33 Immortals’ creative director discusses Heaven, Hell, and roguelikes

By Brian Crecente, Contributor

A 14th century Italian poem underlies an ambitious attempt to transform a popular video game genre into something completely unique.

33 Immortals is an exploration of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy—a work credited with both defining the Christian worldview of the afterlife and solidifying the modern Italian language through its three-book exploration of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. In 33 Immortals, players team up with 32 others as they fight their way through the afterlife in an attempt to change their fate, face down the wrath of God, and almost certainly die—repeatedly.

But instead of simply retelling the allegorical (sometimes anagogical) tale of Dante’s journey at the side of three wise guides, developer Thunder Lotus Games examined those 14,233 lines through the context of medieval Italy.

The result is a roguelike immersed in the setting of the Divine Comedy—complete with Dante himself, Beatrice, Virgil, and Charon as guides of a sort—but telling a very different story of rebellion against first Lucifer, then Adam and Eve, and (finally) God.

Divine inspiration

“What if we tell this story of the player being damned and not accepting their fate?” said 33 Immortals Creative Director Stephan Logier. “Not accepting the authority and the law of God, not accepting that they will be punished for eternity, and actually rebelling against that fate and fighting together to find a way to change their destiny?”

It was this early idea—driven by the historical contextualization of the Divine Comedy and a desire to explore the potential of multiplayer games—that led Thunder Lotus to a game that drops 33 players into Dante’s poetic world, and asks them to fight against the powers of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.
33 Immortals 05 Lucifer

A historical turning point

Logier wasn’t actually at Thunder Lotus when the idea of a game tied to the Divine Comedy first arose, but when he arrived, it was simply that—an idea. The team knew that to make the most of such a powerful work of art, it had to do a bit of digging.

“First, we really took the time to learn about the Divine Comedy and dive into the text, dive into the historical context,” said Logier. “What was happening at this time? Where did it happen? It was Italy. It was Florence. Who was down there at the time? What was the political context, the religious context?”

What the team realized was that the world was at a turning point, moving away from what Logier calls Middle Ages obscurantism and toward the start of humanism. People were starting to depart from the Church-mandated thinking of the day and resurrect the ancient Roman and Greek approaches to science and philosophy, a movement that eventually developed into the Italian Renaissance.

“It was a turning point in terms of historical moments,” he said. “This for me was really interesting.”

Multiplayer meets roguelike

As this notion of a society reconsidering its relationship with science, philosophy, and God came into focus, the team were also discussing their ideas for multiplayer. Thunder Lotus wanted to make a game with a lot of players.

“We started with 100 players. Let’s do a multiplayer game with 100 players,” said Logier. “At the time, there was Fortnite and a lot of other big multiplayer games.”

But the team wanted to create something different from a multiplayer perspective. Logier was personally interested in the roguelike genre. “This kind of game can stay fresh because it’s pick-up-and-play. You can start quickly, and then you build your play style as you play. I was really interested in mixing that with multiplayer,” he said.

That notion, along with the idea of remixing the Divine Comedy—inspired by the team’s research into 14th century thinking—led to a “what if” moment that defined 33 Immortals. What if players are rebelling against Divine Justice and their fate? What if they’re fighting together to change their destiny?

“This for me fits well within the historical context,” Logier said. “People questioning whether the law of God should completely dictate everything, or whether they should be free to believe in what they want.”
33 Immortals 01 33 Players
While Thunder Lotus started with the idea of 100 players in-game, it eventually settled on 33—an odd choice unless you know your Divine Comedy.

“It has several meanings for us,” Logier said. “The Divine Comedy has 100 chapters, each section has 33 chapters. We thought ‘OK 33, 33 is really interesting.’”

“Also,” Logier said, suddenly laughing, “33 players is the number of players that can be displayed on the screen. We tried it and we said ‘Is it too much? Is it not enough?’ And so from a gameplay perspective, [33 players] is really interesting—and from a Divine Comedy perspective it completely fits.”

It’s also the sort of number that helps a game standout when discussing how many people can play alongside one another, he added.

Handcrafted and immersive

As the game continued to come into focus, the art team settled on an interesting style for 33 Immortals. The goal, according to Logier, was to make the most beautiful hand-drawn 2D game they could.

“We are mixing 2D hand-drawn techniques with special effects, and a lot of in-house knowledge,” he said. “It is really the homemade, home-grown touch that we love. The animation technique we use is a traditional one, so we want to give this a frame-by-frame animation quality.”

Seen in-game, the approach is colorful, vibrant, and strives to place the player in Medieval Italy with Romanesque architecture and Italian references.
Early Art Harpy
That approach coupled with the game’s environments (Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven) has to do much of the work in telling the game’s story. 33 Immortals isn’t a retelling of Dante’s original poem. Instead, the team leaned on the setting and a handful of important characters.

“You don't have time to stop and discuss things with an NPC or read about the world,” Logier said. “It’s a high-intensity game, and so we instead invested a lot of time in making the environment.”

The world of 33 Immortals, like its source material, is broken down into three worlds: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Each of these worlds are further divided into regions with completely different environments, inspired by different sections of the works.

But all players start, like Dante, in the Dark Woods.

A forest dark

From a game design perspective, the Dark Woods is the hub of 33 Immortals. It’s here players can kit out their characters, interact with Dante, Beatrice, Virgil, and Charon, and start a gaming session that will be populated with 32 other players.

Players start the game dead and come upon Dante, who is wandering lost in the Dark Woods. He has already made his journey from Hell through Purgatory and Heaven, and is now attempting to write down everything he experienced.

It's here, at a little camp in front of the Eternal Gate, that players will make some initial decisions. They’ll have to choose which of the four archetypes they want to play—melee, ranged, support, or tank—and then which gate to go through.

Initially, Hell is the only option.

“When you arrive, you see other players like you—and also a lot of lost souls who are not rebelling, who are slowly floating towards the Eternal Gate to enter the Beyond and be judged by the Divine Justice,” said Logier.

You’ll also come across the game’s four main NPCs and learn their stories. Those stories are worth experiencing, even if you're a Dante devotee, because Thunder Lotus reworked some of their tales.
Early Art Of Beatrice
“The Divine Comedy is an old text,” Logier said. “There were some approaches to character that we thought needed some changes to be more modern or better fit our values.”

In the original text, Beatrice serves mostly as a guide to a portion of purgatory and an idealized view of the faithful. “As a feminine figure, I thought it was a bit Middle Ages and not that interesting,” said Logier. “We didn’t want to have the man who writes the poem and the nice girl who believes everything that he said.”

The team changed Virgil’s character in 33 Immortals into a woman, and made Beatrice the leader of the rebellion. “She went through the Beyond and discovered that God is not the end of it,” he said. “You can live your life as you want, he's just trying to control you.”

Dante is an artist who lives through his poetic creation. He’s in love with Beatrice, but it is unrequited. Virgil is a scholar who is interested in science, moral values, and the use of weapons. Charon—who traditionally ferries souls across the Rivers Styx and Acheron—is, according to Logier, “all about that bling.”

“We tried to make more interesting characters that support our values,” said Logier. “We are not sticking to the text here because it’s not working anymore for us.”

Abandon all hope

When players are ready to hop into their first match, they walk to the Eternal Gate in the Dark Woods and choose Inferno. The game then launches the player into a session that starts once it has 33 players in it.

Those 32 other players are the entirety of your team. While you won’t directly interact with all 32 of them initially, those that survive the journey will be all you have to join you in the boss battle.

“This is the group of players you’re going to have at the end,” Logier said. “There’s no one beyond the 33 players—no one is going to join or help you—so the pressure is on you and the 32 others to try and survive.”

If over the course of the run you lose 10 players before arriving at Lucifer, you’re down 10 when you face him.
Inferno World Map
When you first enter Inferno, players are automatically split up into smaller groups and spread across the map. Your first goal as a small team is to survive, but eventually you’ll need to take on the Torture Chambers—essentially mini-dungeons—with teams of no more than six players.

“So you have 33 players running around in Inferno, killing monsters, collecting chests, and doing other things, but if you want the game to progress you have to complete Chambers,” said Logier.

Completing a Chamber (all of which are marked on the world map) both rewards players with Relics and captures God’s attention—and not in a good way.

God appears on-screen and triggers a bit of divine retribution, hurtling meteors at you. Those in Inferno that survive have to then tackle a new round of Chambers. Succeeding triggers the wrath of God once more, setting the entire map on fire. Those that survive are left to face three Ascension Battles.

The remaining players only have one chance to take on these Battles, so you have to decide how you want to split up. Ideally, all 33 of you survived the initial challenges and you can split into three groups of 11 for each Battle. The more of these Battles you complete, the more Legendary Relics—which impact all the players in your session—you can earn.

“You need these Legendary Relics to have a chance to beat the boss,” Logier said, “but each Ascension Battle requires 10 to 12 players.”

Once the players beat the Ascension Battles, those that remain ascend and take on Lucifer. But beating Lucifer doesn’t automatically send you on to Purgatory. Instead—in true roguelike fashion—you’re sent back to the Dark Woods hub, where you can interact with the four NPCS to tweak your character and examine all of the loot you gained during your playthrough.

When it all comes together—roguelike permadeath, large-scale cooperation between players, a setting based on contextualized reading of the Divine Comedy, and animation that looks as lovingly crafted as a classic Saturday morning cartoon—it’s very impressive. 33 Immortals is equal parts visually captivating and infinitely replayable.

It’s Hades on a massive scale, played across a Dante backdrop. Players fight across a screen filled with hellish, funky, surreal creations. Skittering clusters of skulls, whirling dervishes of death,   oversized wasps, and lumbering giants toting caskets all descend on groups of four or five players as they wander the hellscape. Oversized weapons cleave through enemies, while support characters buff and debuff and others pluck away at the creatures with bow. God’s Wrath wipes out entire teams.

The culmination in Hell—a battle with Lucifer in a frozen landscape—is epic, and typically devastating.

And of course, the many deaths you’ll experience on your journey through 33 Immortals give you a chance to weigh your choices of Relic, Poem, and weapon.

The meta

33 Immortals features four different player roles: melee, ranged, support, and tank. There are also 14 different weapons based on seven sins and seven virtues. (A third or so of those will be available during Early Access.) Each weapon is tied to a specific role, and helps define the way you play through the game.

Players will need to work together to ensure their team is not too heavily weighted toward one role or another. “It’s more efficient to mix and match roles to create a really efficient group,” said Logier.
33 Immortals 03 Dante
The break between sessions is also when players should visit NPCs to tweak their loadout and cosmetics. Because Dante is writing your story in verse, players can unlock poetic perks that give them things like stat advantages. You visit Virgil to discuss Relics and weapons. Charon handles the game’s cosmetics.

Finally, players can meet with Beatrice, who oversees a quest for the game’s Crown of Immortality.

“It’s your long-term goal,” Logier said. “You want to unlock the crown to escape your fate.”

While you can’t change your loadout mid-session, a single run in the game is designed to last 20 to 40 minutes.

Permadeath and replayability

So what happens once you’ve gathered your team to first defeat Lucifer, and then the surprising bosses of Purgatory? In the final version of the game, you take on God. And yes, you can defeat God—but you can’t actually kill any of the bosses. They’re immortal, of course.

“You can beat God, and there’s something to discover when you do,” said Logier. “The hope is that once players defeat God, they’ll continue to play.”

“We are working on that now,” he said. “Your journey doesn’t end. God is not the end. The game opens to something beyond that. We want players to still be engaged and interested. To continue to play and help each other.”

Permadeath and a cycle of replayability are core tenets of a roguelike, and reasons why Thunder Lotus was drawn to the genre for 33 Immortals. But it wasn’t easy balancing the single-player nature of a roguelike in a game that features 33 players.
33 Immortals Ascension Point
“From a game design perspective, that's the main challenge,” said Logier. “The way we approached it was to say you have to succeed as a group. Your 33 players enter Inferno and the more players survive and arrive at the boss, the greater chance you have to beat the boss.”

“It's cooperation at a big scale. The number of players surviving in the session is in some ways your life.”

The juxtaposition of a roguelike with 32 comrades fighting alongside you also creates an interesting feedback mechanism in the game, the developers discovered. There is a surprisingly strong sense of cooperation that powers the moment-to-moment gameplay.

“I think we created something really new. It's completely unique, having this kind of permadeath and cooperation at this scale in a multiplayer game,” he said. “It’s really interesting to play.”

No regrets

As the interview wraps up, I return to the topic that started it: the source material, the Divine Comedy.

Considered by some to be among the greatest works of world literature, it is as impactful as it is complex and tied to Dante and his era. Having now spent years working on 33 Immortals, a game inexorably tied to that work, I wondered if Logier or the team regretted pursuing that initial idea of creating something based on such a tangled piece of poetry.

“Not at all,” he said. “No, no, no, no. I don’t regret it, but it’s really a challenge. We have a lot of respect for the Divine Comedy text and everything that comes with it—like reflection on religion and belief. Mixed with the ambitious new multiplayer gameplay mode, it’s a lot. But we are achieving it.”
33 Immortals Key Art
The interview wraps up and I ask Logier—who has now spent years pondering Dante’s journey through the afterlife—where he sees himself and the studio right now, if placed in Dante’s poetic allegory.

“We are at the first boss in Inferno,”he said, laughing. “We are facing Lucifer right now.”

Early Access for 33 Immortals arrives on the Epic Games Store in 2024.

Thunder Lotus Games is hosting a game giveaway open to U.S. residents from Dec. 4 to Dec. 15 at noon EST. You can find out more right here.