Julian S. Whitney
Wabash College

Video games have become a popular medium in which to feature excerpts from Romantic poetry. The 2019 post-apocalyptic action game developed by Hideo Kojima, Death Stranding, originated with a 2016 reveal trailer that showcased a short excerpt from William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence.”[1] Likewise, the 2014 side-scrolling exploration game titled Elegy for a Dead World requires its players to write a diary based on their exploration through three worlds inspired by the literature of Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Keats.[2] These video games incorporate Romantic poetry as a way to contextualize, thematize, and construct the narrative and mechanical aspects of their respective designs. But what happens when a video game appropriates certain mythological elements of Romanticism and integrates them into the foundation of its own story?

Figure 1: “The Title Screen,” Devil May Cry 5, 2019. Screenshot retrieved from www.dualshockers.com.

2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the hack-and-slash video game series, Devil May Cry (2001-Present). Developed by Capcom, the Japanese video game publisher responsible for the Resident Evil series, Devil May Cry (known colloquially as DMC) is no stranger to literary invocation. Based loosely around Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (c. 1308-1320), the franchise revolves around the characters Dante and Vergil, twin brothers and archrivals who exist as human-demon hybrids with extraordinary fighting skills. The former is the main protagonist of the series, and self-proclaimed “Demon Hunter” who uses his power to protect society from rogue demons. The latter is interested only in using brute force to exact control over the human and demon worlds. The fifth installment of the series, Devil May Cry 5 (2019) is notable for two distinct reasons: a mysterious new character – V – routinely quotes William Blake’s poetry and the game itself features Blake’s Urizen as its core antagonist. By embedding Blake’s poetic mythos into the narrative framework of the game, DMC5 reimagines the Urizen myth in order to tell its story about the importance of familial bonds.

In DMC5, the three central protagonists – Dante, V, and a demon hunter protégé named Nero – must work together to infiltrate a demonic tree called the Qliphoth to vanquish Urizen, a Demon King who wishes to impose unilateral authority over the Underworld.[3] In Blake’s mythology, Urizen exists as the embodiment of reason and law – a demigod who seeks to impose his own will to constrain the universe within a web of demarcated limits. In The [First] Book of Urizen(1794) and The Four Zoas (1797), Urizen’s oppression stems from using reason to limit the imagination. His representation in DMC5 is somewhat similar to Blake’s vision in that this Urizen is equally dispassionate and divorced from human emotions and feelings. He is “limited” by his lust for power and control. I argue that the decision to make Urizen the core antagonist of the game speaks to the broader concept that he embodies an evil that transcends genre and form. Urizen represents an existence deprived of human attachment and connection that is possible to translate into other popular mediums. When Nero battles Urizen unsuccessfully at the very beginning of the game, Urizen states, “You will regret…being born useless and human.” Based on the quotation, Urizen’s distorted logos in the game sees being human as a reflection of weakness and one’s lack of power, not unlike the way Urizen views humanity in Blake’s mythology.

Figure 4: Infant Joy, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Copy Z, Object 25. Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, The Library of Congress. Image from http://www.blakearchive.org

Once V is introduced, his cryptic recitations of Blake’s poetry lend to the themes of familial ties. When he first meets with Dante to propose taking down Urizen, Dante asks him about his name. V responds, quite confusingly, with a one-line excerpt from Blake’s “Infant Joy” taken from Songs of Innocence (1789):

“I have no name. I am but two days old…
Just kidding. You can call me “V.”

Ironically, V is actually serious. What is presented as an innocent joke is an explicit reference to “Infant Joy” and a subversive admission about V’s own existence. The player discovers early on that V is really the human embodiment of Dante’s brother, Vergil, who forcibly split his human and demon selves to acquire more power, thus creating Urizen. When V invokes “Infant Joy,” he is referring to the situation of his own birth. Because of his incomplete and fragmented identity, he does not have a real name. In reality, V is merely a fractured half of Vergil. And since he sought out Dante’s help only two days after this identity divide, he is “but two days old.” In Blake’s poem, the nameless speaker of “Infant Joy” is a child who pronounces their name to be Joy, thus alluding to a self-determined identity. But in DMC5, V iterates Blake’s line to suggest that he has no identity as long as he remains fractured and incomplete.

Figure 5: “A Fractured V,” Devil May Cry 5: Special Edition (2020). Screenshot from www.gematsu.com. While possessing a human form, V’s white hair signifies that he retains a piece of Vergil within himself.

In a flashback sequence, V explains that Vergil separated his human and demon selves by impaling his body with the sword, Yamato. During the scene, Vergil quotes “Earth’s Answer” from The Songs in an attempt to indicate his ambition of leaving behind human attachment and sacrificing himself to power:

“…heavy chain/That does freeze my bones around”

In Blake’s poem, a personified Earth is the speaker. She expresses her imprisonment by the malevolent desires of the “Selfish father of men.”[4] The poem has been interpreted as a meditation on Earth’s own relationship with humanity and as a reimagining of the Fall in the Book of Genesis in which a malicious God keeps Earth imprisoned. In the game, Vergil’s “heavy chain” refers to his human self, the part of his identity that he believes has prevented him from defeating Dante. When he intimates that the chain “does freeze my bones around,” Vergil is asserting that his pursuit for greater power has been hindered by the restraints of familial connection. Thus, when Urizen links humanity with weakness, one can see that this is really Vergil reflecting on his human limits. The decision to split himself marks his surrender to the corrupt conviction that power supersedes all, thereby affirming Vergil’s own fall from humanity.

Figure 6: “Vergil,” Devil May Cry 5: Special Edition (2020). A screenshot taken from www.gematsu.com.

Toward the end of the game, V convinces Nero to lead him back to Urizen so that he might fulfill his goal of reuniting with him and resurrecting Vergil. At this point, Dante has learned of Urizen’s identity, but fails to stop the reunification. Right before V reunites with Urizen, he recites two lines from “Song: Love and harmony combine:”

“While thy branches mix with mine,
And our roots together join”

In the poem, Blake describes that Love and Harmony reign supreme through the mixing of “branches” and “roots” which “together join.” Two lovers are harmonized through their innocence and their love, echoing the triumph of the imagination in human form. The poem can also be read as Blake meditating on the combined harmonization of his poetry and illustrations. Indeed, DMC5 achieves a related effect with these two lines as they are meant to confirm that V and Urizen belong as one, bound together in harmony and united by the shared desire to defeat Dante. Moreover, these two lines may also refer to Dante and Vergil’s relationship as brothers. While not the same expression of love in Blake’s poem, I would contend that Dante and Vergil’s rivalry as brothers signifies a form of sibling love that actualizes itself through their familial memories of dueling one another as children. Right before their final battle, Vergil asks Dante, “How many times have we fought?” Dante says, “Hard to say. It’s the only memory I have of us since we were kids.” Despite their philosophical differences, their sibling rivalry represents their ideal harmony, something that unites them as adversaries and brothers. A confirmation of Blake’s great claim of opposition from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Without Contraries is no progression.”[5]

During the end credits, Nero can be seen reading the book of poems left to him by Vergil, who is also revealed to be Nero’s father. He is reading “The Tyger” from The Songs of Experience, which implies the poetry is symbolic of not only brotherly rivalry, but also father-son relations. Thus, DMC5 uses Blake’s poetry to reinforce the thematic dimensions of the game, incorporating his mythology to tell a complex story about familial bonds. Indeed, Blake’s poetic consciousness transcends the bounds of time, genre, and form. His poetry cultivates an afterlife for itself that lives on in the contemporary creative moment.

[1] Kojima, Hideo. “Kojima Productions’ Death Stranding Reveal Trailer – E32016.” YouTube, uploaded by IGN, 13 June 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i2nuHEGhwiw

[2] Lambe, Ichiro and Zibo Scott. “Elegy for a Dead World – A Game About Writing.” YouTube, uploaded by GameSpot Trailers, 10 October 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QRXp-VfMOF0

[3] In the Kabbalah tradition of Jewish mysticism, the Qliphoth represents evil or impure spiritual forces, or even literally a realm of evil. In the Hermetic Qabalah, a Western esoteric tradition of mysticism and the occult, the Qliphoth provides a pathway to human self-knowledge. Both elements are present in DMC5 as Urizen inhabits the Qliphoth for more power.

[4] Blake, William. “Earth’s Answer,” from The Songs of Innocence and Experience.Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Edited by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008, 30.

[5] Blake, “The Argument,” from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.Blake’s Poetry and Designs, 69. V mentions to Dante early in the game that Urizen represents “your reason” for fighting. The line, a direct reference to the pronunciation of Urizen, is a signal to Dante and the player that Urizen is Vergil. Dante’s main “reason” for fighting entails figuring out how to beat Vergil, thus referring back to the first game in the series’ chronology, Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening. In the game, the brothers have three duels, the first of which results in the awakening of Dante’s demon power.