; small story snippets that the protagonist of the game discovers as he makes his way through the city of New Mombasa. These logs are not dissimilar to the audio files which laid out a story in Halo 2’s I Love Bees ARG.

The logs relate to the story of a girl named Sadie Endesha and her escape from the city as it is attacked by the Covenant. Much like Dante is guided through hell in the Divine Comedy by the poet Virgil, Sadie is guided through New Mombasa by Vergil, a subroutine of the Superintendent AI which manages the city. The audio logs are divided up into 9 chapters which the game refers to as “circles”. Each of these appears to follow the theme of the 9 circles of hell laid out in the Divine Comedy, and in each of them, the people committing the outlined sin seem to receive some form of punishment.

Circle 1

Sadie Endesha.
Sadie Endesha.

The Divine Comedy opens with Dante “straying from the path” in his life, and eventually ending up in the first circle of hell, “Limbo”, which acts as home to those with false beliefs (i.e. Non-Christians). At the start of ODST’s first circle, Sadie tells Vergil that her train destination is going to be “Magongo if I don’t get caught... Hell if I do” and just as Dante wanders off his path, Vergil detours the train that Sadie is on. She later says to Vergil “Go to hell [...] Scratch that, hell just came here” as the Covenant begin their attack on the city. Much like in Dante’s first circle, the citizens of New Mombasa believe they are safe, but are shocked to find themselves in a hellish environment. Sadie also learns that her father is sheltering nine levels underground and decides to set out to save him.

Circle 2

The second circle of the Divine Comedy is “Lust”. In this circle in ODST, Sadie is seemingly rescued by Police Commissioner Kinsler, however, on their journey out of the city he tries to sexually assault her before being ejected from his own car.

Circle 3

In the third circle, “Gluttony”, Sadie encounters an incredibly overweight man, handing out kebabs to fleeing citizens. The man not only represents gluttony, but may also represent Ciacco, a gluttonous figure which Dante converses with in this circle. Unfortunately, due to his size, the man cannot make it out of the city.

Circle 4

Brutes are not be trifled with.
Brutes are not be trifled with.

In the fourth circle, “Greed”, Sadie encounters a woman who had spent 40 years of her life losing money at a casino. She ignores an incoming Covenant attack to get to a cash machine on the wall of the casino and try to steal the money inside. She detaches the cash machine from the wall, but is crushed by it, and tells an approaching Brute she will not share her money, before being shot and killed by it. There may also be a parallel to be found here in that as Virgil protects Dante from the figure of Pluto in the Divine Comedy, so the character of Mike (driver of the Commissioner’s car in Circle 2) returns to protect Sadie from a Brute who attempts to kill her.

Circle 5

In the Divine Comedy, the fifth circle, “Anger”, is where Dante crosses the River Styx and tries to gain entrance to the Walls of Dis which are guarded by fallen angels. He is also threatened by the Furies and Medusa, but an angel manages to speak out against them and secure him a passage through the wall. In ODST Sadie and Mike attempt to cross the bridge over the body of water dividing the two halves of Mombasa, with Sadie enraged at the crowd pushing against them.

As they struggle across the bridge a Pelican drop-ship descends with Commissioner Kinsler in it. Kinsler threatens them with a gun, with Sadie noting that their evasion from him must anger him. However, their guardian angel comes in the form of a rubbish truck controlled by Vergil that crashes into the Pelican and buries the Commissioner in rubbish. The truck then acts as a means across the bridge for them.

Circle 6

The seventh Engineer.
The seventh Engineer.

The sixth circle, “Heresy”, sees Dante encounter heretics encased in tombs of fire and meet with the Florentines Farinata degli Uberti and Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti. While there seems to be no obvious person in ODST who represents the latter character, Sadie and Mike do meet a salesman called Tom Uberti who enters their rubbish truck.

The heresy theme comes into play when Sadie’s father reports back to her, after he has observed some Covenant Engineers. As the heretics are encased in tombs of fire, the Engineers are bound in harnesses with bombs attached. As part of a plot against their masters six Engineers remove the bomb from a seventh so that it can work on modifying the Superintendent, however, the six Engineers are killed by the bomb in this act of rebellion. Tom also arguably commits an act akin to heresy, deliberately surrendering to the Covenant from the truck and endangering Sadie and Mike, and in doing this he does of course die.

Circle 7

The seventh circle in the Divine Comedy is “Violence”, which is guarded by the Minotaur, and includes among other sinners, the murderers of the world. In the seventh circle of ODST, Sadie and Mike enter the Office of Naval Intelligence headquarters to try and reactivate the deactivated Superintendent, and find the lobby guarded by a crazed ex-police officer called Marshall who observes that it seems they’re all “going to hell today”. Marshall had murdered a number of officers in the lobby before they arrived and murders a former co-worker right in front of them. Eventually a SWAT team manage to gun down Marshall and save Mike and Sadie.

Circle 8

Kinsler contacts the ONI building.
Kinsler contacts the ONI building.

In the eighth circle, “Fraud”, we can see the ODST characters commit multiple acts of fraud. The first occurs after one ONI officer wishes to bring the Superintendent back online but has specific orders from Commissioner Kinsler not to do so. Sadie tries to convince the officer she has a gun pointed at her by holding a stapler under the jacket. Despite knowing that this is a trick, the officer pretends she is being held at gunpoint so she can reactivate the AI.

Mike later discovers that propaganda being broadcast into the crumbling New Mombasa is actually coming from within the police building. He finds an officer by the name of Stephen broadcasting false information about the officers in the lobby being gunned down by the Covenant and that people were saved by a citizen militia. He manages to coerce Mike into posing as a rising police commander and declaring that the fight against the Covenant is going successfully. Seeing through this facade, Kinsler contacts the building and tells them that if Sadie does not meet him alone, he will kill her father.

Circle 9

In the Divine Comedy the ninth circle is “Treachery”, where Dante finds the ultimate traitor, Satan. The ninth circle is also home to the frozen lake Cocytus and it is from here that Dante and Virgil ascend to purgatory. In ODST Sadie meets Kinsler, who is playing traitor to the citizens he was meant to protect, using his corrupt cops to keep a train out of New Mombasa for himself. One of the crowd can be heard telling Kinsler “Selfish devil! To hell with you!” At another point when Sadie is speaking with Kinsler, she asks “You ever worry there might really be a hell?” to hear him respond “Oh I know there is, my dear. And you and I are leaving it”.

Kinsler reveals to Sadie that her father is dead, killed when his men tripped the fire safety system in the Superintendent’s data centre, causing the ninth level to freeze over with her father inside. Eventually Vergil is able to save Sadie by opening the train doors, allowing the crowd to overwhelm Kinsler and rip him apart.

While Kinsler’s men did kill Sadie’s father, she decides to rescue Vergil, as her father thought him so important in stopping the Covenant. However, Vergil convinces her to leave without him and hints that the ODSTs will be able to save him. This does not seem to directly correspond to any part of Dante’s Inferno, but it may be reflective of the end of the second section of the poem, Purgatorio, where Virgil explains to Dante that he cannot ascend to heaven, due to his non-Christian beliefs and Dante goes on without him.

The Rookie’s Story

The burning New Mombasa.
The burning New Mombasa.

With the side story of ODST seeming to provide more confirmation that the game is indeed dealing in a partial retelling of the Divine Comedy, that leaves us free to look at the influence in the main storyline, for which parallels may be drawn but seem more sparse. It’s possible that the seeming references in the main story may just be a bi-product of it following on the back of Sadie’s Story, but there are some interesting similarities none the less.

In the main story you play as one of the titular Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, often known by the nickname “Helljumpers”, and bearing the motto of “Feet first into hell”. As the Divine Comedy opens with the lines “Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost”, ODST opens with the protagonist, “The Rookie”, attempting to ride in a drop pod down onto a Covenant Carrier, but being knocked off course by a slipspace rupture and descending down into the city of New Mombasa, awakening there during the night.

New Mombasa seems to have a rather hellish quality with much of it being engulfed in flame, and it being referred to within the game as “Hell on Earth”, but just like Sadie the Rookie is also guided by Vergil, our stand-in for Dante’s Virgil.

At the end of the game The Rookie has to descend through the levels of the Superintendent’s data centre (with the levels seeming to be constructed in a circular shape), in a possible reference to Inferno, with the lowest levels still being frozen over, however, it also should be noted that The Rookie travels through the full ten levels of the data centre, instead of nine. It is possible that the data centre is in fact a reference to Dante’s Purgatorio which is composed of ten separate levels and would make everything up to that point a metaphor for Inferno.

The ending of the game may well be a metaphor for Dante’s ascension to Paradiso. As Virgil insists in the Divine Comedy that he cannot ascent to heaven, Vergil in ODST tries to resist being carried into the Phantom drop-ship, however, The Rookie and his team eventually ascend into the light of the drop-ship’s tractor beam and fly off into the sunrise, away from the burning city below.

Duder, It’s Over

All in all I think Halo 3: ODST is an undervalued Halo game. It never seems to spring to people’s minds when they think of Halo, but it used its film noir inspiration to provide an entirely new tone for the series, in its environment, story, and soundtrack, it introduced the series’ Firefight mode, and managed to have three difference story threads running concurrently.

On top of that I think the parallels it draws with Dante’s poem are a very interesting addition. It allows a story that is functional and palatable for everyone to retain a deeper meaning, and gave those who wanted to analyse something to find. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading.