It was Monday morning in September of 2009. I woke and forced myself out of bed. Another day at work. My left leg felt like it was still asleep. No big deal. I wobbled around the house to get ready. It still felt funny. I went to work, but as the hours went by, I grew concerned. My back had also been hurting during the last week. Sitting at my desk, I looked up WebMD. WebMD told me it could be a slipped disc, a blood clot, or cancer. WedMD always elevated a situation to cancer. After work, I stopped by a doctor’s office. She went through a few test and asked some questions. Can you feel this? Is this hot or cold? What about this? She ordered MRIs of my lower back to check the disc situation. This was my first MRI, so I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t have metal in my body or eyebrow tattoos, so it seemed low risk for me. I was the last patient that day. I put my belongings in a locker and walked into the room that contained a massive machine. No wonder these tests cost so much. The table was padded but stiff, and the room was cold. I put the earplugs in and slide into the narrow cylinder. This was a strange experience. As it clicked and clacked while I lay in its magnetic field, I closed my eyes and drifted away.
Weeks later, the results were in. I went to the doctor’s office. The male doctor had not read the results ahead of time. He read them for the first time in front of me. This was awkward. “It says here there is a lesion near T12 on your spine.” He seemed embarrassed, and his voice softened. “Do you have an STD? No? No. Okay. We’ll need to do more tests. It could be a few things. It could be multiple sclerosis. Does anyone in your family have multiple sclerosis?” I had heard of the disease before but didn’t know much about it. I promptly headed home to read every horror story the internet had to offer.
Over the ensuing months, I would have blood work done. I would have a spinal tap done. I would lie on the table in that MRI machine two more times. I would have more questions to answer and steroids to take. After the results of the second MRI, the diagnosis was imminent, and I knew it when I read the report. Patients can request their reports as soon as they are available. I didn’t have to wait to see my doctor, and I couldn’t wait another week. I read the results as I sat in my car outside of the imaging facility. Uncertainty poured in. My scope narrowed. I felt lost. This was a dark place.
A POEM OF EXHILE. At the beginning of Inferno, Dante, the pilgrim, woke to realize he was lost. How he got here he could not remember. How to get out of the dark woods he did not know. This was the start of Dante, the poet, not only making a statement on the morality of man but on the condition of being exiled. The story of his exile is a complex one which lends itself to the complexity of The Divine Comedy. Dante’s home was in Florence. He was an active member of the White Guelphs, a political faction that once was united with the Black Guelphs in defeating yet another faction, the Ghibellines. Political struggles, factionalism, and corruption within the Florentine region of Italy play a major role in the entire poem. After all, Dante not only heard the stories of struggle from his parents and grandparents, but he experienced the strife firsthand. Events set in motion as far back as 1215, allowed for a perpetual state of war between followers of the Pope and those of the Holy Roman Emperor, eventually leading to arguments between neighbors, blood in the streets, and twenty years of banishment for Dante. This time of confusion and uncertainty played into his writing.
To live in exile, to be cast out of comfort into the darkness of unknowing, speaks to the Christian creation story, but it has universal meaning to which we can all relate, no matter our beliefs or affiliations. Whether we end up in a dark place due to our actions, the actions of others, or things outside of our control, many of us have been lost in a metaphorical dark wood. Many of us have felt the sting of exile by family, community, or something inexplicable within ourselves, and the shock leaves us uncertain. This is one reason I come back to this poem time and time again. There are very specific details that require research for modern readers, and hotly debated commentaries have existed since Dante finished the Divine Comedy in 1320. At its core, however, Inferno speaks to anyone who has felt lost, who is a backslider, who has felt betrayed, or who would set out on a journey through the depths of hell hoping to make sense of their situation.
The descriptive language Dante uses as a writer creates vivid images in my imagination, but he makes it clear that Inferno is a dark place. It is a lonely place. The damned souls have been banished forever due to their willingness to give into, give up on, or justify their situation. This story has historical, political, and theological layers, but it is also personal. This is why the epic poem has inspired many, such as myself, to explore it through various visual forms. This is why I wanted to work with it for my graduate-school thesis the past two years.
STEPS ALONG A PATH. As a college sophomore, I was fascinated with the Inferno. The poem served as a catalyst to several artistic explorations, including a series of abstract paintings I began as a senior. Over the past ten years, I have continued to explore The Divine Comedy by reading new translations and listening to lectures. During that time, I have considered different ways to interpret this work of literature through graphic design, including iconography to represent the circles, an interactive book, a game, a series of posters, and installations. One of the interesting aspects of The Divine Comedy is the systematic framework that Dante put in place across the three works. However, I still come back to what I was doing years ago. I was relating to the work on a personal level, and that lead to a place of introspection and new creative territory.
Intellectual growth, personal exploration, and technological challenges were important considerations when I entered graduate school. I wanted to be somewhere that allowed students to explore all three. Before graduate school, I had worked in the mutable world of web design for ten years. Upon stepping through the door at MICA, however, I knew I did not want to do anything with code. This was my time to work in print. Maybe I could engage the page. I could make something with finality. Then I took a course on Processing and the Arduino. This class was a reminder that working with code challenged me and often frustrated me. It was like philosophy, existentialism, and neuroscience all mixed together. I struggled to get it, but I wanted to learn more. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the next step in my thesis direction. Soon, I would consider the Inferno as subject matter for code-based experiments. It was an odd combination, but it was exciting. Eventually, I looked to interactive media as a way of engaging a contemporary audience with this classic work of literature.
Another important step was the Imaginary Museum project. During graduate studio in the first year of study, the class worked on a collaborative project with Curatorial Practice. The curators created the initial concepts for imaginary museums, and the designers created the brand systems, visual languages, speculative designs, and mission statements to develop their ideas. I worked with Zach Franklin, who was extremely intelligent and whose idea was nicely positioned between theory and abstraction. I wanted a challenge. I didn’t want a safe project. I didn’t want a safe design. There were moments during that project when I felt like an idiot. I remember them vividly. I felt that I had made the wrong choice, not because the concept was bad, but because I was bad. The light eventually came on, and I found my way through it. The final result was a brand and mission statement that he was happy with, and so was I. This was an important step because, for much of that project, I had felt uncertain about the results, but I pushed through the doubt. Fighting through like that proved to be a vital preparation for working on my thesis project. The creative process can take place in the darkness of one’s mind. The results will come to light, but getting there requires stumbling patiently from one flickering idea to another.
NEW TERRAIN. I’m not the most confident designer in the room. I often over-analyze my initial ideas before making anything on paper or screen. Looping self-doubt can paralyze creativity. Going into the second year of graduate school, I wanted to break that cycle. I wanted to bet on myself. I wanted to take on something ambitious and not sway from it, no matter what. A thesis project was the last thing on my mind in 2009, while I sat outside of the imaging facility for what felt like an eternity. I didn’t want to forget that moment. Uncertain times breed risk-taking, and I wanted to challenge myself to go deeper into my work, no matter how far down I had to go.
I had never developed a game for a mobile device. Fortunately, Jason Gottlieb, a game designer and MICA alumnus, advised me. Many current mobile products use device mechanics to provide endless gameplay scenarios. Upon Jason’s advice, I considered several gameplay models. I chose a platformer style called a “fall down” game. With Dante’s Inferno as the framework, I illustrated the levels to be consistent with environmental features from the poem. For gameplay, I liked the physical movement required in accelerometer-based games rather than those using an endless runner. Games that use the accelerometer allow the player to turn the device left or right (like a steering wheel) to move, avoid obstacles, and attain collectibles. There is some debate over whether touch controls (on-screen buttons) are better for user experience, but I felt the issue was more a matter of opinion. I decided to do what was best for the concept. The physical darkness evoked in the literature worked conceptually as well, and it went hand-in-hand with the use of disorientation as a gaming practice. The complexity of backstories and scholarly Inferno debates are insightful to Dante aficionados, but I wanted this prototype to simply focus on the personal journey out of darkness. I kept simplicity in mind when designing the hero. Dante is a glowing ball, whose light gradually fades out. The player has opportunities to collect light gems, divinely placed throughout the levels. Exercise free will by choosing to replenish Dante’s light, or gamble with redemption and risk being trapped in this dark place forever.
SEEK LIGHT. We face difficult challenges on a daily basis that can leave us physically, mentally, and emotionally drained. For me, the idea of a hero who gradually fades away spoke to being human. Dante was exiled to darkness but found light along his literary journey that clarified his situation. As I type this, my lip quivers due to the damage done to my central nervous system by a frustrating disease. Many of us have been in dark places, personally or creatively. Graduate school and this thesis project have allowed me to learn new tools, challenged me intellectually, and pushed me beyond my limits. This time of my life has ultimately been a light I collected along the path of my journey.