Catharsis in Literature and Video Games

I remembered being quite annoyed last semester when I found out that the works of Sigmund Freud on Psychoanalysis was somehow a huge portion of my Discourse Theory class. Every class was yet another mind-blowing experience forcing me to understand deeply things that I did not want to think about – being the overthinking person I am is already difficult, I did not want to come face-to-face with the truths that make me who I am. From the discussion of the relationship between Eros (the life drive) and Thanatos (the death drive), to the thrill of herd mentality (and of belonging), this segment of the course turned out to be the most rewarding in terms of human understanding.

One particular class addressed the concept of cathartic method, a form of treatment used by Freud’s colleague, Josef Breur in utilising hypnosis to treat hysteria. During the period of hypnosis, Breur’s patients were allowed to revisit traumatic experiences and to reexamine them. In the process, they reconnected with the repressed and/or forgotten emotions, and in expressing them, were able to cathartically release themselves from the trauma. Later, catharsis was used to describe the expression and experience of deep emotions associated with an individual’s past which, at one point, became repressed or ignored and never adequately addressed. If I were to phrase it myself, it would be like knotting a ‘loose end’ that you forgot had become frayed.

Catharsis in Literature and Shows
It was later theorised that catharsis did not solely apply to one’s own experiences, but also works through empathy. Instead of delving deep into these theories, which honestly hurt my head more often than not over the last semester, it is probably more effective to think about it this way:

Building Empathy – This Character is Me!
One often finds themselves ‘relating’ to character(s) and/or scenario(s) in films, books and television. However, interestingly enough, it is never so that you are exactly that character, neither have you experienced the exact same situation. Relatability instead draws the viewer’s attention to a few traits within a character and situation, and magnifies it subjectively, in order to draw on empathy. This is also why Highly Sensitive Persons, who are acutely empathetic by nature, tend to get emotionally attached to characters and shows (talking from experience here). It doesn’t just stop there, with just one character. Once you find a connection to a character, your brain/instincts/emotions partially warp that character to seem more and more similar to you, even though, when you pull back behind a neutral veil, you realise that you have defining differences too. You then find a place in that show/book and come to build connections with other characters, either in understanding them, or even seeing them as people you know in real life. This is how empathy works in non-human interactions.

Has this happened to me before? More than I’d like to admit. I was once ashamed of it, now I am unapologetically it – a HSP, Highly Sensitive Person. It is so overwhelming that I cannot enjoy a show if I cannot build a connection to someone within it. On the other hand, I can even have my ideals shaken by a show if I build a strong connection to a character. Here are 2 examples:

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This here is Jayfeather from the Warrior Cats series (a book series), which I used to read a lot, even to the point of getting scolded by my dad for liking fictional books. He was born blind, unlike his siblings, Hollyleaf and Lionblaze, and many doubted his ability to become a true warrior. As a result, he spend most of his earlier appearances in the series being quite the snappy, mean-spirited and grouchy cat, acting far older than his age as a defence.

I am neither blind or a cat, but Jayfeather is still one of my longest-lasting connections in fiction. His blindness, to me, was a manifestation of limitations by birth, which, for me, were my family conditions. For one, as the oldest child of the generation, I was expected to become something great and never stray from that path, to forge a road ahead for my younger siblings and cousins – so much so that I am still expected to work on their things for them, simply because I’ve done it before. I did not end up pursuing the career I wanted. I dropped the hobbies I loved. When my sister became older, my connection with Jayfeather grew. Where Jayfeather’s siblings’ abilities were never doubted, because they were not born blind, my sister was free to do almost anything she wanted, because she was not born first. I, for a long time, also shared Jayfeather’s grouchy attitude and was just genuinely upset at everything despite wanting to be happy-go-lucky on the inside.

When Jayfeather eventually found his own talent and became a much friendlier cat, even having a playful side, I too started becoming that way. In such a manner, my reading of the Warrior Cats series over the years became a cathartic experience.

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Akane Tsunemori from Psycho-Pass is a much more recent example. She is one of the main protagonists of the show, and for me, her highlight is her unwavering questioning of “What is law? Does it serve the people or do people serve it?” She is shown to be an exceedingly intelligent character, having scored the highest out of all of her friends and peers when graduating, yet that side of her was never the main point. It was constantly about her struggles in understanding the Sibyl System and the way it judged the actions and wills of people.

This show came about at a time when I began rejecting the elitist spiel that was fed to me in my 6 years of elitist education. From having private teachers free from the commands of the Ministry (which is rare in Singapore) to expecting our school to come out on top in every area (sports, academics, arts, etc.) to being taught things like etiquette and golf to “prepare the new generation of political and business leaders”, I wanted to abandon all of these. I began to hate any comment or praise pertaining to my intelligence, because that’s what got me into that institution and what, in my mind, creates that disturbing rift between the elite and others. Like Akane Tsunemori, and the expectations of her in the elite police institution, I wanted to be seen as me, rather than just another one of the institution. She went against expectations and even orders, believing in her own sense of justice, and experiencing the show with her was cathartic.

How Catharsis is Different in Video Games
A simple one: You are not passive. Even then, that is not entirely true. Even some phenomenal games, such as The Last of Us, simply replicates the previous model – you live through a portion of a character’s life and experience catharsis from their perspective.

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You cried over the death of the character’s daughter, felt fear while skulking around corners, etc. etc., but your emotions are not entirely yours – they come from the experience of another. You are not playing the character, you are playing as him – playing the role of him, a role-playing game (RPG). In games like these, no matter how much their experience replicates your own, they cannot replicate it in its entirety. You lack choice, autonomy, and your emotions are generated by the actions of another.

Then, we visit what Freud’s original conception of catharsis is – a freedom from anger. Video games do this well. Where it is criticised for ‘enabling’ violence, I think it is rather the opposite. It helps gamers focus their anger elsewhere. For me, this comes in the form of a little Indie title called Darkest Dungeon.

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It is not a violent game and was never meant to be. Yet, I find great pleasure and catharsis whenever a character hits a satisfying critical hit, and cry out in frustration whenever a character misses or even dies. It becomes an outlet of expression. At the same time, Darkest Dungeon is a game of strategy as well – managing your town, the team you bring on escapades, how you explore the dungeons, how you take on the fights, etc., and is cathartic also in the sense of allowing me to slow down and think. And that is why this is my choice of game for cathartic release of anger/frustration – I am able to express and then rationalise, a process very much ingrained into me.

Video games also create another interesting level of catharsis – that of choice.

Very early one in my gaming life, I think around the age of 9, I picked up a little game called Fable: The Lost Chapters, as a reward for topping the school in the final exams. Yes, it had sex scenes and I was too young to play it, but it was one of the free games that came with the original XBox. I was quite fortunate that as scatterbrained as my dad is, he never really knew, even now, that Fable was far too mature for me at that time. Yes, I knew about sex and mature stuff way before I was supposed to, out of curiosity more than anything else, so I wasn’t dumb enough to let my dad know about it either.

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And it was perhaps because Fable was my first touch with this variant of RPGs that I never really enjoyed The Last of Us as much as everyone else did. You see, Fable had a Good and Evil system based off the player’s actions. Corrupt and evil actions ranging from punching a kid, cheating on a partner, murdering innocents, killing an entire village to possessing the most evil sword would turn your character, physically, into a demon. Pure and good actions such as donating the the poor, taking care of your spouse, chasing away bandits and being a genuinely good character will conversely morph him into an angelic and wise figure. Guess which route I went first? Evil, because that is what I could never be in real-life. It is a catharsis of experiencing something you can never in reality.

Every choice you make in such a game brings your identity closer to that of the character in the game. That character still has some distinct identity – the Hero of Oakvale (I believe) – but besides telling you that you’re a Hero hailing from Oakvale, destined to fulfill some great destiny, the game does not determine all the little actions you take from Point A to Point B. It is the path you choose that makes your character who he is, and makes him a part of you. After that first playthrough, I’ve always played as the good character, unless I was trying to get the Bow of Skorm (e.g. achievement-related stuff). This brings me to the next game entry, one that’s gonna take quite a bit of time to talk about.

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Undertale has been talked to death in the video game community. The creation of one individual Toby Fox and a few friends, the phenomenal Indie title that made waves. Its allure comes from how absolutely wall-breaking it is. To put it simply, you can choose to be a pacifist and not fight monsters or be a murderer and stick to the genocide route. However, that’s not all there is to it. The game comes so close, so intelligently close, to fusing you and the character in the game, that it seems that you are the one in the game.

Being a pacifist is hard, so maybe you attacked Toriel in the first true boss battle of the game and killed her. In a game like Fable, you can simply reset and do it again – a decision you made without consequence. Undertale teaches lessons on consequences. Even when you reset, Toriel, and other characters, remember that one ‘alternate universe’ where you had lashed out and killed her, out of spite or desperation. If you decided on a genocide run, unless you completely wipe the game files, your following runs will never be the same. In fact, if you did so, you unlock a ‘True Ending’ where it is revealed that that genocidal part of you lives on even in a save file where you killed no one. Undertale tells you that your decisions are real, even if the game is not, and it reflects you as a player, no matter how much you try to wipe the character anew.

It brings the feeling of catharsis to a new level. Many who have tried the Genocide route have ended it early because ‘I cannot do this to these characters anymore’. Undertale does this to you because on every playthrough, the characters in the game seem to remember bits of what you did in the last playthrough. On the genocide route, some characters even say “I have a feeling that, in another life, we were the best of friends” and I’ve genuinely seen Youtubers break down in tears at that dialogue. When a game speaks directly to you as a person, it breaks that ‘fourth wall’ and the catharsis becomes one not felt through proxy, but dangerously close to real life.

And we finally come to the game I rely on the most during the most difficult times of my life, Skyrim.

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The base game of Skyrim is outdated, even to me as a fan, but because of all the mods, it is a game of infinite possibilities. New locations, new NPCs, new quests, new decisions. In Fable, I said you had many choices besides being the Hero of Oakvale. In Skyrim, that’s your role as the Dragonborn, but with mods, even that is unnecessary. This is why gameplay on Youtube is mostly roleplaying. “I am a retired Khajiit Assassin from Cyrodiil.” “I am an Altmer that rebelled against her Thalmor heritage and sided with the Empire.” Skyrim with mods gives the player a total sense of control over the game, and in a way, allows you to manipulate that fourth wall between you and the in-game character. Where Undertale forces a wallbreak, Skyrim lets you manipulate that wall. Sure, you can never replicate real-life still, but your character can either be entirely the opposite of you, same as you, or entirely unrelated to who you are on the inside.

Catharsis here is both through normal experience, of the land of Skyrim (and beyond with mods – Falskaar, Bruma, etc. etc.) and through choice. Well, as long as your PC can handle it. It broke mine.

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