Mass Effect 3 screenshot

Catharsis comes to gaming

I’ve been playing video games for 28 years, and I’ve been finishing games for about 25 (those first few Infocom games proved too tricksy for my impatient early adolescent brain.). Though it may not seem so to the casual observer, many games are finishable. That is, they have a narrative arc–a beginning, middle and end. Clearly that’s not the case with Pacman, Angry Birds or most sports games, but many games for the PC and consoles want to tell a story where you control the hero.

Until recently, finishing any game provoked a slight sense of satisfaction, accomplishment and relief. Even when my friend Albert and I spent six solid hours beating the Stygian Abyss on his Apple II, I recognized it as a trifle, an unworthy chore. It feels about the same as winning at a recreation sport (assuming you’re not a testosterone-rich toss-pot). It’s worth smiling about and raising a glass to, but that’s about it.

Ultima 4 screenshotIn recent years, though, I’ve finished some games and felt like I’d just finished watching a great movie or play, or reading a good book. You know this feeling. It’s as if you’ve been changed by the work of art, like I’m a slightly different person after experiencing it. Pauline Kael wrote that “good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again”. The Greeks called that feeling catharsis. This is a recent and radical change in my experience of games.

Maybe Games are Art

Though this feels like a tectonic shift in narrative games, I believe that it’s the result of many small improvements in storytelling. These changes, in aggregate, push certain games across a kind of event horizon. What games evoke this feeling for me? The most recent was Mass Effect 3. Before that there were the Portal games (I previously wrote about Portal as the perfect short story of a game) and Half Life 2: Episode 2.

What do these games have in common that are different from others? Great voice acting, for one. The Mass Effect games, in particular, are peopled with legitimate mainstream actors like Martin Sheen and Carrie Anne Moss. You feel the difference. By the standards of games, the dialogue is excellent as well. There are legitimately funny jokes, and, rarely, lines that cut to the bones of a scene. While I do think better ‘graphics’ has something to do with this shift, it’s not really a question of verisimilitude. It’s more that these games pay closer attention to mise en scene. They’re more tonal, in some way, and manipulate mood better.

Like good acting performances, these games have a soul, and there’s truth in them.

Roger Ebert–I mourn his passing–infamously argued that games weren’t art. In truth, I mostly agreed with him. Most games are awful juvenile reveries; I almost never see a sophisticated treatment of a theme in a game, and I’m rarely surprised by how a game’s story plays out. I recently watched Minecraft: The Story of Mojang, and Chris Hecker had a great observation about games. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said something like “nearly all games are about power fantasy, which is pretty cheap and predictable. What would a game be like if the objective was to fall in love?” (More on this theme from Chris).

Comparing the history of movies and games, I’d say that games are barely into the ‘talkies’ era. I look forward to the era where being moved by a game is the rule, instead of the exception.


  1. What I find so interesting is that, though yes many gaves are finishable and have a fantastic arc… you don’t have to play them that way. Not everyone is a completion-ist, and games that reward random behaviors or that support multiple characters for replay-ability are my favorites.

  2. Games, particularly the characters in games, are traveling a strange arc. They started out unable to demonstrate any kind of interaction at all, moved on to being tightly scripted, but now are reaching a point where gamers expect them to act pretty much like real, reasonable human beings. I find this troubling, then, when considering concepts such as “falling-in-love” as the objective of a game. What exactly does it mean to fall in love with a simulated person?

    I think the concept of games being better at mise en scene is predicated on the idea that games should tell a story. While this is true for some games (and I agree with you about Mass Effect and Catharsis for the most part) I think there are enough games out there (Minecraft for sure but also, Dwarf Fortress, Rollercoaster Tycoon or Civilization even) that rely on “story” emerging out of the nature of the game play and not relying on the storytelling of the creators to bring about catharsis.

    1. Indeed, I didn’t want to get into it, but I think the imagination and roleplaying is a huge part of gaming for lots of gamers. So, when one plays Minecraft or Rollercoaster Tycoon, one may impose a story on a gaming session.

      This isn’t really my experience of gaming, but I still enjoy a bunch of RTS games.

  3. I played several MUDs in the early to mid 90s, without having any clue of the vampire battles. I played it as interactive fiction – a chance to try out my plots and characters and see what would happen. I think many games can be played without completion, although I do tend to be a completionist for some game types. But I love playing things like Railroad Tycoon, Capitalism and the Sims, without any particular end game.

  4. The potential of games as art is massive. My favourite games have always had a great storyline .. though this isn’t always a requirement – let’s face it, it’s okay to just have fun some times – it sure is nice to have a transformative experience every now and then.

  5. Darren

    Do you still write movie reviews professionally ? If so, then please post a link to the respective media outlets where your reviews are linked off?


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