Chainsaw Catharsis

This was writ­ten for Critical Distance’s August/September Blogs of the Round Table, on the sub­ject of “cathar­sis.”

I don’t think of myself as a par­tic­u­lar­ly vio­lent per­son.  I haven’t been in a fight since I was eleven years old.  I don’t like slash­er movies.  I get real­ly tired of the bang-bang-bang rat-a-tat kaboom rhythm of most shoot­er games.  I only made it about halfway through Max Payne 3 before giv­ing up out of a sense of dis­qui­et­ed bore­dom.  I can stom­ach gore, but I don’t seek out gory enter­tain­ment for its own sake.  God of War makes me supreme­ly uncom­fort­able.

So why is it, then, that killing an enemy with a chain­saw in Gears of War is one of my favorite things in videogames?


The Lancer is the arche­typ­i­cal Gears weapon: an ugly grey machine gun with a chain­saw for a bay­o­net.  It’s bru­tal, indus­tri­al, mas­sive, loud, and heavy, like every­thing else in Gears of War.  Everyone and every­thing in Gears is dirty, built like a freight train and ugly as sin.  The main pro­tag­o­nist has promi­nent neck acne.

Anyone who writes about Gears writes about the “Gears feel,” that pon­der­ous sense of stick­i­ness as you maneu­ver your walk­ing tank of a human through and around innu­mer­able chest-high walls.  The way the screen shakes when you run, the solid thump as your char­ac­ter slams into cover and the meaty pop­ping sound of a well-placed head­shot, all com­bine into a sense of weight.  The Master Chief may jump and skip around the bat­tle­field like his armor was made of cot­ton, but Marcus Fenix feels tired under all that metal.

Nowhere is this “Gears feel” more promi­nent than in the chain­saw kill.  It takes a long time, but it’s irrev­o­ca­ble once it’s start­ed.  When you rev your chain­saw, black smoke pours out of the end of the gun.  You have to be entire­ly too close to your tar­get before theani­ma­tion trig­gers.  Your con­troller shakes the entire time, as your chain­saw cuts through armor and skin and sinew and bone and final­ly leaves behind noth­ing but chunks of meat and rivers of blood.  Your char­ac­ter screams the whole time he or she saws an enemy in half.  Both your char­ac­ter and the cam­era are cov­ered in blood for a few sec­onds after.  I find that I uncon­scious­ly grit my teeth the whole time.

It’s bloody, vis­cer­al, gross, and incred­i­bly cathar­tic.  You feel a lit­tle bit dirty after­wards.

I don’t usu­al­ly find vio­lence in videogames to be cathar­tic.  It makes sense in the­o­ry: “I have had a rough day at work, so I will take it out on these zombies/aliens/opposing sol­diers,” but in prac­tice I find vio­lent games just make me more tired.  After a dif­fi­cult day wait­ing tables, deal­ing with obnox­ious cus­tomers and the ten­sion that comes from being triple-sat while there are yet more peo­ple com­ing in the door and that’s right there’s no hosts on Tuesday night so it’s real­ly just up to you and the other two servers and the chef is ring­ing the bell and two cus­tomers want more bar­be­cue sauce and this guy doesn’t like this cock­tail because it tastes smoky even though you TOLD him TWICE that it was made with mez­cal the igno­rant jack­ass and the phone rings and it’s a massive-to-go-order-that-is-going-to-goof-up-your-whole-rhythm-and-ask-a-thousand-questions-about-the-menu-even-though-everything-is-clearly-printed-on-the-gorram-website etc. etc. etc., the last thing I want to do is place myself in anoth­er stress­ful sit­u­a­tion.  I just want to drink too much bour­bon and play easy-mode Audiosurf until I fall asleep in my chair.

Even when I haven’t had a hard day at work, shoot­ers don’t relax me.  Whenever I play com­pet­i­tive shoot­ers online, I wind up more stressed out than when I start­ed.  I’m con­stant­ly wor­ried that I’m let­ting my team down, angry when some­body else starts trash-talking, or morose when I’m just get­ting my ass kicked by peo­ple that appar­ent­ly don’t have to work for a liv­ing.  That high you get when you do lead your team to vic­to­ry is won­der­ful, but in my case, it’s also fleet­ing and annoy­ing­ly rare.

So what is it, then, about the chainsaw-kill that’s dif­fer­ent?  For starters, it usu­al­ly hap­pens in Horde mode, which is coop­er­a­tive with friends against the com­put­er.  This is part­ly because I usu­al­ly play Horde mode (for the above rea­sons) and part­ly because it’s very dif­fi­cult to land a chainsaw-kill on anoth­er human.  It’s gen­er­al­ly more effi­cient to switch to the Gnasher shot­gun for close-quarters com­bat than it is to whip out the chain­saw, because most of the time, while you’re revving your chain­saw and slow­ly advanc­ing upon your enemy, he or she is turn­ing you into chunky salsa with a shot­gun of his or her own.

But it’s also in the nature of the kill itself.  In many games, killing an enemy is not, in and of itself, par­tic­u­lar­ly tense.  The badguy pokes his head out of cover, you blow it off with a sniper rifle.  But the chain­saw kill is rife with ten­sion.  When you rev your chain­saw, you have to stop shoot­ing and slow­ly advance towards your tar­get.  If you are shot while revving your chain­saw, you stop revving your chain­saw and stum­ble back­wards, mak­ing it more or less impos­si­ble to recov­er.  So you have to get close to your tar­get by other means, run­ning across the map, tak­ing dam­age from near­by ene­mies, try­ing to get behind your tar­get.

Once you’re there, the cen­ter of your screen fill­ing with red as stray bul­lets impact your armor, then and only then can you rev up your chain­saw and cut your enemy in half.  In later games, if the other guy also has a chain­saw, you first have to get through a quick chain­saw duel, mash­ing B as fast as you can to over­pow­er the other guy first.

It’s bru­tal, egre­gious, and incred­i­bly sat­is­fy­ing.  The cathar­sis after a suc­cess­ful chainsaw-kill comes not only from what­ev­er real-life emo­tion­al bag­gage you might be work­ing out on the poor bas­tard, but also from the emo­tion­al ten­sion the mechan­ics built along the way.  While prep­ping for a chainsaw-kill, you are simul­ta­ne­ous­ly vul­ner­a­ble and pow­er­ful: exposed to attack and able, if you can just get close enough, to com­plete­ly ruin some­body else’s day.  The ten­sion builds as you wait for the enemy to run towards you or qui­et­ly try to sneak up behind him.  You become wor­ried, ner­vous, and eager, and when you pull it off, all those emo­tions are super­seded by a sense of bloody tri­umph.

Bill Coberly

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and groundskeeper of The Ontological Geek, now that it has shifted over to archive mode. If something on the site isn't working, please shoot a DM to @ontologicalgeek on Twitter!