Is combat necessary for catharsis in video games?

I’ve become conscious of the fact that many of my more recent posts have to do with conversations that started or even were inspired by topics that were discussed on The School of Athens episodes and events. The weekly meetings have become, for me, often the only opportunity I get to talk about video games in my daily life. As I get drawn into meeting after meeting — often meetings about meetings — in my TA job (while also, yes, taking multiple summer classes too), I haven’t had much of a chance to play anything, let alone write much of late. The time when I discuss video games has become from 9:30 pm to 10:30 pm (EST) each Thursday, for better or worse.

I’ve written all that now to get to the point that I was struck by how something was said last night during a discussion on Demon’s Souls. In listening to others talking about certain levels and fights, I began to hear the battles went within their own descriptions. The times when they failed to defeat a certain boss and then, later, how they eventually won were evident in how their voices flowed: there were touches of frustration, a tone of confrontation and then, what was noticeable to me upon reflecting on it, an ending note of breathing out. At the end of their little narratives was always the same purging element leading to relief in the discussion about the encounter.

In thinking about that today, I couldn’t help but link it to other experiences I have had too. In my own somewhat recent game playing, I was overjoyed to finally get through Final Fantasy XIII-2 — a 27 minute final battle! Then there was, a few games after that, the ending boss of Batman: Arkham City which, while not as long of an encounter, lead to relief that the game was finally over. In just thinking about the games I play and how I approach them, there is always an aspect of battling the game itself and frequently, tied into those feelings, is actual in-game combat.

Even Portal 2, a game I played through again on a whim as I was waiting on some code to finish loading a couple weeks ago, has a boss fight. The ultimate expression of mastery within that story has the player using the gels and portals to battle Wheatley; all the assorted elements that make up levels are all tied into the layout of final confrontation. It would seem that, in order to test the player, to see if they have understood how to fight in a game, it pits them against something or someone. Before the ending, there must be a battle. To get to the catharsis, to let go of the pent up emotions, a final encounter must be experienced and conquered.

From a purely story point of view, this makes sense. As the characters have reached the climax of the story — often the very ending fight itself — and begin to edge into the denouncement, there is — more accurately: should be? — a moment of purging emotions for the audience and the player. They have accomplished something, defeated some great foe, and can now stop fighting. As the characters begin to relax, so too can the player; one is connected to the other. The cinematics that end the game allow the player to disconnect from controlling the events, to literally let go of the controller and, for just a few minutes, watch.

This this not odd.

Maybe, however, it should be.

Outside of a few puzzle games I have played, they have all ended with combat of some sort. I have had to fight, to show that I have mastery over how to express the grammar of the game in relation to a direct challenge. Fights with a single individual, even outside RPGs, are not uncommon for an ending. What serves as, to invoke academic imagery, a cumulative final exam is, maybe too often, a one on one battle to the death; either I will win or they will in the context of the story. I must beat someone in order to win the game, not just as reaction, but often from purposeful assault. I, as the player, have placed the character on this path and in this confrontation.

Have we trained ourselves — or have learned perhaps — that, in order to get to catharsis, we must struggle with the game as the character struggles with their circumstances? Are game stories linked so much to confrontation and thus, as easy expression of that, actual battle that we must have these combat instances as a part of most games?

In examining this, it’s not hard to consider such ‘battle imagery’ as being easy to link to ideas of more classic archetypes too. We understand confrontation easiest as manifested violence and in reference, of course, then to ideas of various warriors. Violence translates to types we can grok: slay the dragon with the sword and shoot the bad guys.

It’s reductionist to the extreme, sure. But in this light, it’s not hard to see most games translate confrontation as actual battle and thus, in order to “win”, the character must defeat someone. It’s this final battle that predates the ending and then catharsis. We relax, breath out our anxiety and frustration during the celebration of the enemy being killed. We reaffirm, in a strange way, our video game life through the extinguishing of another’s.

Even if they are virtual bodies, we pave our course to victory with their corpses. Even if it is more obvious in games like Demon’s Souls, we do absorb enemies through systems like experience points and statistics in order to reach greater challenges, bigger bosses. As we progress through the mechanics, we experience more battles. To beat the game, we must destroy something huge, a threat that can only be taken out through force. We do not reason, we defeat. Catharsis might be always tied to combat in video games then, at least as long as we look at them as a series of confrontations that translate to violence.