Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Mediterranea Inferno captures the collective trauma of COVID-19

Like Lorenzo Redaelli’s previous work, Mediterranea Inferno is a horror game about a topic I thought we were not supposed to talk about – something I thought we had to be ashamed of.

For example, Milky Way Prince – The Vampire Star, commercially released in 2020, is a game about the hurdles of a relationship with someone living with a chronic mental disorder.

And Mediterranea Inferno? This is a game about the consequences of the collective trauma and horror of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This cinematic visual novel follows Claudio, Andrea, and Mida, three twenty-something and unapologetically queer boys from Milan, the capital of the Lombardy region in Northern Italy. They used to be inseparable partygoers, three aspects of a single personality shattered by the compulsory isolation due to the pandemic. Now it’s 2022, and the group of friends meets for the first time after two years for a three-day summer trip to Apulia (Puglia), one of Italy’s southernmost regions. At the beginning of their trip, the holiday is bathed in dazzling, violent sunlight. But then it descends into hallucination, darkness, and blood. 

In Puglia, the protagonists meet a mysterious being called Madama, who sells them “fruits of mirages.” These are similar to wild prickly pears, but eating them gives access to “mirages,” visions through which people seek escapism and explore their most intimate desires. The three friends have the opportunity to obtain fruits only twice a day, and we have to choose who’s going to buy and eat them. These choices are Mediterranea Inferno’s main mechanic, and how we direct its path towards its multiple endings.

The twist is that at least one of the protagonists will be excluded, but all of them want to eat as many fruits as they can. Not only because of what they can see during the mirages but also because Madama promised a final prize. If one of them eats four fruits, he will ascend to an endless summer at the end of their stay, on 15 August, when Italy celebrates the Assumption of Mary into heaven.

Mediterranea Inferno
Image Source: Eyeguys, Lorenzo Redaelli

Each of the protagonists is looking for something. Each of them has been hurt by the long lockdown, even though they sometimes pretend nothing has happened. They wear new scars but, above all, the COVID-19 pandemic unveiled the already existing intimate and systemic problems they (we) had tried to ignore up to that time. The pandemic showed the cracks in the capitalist and heterocispatriarchal system, and in doing so, it suggested that it could crumble.

In early 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, Italy was among the first and hardest-hit countries. On 23 February 2020, the day of Mediterranea Inferno’s very first scene, 10 comuni (municipalities) in Lombardy were placed under a de facto quarantine. On 10 March all of Italy was locked down. Shops and restaurants were closed, school lessons were moved online, and we were not allowed to leave home except to reach our workplace (where remote working was not possible) and for other necessities. Before the end of the month the number of COVID-related deaths in Italy surpassed the death toll of every other country. In big cities, the only sounds in the streets were ambulance sirens, an atmosphere perfectly depicted by Mediterranea Inferno during its greyscale flashbacks set in the monotonous days of a locked-down Milan.

But the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact weren’t unforeseeable and uncontrollable events. They were products of our society and economic systems. For example, the spread of new infectious diseases spilling over from non-human animals to humans (as COVID-19 SARS-CoV-2 virus probably did) becomes more frequent with the increasing human pressure on wildlife habitats: climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have shared causes.

Even at a local level, the effects of the pandemic were exacerbated by political choices. At the beginning of the pandemic, politicians and Confindustria, Italy’s powerful industry lobby, downplayed the risks of COVID-19 and refused to close down factories and plants in Lombardy in order to keep what’s considered the economic engine of the country running. An investigation by The New York Times “found that faulty guidance and bureaucratic delays rendered the toll far worse than it had to be.” Because of years of budget cuts to the state-run healthcare system, hospitals in Northern Italy quickly ran out of intensive care beds, and doctors had to prioritize people with a higher chance of survival in order not to waste their limited resources. In addition, the heavily industrialised Po Valley, where Lombardy and Milan are located, has the worst air quality in Western Europe, and from what we know air pollution increases the risk of being infected with COVID-19 and of contracting severe COVID-19, since it weakens our respiratory and immune systems and it can be linked to other health conditions. During the first and the second pandemic wave, Lombardy was the worst-affected Italian region.

Image Source: Eyeguys, Lorenzo Redaelli

All of this was a consequence of our past and heritage, part of an inescapable burden we can only try to reinterpret and twist. A relationship with the tradition represented in Mediterranea Inferno through the omnipresence of the Catholic imaginary and the game’s attempts to queer it. Aren’t the oldest Catholic saints potentially as androgynous and queer as Mediterranea Inferno’s protagonists and Madama? Look at their naked and tortured bodies, at the sublime pleasure they find in the pain of martyrdom, and at the dangers of declaring their faith (of coming out). In Mediterranea Inferno, Claudio embodies this ambivalent obsession for a past by which newer generations feel betrayed: unable to find what he’s looking for in the previous generation, Claudio looks back even further into the past, into its fashion, music, and culture. He idolises his grandfather, who built the prestige and fortune of his family, and he hates his father, who squandered them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also had a significant impact on LGBTQIA+ communities. Members of marginalised groups are more likely to have pre-existing health conditions, to live with depression, and to be homeless, because of the discrimination they face both inside and outside the healthcare system itself. Queer people (and people from the so-called global South) living from hand to mouth were also more vulnerable to the economic impact of the pandemic. And, as Mediterranea Inferno shows and as Gayming Magazine has already discussed, the lockdowns disrupted safe and leisure spaces of LGBTQIA+ communities (in the physical world, at least). Lockdowns were a “queer time” of self-reflection, but they sometimes forced queer people to live with unsupportive (and even violent) family members. Among the three protagonists, Andrea suffered the most from this situation: he used to be the queen of every party, and during the pandemic he felt lonely and aimless. Now he needs to touch and to be touched once again, he needs to feel he still has a body. But when (and if, since it depends on our choices) Andrea finally manages to persuade his friends to go to the disco, Mida looks at the crowded dancing floor and observes that “They’ve learned nothing from the pandemic,” adding that “Big groups have been giving me anxiety since lockdowns.” What was considered normal can’t be normal anymore.

I notice the discomfort of people seeing me still wearing a face mask while buying groceries. It reminds them of something they (like Mediterranea Inferno’s characters) would prefer to pretend didn’t happen. After four playthroughs of the game, I went back and read or reread articles from that endless 2020, I listened to podcasts journaling our lockdowns, I cried while remembering the funerals I was not able to attend. Was I somehow pretending it didn’t happen, too? 

Mediterranea Inferno by Eyeguys and Santa Ragione is available on PC and Mac.