Sunday, June 28, 2015

#93: Devil May Cry: Why Dante Shouldn't Be Taken Seriously

For a long time, I avoided the Devil May Cry franchise. There was no real reason behind it other than a sheer lack of interest. During that time, people would tell me about how great the protagonist, Dante, was as a character. They would rarely get into specifics, because this was back in middle school and kids that age rarely think critically about anything, but it was clear that my peers held some reverence for him. Similarly, when the reboot was announced, and the backlash against his redesign was so great, I took the angry fans at their word that this new Dante had blasphemed upon the old one.
Then, the Devil May Cry reboot went free for the PS3 as part of Sony's PlayStation Plus subscription service. This was the perfect excuse to satisfy my curiosity and discover exactly how awful this new Dante was. Much to my surprise, I found myself liking the redesign. There were a few poorly written and badly delivered lines, but nothing terrible. Despite this, I still took the word of those who believed that the Dante from the previous games was "superior". This changed when, recently, I played the first three Devil May Cry games.

Though I like the old Dante, he was far from what he had been made him out to be. Frankly, he was not as great of a character as people seem to think that he is. In fact, he wasn't even really much of a character at all, though that might not necessarily be his fault. The first two entries in the franchise were extremely light in story content, choosing to focus primarily on gameplay and level design. That's not a problem for either game as a whole, but it gives Dante only scant few opportunities to express himself in any meaningful way.
It was not even until the third game that the developers began to delve into his character. Even then, most of that story focused on the rest of cast, with Dante himself acting more like a plot device that other characters had to plan around. He himself admits that there wasn't a significant motivation for participating in the plot at first. The only reason the demon hunter was there is that killing demons is just a thing that he does, like breathing, or walking around without a shirt. It is rare for these three games to give him time to interact with other people, which hinders his characterization.
When Dante does get those chances, what we see isn't bad, but it also isn't enough to justify his loyal fandom. In the first game, most of his dialogue consist of the cheesy one-liners you might expect to hear in a low-budget B-movie. Almost every boss fight in the game is punctuated by insults or quick barbs from our protagonist. Even when mourning the death of his partner, Dante can't help but deliver his line in the most cornball way possible. Devil May Cry 3, set before the events of the first game, placed even greater emphasis on these traits, giving a younger Dante more of a stereotypical frat boy personality. Channeling this persona, Dante can boldly walk up to Cerberus and jest about "taking the dog out for his 'walkies'", as only one example of what kind of individual he is.

Now, there is nothing wrong with this character archetype. It fits very well with Devil May Cry, since the franchise is clearly aiming for a campy, humorous tone. However, it's not a style that is special in and of itself. The designers didn't take it too seriously, and they didn't want the fans to take it seriously either. Yet when Ninja Theory announced DMC: Devil May Cry, and Dante's redesign, there was a massive backlash from the fans. The original trilogy would scoff at the mere notion of being anything more than silly romps through the story of a straight-to-DVD movie, yet fans had elevated them to the status of sacred cows.

The Dante from the reboot wasn't even that much better or worse than the old one. His one-liners weren't amazing, but neither were those from his progenitor. Compare this joke from the Beowulf boss fight in Devil May Cry 3 to this one from the Succubus fight in the reboot. Obviously the scene from the reboot is a bit "edgier" and more profanity-laden that the former. However, the actual content of both scenes is extremely similar. I remember hearing a lot of complaints the new Dante was trying too hard to look cool back when the reboot first came out. However, the scenes from the old Devil May Cry games make it clear that the old Dante was trying equally hard to look cool. The lines before both of those boss fights are lame: that's why people enjoyed them in the first place.

So what is the underlying point behind all of this? Despite the nostalgia people feel for the old Dante, there is no reason why the two have to be incompatible. Neither one of them are inherently superior to the other. While the old Dante went for an "Awesome McFly Guy" persona, and the rebooted one went for a modern "edgy" identity, both are strong examples of characters who try their best to look cool without actually being cool. That's why we like them so much. Even though they are clearly much stronger and more capable than we are, these cheesy lines and lame personalities help us to see parts of ourselves in them. And since both of them can fight these monsters with a sly grin and a quick wit, we don't have to take those same monsters as seriously either. They both help carry the tone of the games they star in, and Devil May Cry as a brand is all the stronger for it.

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