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.