Eoghain Meakin

Eoghain Meakin is a PhD Researcher and Assistant Lecturer in Game Design at Technological University Dublin. His research interests are narrative design, semiotics and meaning-making processes in videogames.

Contact information:
eoghainmeakin at gmail.com

Brian Vaughan

Dr Vaughan is a Senior Lecturer at Technological University Dublin in the school of media where he runs an applied VR research lab. He lectures across a range of domains including Digital Storytelling, Digital Media Tools and Game Audio. His current research work focuses on social signal processing and VR and AR interaction.

Contact information:
brian.vaughan at tudublin.ie

Charlie Cullen

Dr. Charlie Cullen is an Assistant Head of School for Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Technological University Dublin. He has been principal investigator on over €20M of competitively funded Irish, European, UK and industrial projects. He has patented and licensed research IP and is currently writing books on Audio Electronics.

Contact information:
charlie.cullen at tudublin.ie

“Understanding” Narrative; Applying Poetics to Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

by Eoghain Meakin, Brian Vaughan, Charlie Cullen


While allusions to Aristotle’s Poetics have been contentious in videogame discourse this paper seeks to show that there is immense value in using the conceptual terms and mechanisms that Aristotle introduced in his Poetics. They can be used to highlight the unique ways that games can create meaning both in their narrative structure and generated by gameplay. Moreover, using detailed definitions of key terms such as mimesis, catharsis and hamartia offer a useful lens for understanding narrative arcs in a medium that inherently confounds the structure of other narrative forms. This structure conforms to an arc of knowledge acquisition for both the player and player character. This process is illustrated using contemporary videogame discourse as well as Ninja Theory’s award-winning title Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (2017).

Keywords: videogames, aristotle, narrative, narrative design, catharsis, mimesis, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, poetics, aporia, epiphany



The central tenet of Aristotle’s Poetics is that narrative mediums leverage the materials of their construction to an effect on the audience. For Aristotle tragedy is teleologically conceived (Kruse, 1979). That is, rather than the pervasive contemporary use of the term tragedy -- where an event ends in death and despair -- tragedy is actually “the emotions it evokes in the spectator” (Kaufmann, 1992, p. 52). These emotions are conjured by the work in a way that mimic life but, through their separation from life, take difficult or even harrowing events and make them “transparent and articulate” (Schaper, 1968, p. 139). Though we access the tragedy via our emotions this is a cognitive process; our emotions are not separate from our reason and the journey that we go on when engaging with a successful narrative (whether a book, film, or videogame), utilises and capitalises on that relationship. As Schaper puts it, a successful narrative calls for “constructive and creative responses, calling upon the entire person to transform emotions through understanding” (1968, p. 142).

The goal of this paper is to examine how the processes identified in Poetics apply to narrative focused videogames. It is not being forwarded to challenge other videogame narrative tools but rather as another lens to access and articulate successful narratives. Furthermore, this essay will show that there is an important overlap between the insights accessible via Poetics and other videogame scholarship. This suggests that utilising Poetics for a reading of a games semantic layer may in fact offer a unity to particular processes. This is particularly true when we take our guiding light to be the process of cognitive illumination that the Poetics describes -- a process that unifies the player and the diegetic player character in the gameworld. This will be explored below via an in-depth exploration of key terms found in the Poetics, and their correlates in academic games studies, illustrated by an application to Ninja Theory’s award-winning title Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (Ninja Theory, 2017).

Aristotle in Videogame Discourse

Aristotle is already present in our current discussion of videogame narratives. Owen discusses the Poetics mandate of unity of time and place in relation to 2k’s Bioshock (2010; 2K, 2007). Mawhorter et al. use Aristotle as a springboard to wrestle with the diegetic and extradiegetic meanings of choice in videogames (2014). Meanwhile Hawreliak focuses on Aristotle’s ethics in terms of the kind of heroes we find our games populated with (2013). This is only a small handful of the many cases where academics have found it at least useful to refer to Aristotle’s work.

However there was and, in some cases, remains to be a stiff defence against incorporating works like the Poetics into videogame research. One of the most notable figures who stood against this ‘colonisation’ was Espen Aarseth who warned of “the most smothering form of generic criticism: the attempt to reform games into a more acceptable form of art, literature or film; i.e., as narratives” (2004, p.4). This caution was (and remains to be) sensible, given that it would be simplistic to just transpose one field of study onto another. However, just looking at the profound observations made by the authors above, as well as a more concerted effort to combine gameplay and narrative in modern games, it is clear that this position was an extreme one. Rather than grafting one field of study onto another to try and claim relevancy, the approach that the authors above have taken is to try and unearth and articulate mechanisms that are fundamental to videogames but not unique to them.

A more contemporary (and more constructive) warning comes from Koenitz et al. who argue that any universal structure is likely to be insufficient (2018). They argue that Aristotle’s observations were medium specific and therefore not suited to be translated across those medium boundaries. This specific position can be contested in three interconnected ways; first is that Aristotle’s observations are form, rather than medium, dependant. We will show below that mimesis, and its processes of meaning making, are crucial to Aristotle’s position and that games utilise a mimetic form to create a coherent semantic layer. Secondly is the argument put forward by Mateas that shows that games utilise action rather than description, placing them in a similar dramatic mode to the plays that Aristotle used as his primary sources (Mateas, 2001). Furthermore Mateas shows that this similarity can be extended to explain game specific concerns such as meaningful interactivity and agency. Finally, there is the observation that the Poetics is in-line with a greater understanding of how the human mind has evolved to deliver and receive general, and less immediately tangible, information. Thus mimesis and representation reaches back to proto-narrative as a way of communicating the types of ideas that are usually enshrined as stories (Boyd, 2018).

It is important to note that in all three of these retorts, Poetics offers us a way to observe and discuss the game text and the audience or player simultaneously. Here we mean text in the same way used by Bizzochi and Tanenbaum, “a gestalt of medium and message” (2011, p. 5). That is, a message that could only be communicated that way via that medium, and a medium leveraged to deliver that message. Bizzochi and Tannenbaum recognise that, despite studying games, this distinction, using a medium to stimulate an end user experience, makes them ideological successors to Poetics. This is because of Aristotle’s clear interest in how the mechanisms of the text work on contact with the audience (2011). Lear puts it simply when he points out that, for Aristotle, the art of poetry is the art of making “and the activity of any making occurs in the person or thing towards which the making is directed” (1988, p. 316). This statement makes explicit the tight connection between creator, the creation and the audience and it is this paradigm that Aristotle begins (and commentators ever since have continued) to interrogate.

In videogames, the player is the engine that fuels the game with its critical momentum, but it is the design and structure of events that creates the resonance to a player's inputs (Swink, 2009). This relationship between the text and the audience is not a simple one and has only been complicated by videogames’ affordances. However, by directly applying theories that aim to elucidate the problem, towards games commended for their narrative, we should be able to illuminate the language that games use to bring these two elements into one recognisable whole. This entangling effect that we are discussing, in the language of Aristotle, is catharsis “the teleos of tragedy, the end towards which the formal artefact is functionally directed” (Schaper 1968, p. 135).

The Poetics

Catharsis is at once the function of narrative as well as its imperative. It takes place in the audience and, for this reason, it dictates the structure of the text. That catharsis is the goal of drama is rarely questioned, however the interpretation of catharsis as an effect has been hotly contested. It is outside of the purview of this paper to go through each differing interpretation but it is worth noting that many of these disagreements are historical; each critic was a product of their time as much as Aristotle was a product of his. In many ways Lessing’s “purification” (Fornaro, 2016) theory of catharsis is made of the same stuff as Bernay’s “purgation” (Golden, 1976) and much of the discrepancies, particularly in the conclusions, can be put down to the hundred years between edicts. Rubidge encapsulates this well when he states that interpretations of Poetics have to “fit the moral psychology of the era” (1998, p. 317). After all, since drama is the portrayal of emotional material for the express purpose of conjuring emotions this element has to be considered in any interpretation.

This may seem like a Gadamerian trap (Gadamer, 2004) as we too are not outside history but there is a solution to drawing conclusions to the Poetics. While many commentators find themselves entrenched in arguments over the structure of a sentence or an objectionable translation, Schoenmakers insists that the answer is not in the nuance of Aristotle’s language, but is rather in the effect on the audience (1996). That is, we can trace backwards from the effect of tragedy to its cause, and it is the structural elements that facilitate catharsis that is the concern of Poetics. After all, Aristotle did not see himself as producing a style guide as de facto master of the form but rather with the detached view of an observer who simply gathered enough interest to entangle and articulate the ways that the best writers produced narratives that audiences found engaging. Put another way, Aristotle attempted to elucidate the formula that gave dramatic forms the power to create and convey meaning.

It is often considered self-evident that videogames, with their affordance of interactivity, have moved away from the meaning making strategies prevalent in other media. However, Mateas shows that meaning making in any medium pivots around the arrangement of incidents. The arrangement is presented as causality which ascribes meaning to action and is essential to our ability to infer meaning and identify a theme (2001). Furthermore, Mateas shows that the player’s participation is just a new source of causation and, mirroring the definition of text used above, one that is constrained by both message and medium. The much coveted “agency” that interactivity can facilitate is only possible through meaningful interaction whether that is through choices or a commitment to the themes of the text (Mason, 2013; Tanenbaum & Tanenbaum, 2010). This meaningful interaction is stimulated through an understanding of the work’s themes where empathy and sympathy give access to identification (Papale, 2014). This brings us back to causality, which through its logic, and our experience of it, creates the meaning we need for narrative videogames to reach out and touch the audience.

Connecting Catharsis to Aporia and Epiphany

Dewey (in Myers, 1949, p. 123) ultimately defines this power as a narrative’s ability “to leave us at the end with a sense of reconciliation rather than with one of horror.” The cathartic effect at the heart of this statement ultimately answers two questions at once; why do we as audiences find pleasure in troubling -- or even harrowing -- material, and what is the defining feature of tragic drama? In the modern era catharsis is most commonly identified as ‘intellectual clarification’ (Golden, 1976), a process where the audience, through the alchemy of the drama, is able to reach an understanding about the events depicted; a comprehension that transcends the particulars of the text. Schaper describes intellectual clarification as ‘the understanding which a work affords whilst yet shaking us profoundly’ (1968, p. 139) and while catharsis ultimately describes a narrative end point it also exists moment to moment through gameplay and modes of exposition.

This is immediately reminiscent of the interconnected tropes of aporia and epiphany. Introduced into academic games discourse by Espen Aarseth, aporia is a puzzle or problem that serves as a roadblock to the player and can only be overcome by a solution which is the epiphany (Frasca, 2007; Jørgensen, 2003). For Aarseth aporia and epiphany are interconnected “master tropes” in that they seem to dictate an essential shape and experience that we can understand as gameplay (E. J. Aarseth, 1997, p. 91). While it is important to note that Aarseth conceived of this definition while concerning himself with ergodic literature, the definitions persist because they seem to correlate with so much other observable behaviour in videogames. For Jørgensen “[t]he most central driving force of action in computer games then becomes the player’s traversal of a chain of aporia-epiphany pairs” (2003, p. 24). This is because aporia and epiphany, as defined by Aarseth, offer a range of affordances specific to interactive mediums. Aporia and epiphany offer us forms of creating and enriching immersion via forms of hypotheses and comprehension that can be tested, refuted and accepted in the game world. This means that when it comes to the player’s actions, causality becomes essential rather than just aesthetic and every action that leads to an epiphany has significance. Furthermore, these actions have to be enacted, and although the challenge of comprehension may be solved instantaneously, the action of doing it may still prove a challenge. For Rouse et al. (2018), this is another affordance of game’s reliance on a chain of aporias and epiphanies. They rely on Nicholas Rescher’s definition of aporia being “any cognitive situation in which the threat of inconsistency confronts us” which is resolved only by “a plausibility analysis that enables the chain of inconsistency to be broken” (in Rouse et al., 2018, p. 208). To resolve this inconsistency the player must rely on their burgeoning understanding of both the ludic and narrative elements of the game and find the internal logic that leads to the epiphany. Di Pastena et al. further divide epiphanies into local and global forms where the former is the solving of a particular puzzle or problem and the latter is “a more radical, grand-scale understanding of the system in which those individual problems are situated” (2018, p. 210). This of course includes the narrative context as we understand how everything ‘fits together’.

This parallels the intellectual clarification definition of catharsis, and the myriad of moving parts it implies. Aristotle’s entire defence of drama, and a direct riposte to his teacher Plato, is that we learn through the events depicted in drama (Halliwell, 2009). This cognitive process is facilitated by the opportunity to differentiate between types of actions and place them into our understanding in a way that is not usually possible in the din and half-light of the everyday. Golden insists that the dramatized act “clarifies” (Golden, 1976) our understanding of it, allowing us to understand its universal nature, and therefore infer greater meaning to it. Schoenmakers highlights how the “theatrical frame” allows us to “regulate and reinterpret those emotions aroused by the fictional world” (1996, p. 88). He terms this process “aesthetisisation” and it is mirrored by Keesey when he says that “what is ultimately affected is the audience’s understanding; the pleasure is basically perceptual or “aesthetic”” (1978, p. 204). However, this aesthetic nature of the intellectual revelation may be specific to each medium. It is argued by Aarseth that in other mediums aporia and epiphany are non-mandatory for the progression of the story (E. J. Aarseth, 1997). On the other hand, in games an epiphany is essential not just to the work being realised but even witnessed (Frasca, 2007). It is for this reason that Di Pastena et al. label narrative epiphany as not just aesthetic but structural (2018). This draws the processes of catharsis as intellectual clarification and aporia and epiphany into even closer concordance.

It is at this point that we would like to introduce our case study not only to illustrate how this catharsis is mapped onto the essential structure of a game but also to offer a more detailed breakdown of this process, its constituent parts and the way it entangles the audience with the text. By exploring the narrative shape of a critically acclaimed videogame focused on story we can effectively show how a Poetics reading articulates the narrative journey of both the player and player character.

Distancing the Player in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a 2017 adventure game played in the third person where the player takes control of Senua, a Pict warrior. The heroine travels through the dark lands of Helheim ostensibly on a journey to save the soul of her lover. However, the true story of the game is Senua overcoming her troubled past and ongoing fight with psychosis. While this is not said directly it is not subtext. Ninja Theory, the studio behind the game, went to great lengths to actively portray Senua’s illness and ensure that it informed the narrative and the gameplay at every juncture (D’Argenio, 2017). To perform this dual narrative, it is essential to distance the audience from the player character so that they can see both scenarios at once. It is important that they empathise with Senua, that is, feel her delusions as realities, while also sympathising with her -- in this case seeing Senua in context as a character struggling to break free from those delusions. This is handled deftly by Ninja Theory but, as shown by Papale, is an important process in all narrative games when it comes to avatar identification (2014). Papale shows that leveraging empathy and sympathy widens the spectrum of what it means to “identify” with the player character. So, it is worth noting that there is a parallel to this empathy-sympathy mechanism in Poetics, one that can shed even more light on how this process works.

For Aristotle pity and fear are the essential components for the correct position for a spectator of drama. For Eoin Ó Tuairisc it is the precise measure of them that makes for what we call tragedy (Ó Tuairisic, 2002). Too much pity is sentimentalism, too much fear is horror. Even slight miscalculations leave us with scant shadows of the true effect; ranging anywhere from overwrought melodrama to impenetrable auterism. Burke separates pity as “the movement towards” and fear as “the movement away” and in their synthesis “the transcendent nature of drama” (1959, p. 341). This “distancing” of the audience is cognitive by way of our emotions as it involves “sympathetic meditation on sufferings undergone by persons not ourselves” (Burke, 1959, p. 340). This pity for the characters is inspired by our fear of the events; our feelings are stirred so that we are forced to meditate on them. Pity and fear offer us the profound affordance of being in the drama but not part of it. This, in a nutshell, is mimesis and it is worth quoting Kitto at length here;

"…mimesis removes the crudities of impact that the events would have in real life. It trims away jagged edges. It does not by any means take away from the emotional impact of the event; in one way, indeed, it heightens this, by concentrating the impact, for it gives a certain clear direction to our emotions. It can surround the event with a certain grave, even appalling stillness, whereas the corresponding event in real life would be, so to speak noisy and confused." (in Keesey, 1978, p. 199)

We see Ninja Theory wrangling with this process of drawing the audience closer while maintaining an essential distance in one of their most contentious design choices (D’Argenio, 2017). At the onset of the game there is a warning that it contains perma-death or permanent death; a fail state from which the game cannot be continued but instead must be started from the very beginning. A message notes that too many deaths in the game, which usually result in a restart from a nearby checkpoint, will actually delete all progress. This is represented in-game by a rot climbing up Senua’s arm and threatening to consume her completely. This is a lie. The game does not contain any mechanisms of perma-death. The function of the lie is, conceding to the essential artifice of videogame simulation, to pull the player into the same nervous paranoia that afflicts Senua. This synthesis of gameplay and narrative achieves this by using the distance between Senua and the audience to draw them closer. The audience learns very quickly that though the enemies are figments of Senua’s imagination, they are a true threat to her. Now, with the risk of permadeath hanging over their heads, these enemies are also a real threat to the player. The fact that this is not true just makes it all the more poetic. The audience is ensnared through the mechanisms of pity and fear.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is in fact a Jacob's ladder of distancing and aestheticizing action; folding over itself to create a cascade of meaning. Most of Senua’s trauma is rooted in her past, and Senua’s real journey is to re-contextualise, understand, and overcome these events. She does this by separating herself from them, distancing herself enough so that she may approach them anew. The game utilises the very mechanisms of mimesis to do this. While others have emphasised how much worth Aristotle puts into creating characters that we might identify with (Paskow, 1983), Nanay emphasises the essential space that must exist between the audience and the protagonist of the drama. Nanay calls this ‘epistemic asymmetry’ (2018, p. 5) and gives examples where the tension of the plot comes from the audience knowing something that the main characters do not know. In this way, pity and fear do not simply distance the audience, but elevates them -- heightening their emotional responses by allowing them to see how, in life, we often we do not see. Nanay calls these ‘vicarious emotions’ (2017) but this definition, while illuminating, belies the power within them. As Gray observes Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists such as Othello, Hamlet, and Lear are often mired in self-deception so that the true recognition of events has to happen in the audience (Gray, 2018). If mimesis is the distancing of the drama from real life, so that we may see general truths and learn something about living, it is an interesting observation that one of its greatest tricks is to remove the audience even further from its protagonist so as to feel even more for them. However, even in this asymmetry there is still a parallel between the player and player character. Both piece together events to achieve the global epiphany that Di Pastena et al. call “the larger collective payoff of hundreds of pieces’ worth of work” (2018, p. 208). Even though these revelations may not be one and the same they do function in tandem. This is because of the structure of transformation, or the epistemic journey, that stories such as Hellblade focus on telling. Keesey summarises the incredibly complex way that dramatic structure produces its cathartic effect with the statement “the mimetic process clarifies the materials to create the poetic structure; the poetic structure, in turn, clarifies our understanding” (1978, p. 203).

Overcoming the Character’s Flaw

Since drama is about summoning our pity without over stimulating our fear, it is no wonder that the function of character has to go through a similar ‘distancing’ process as the rest of the plot. For our purposes, this exists at the level of hamartia often translated as ‘fallibility’ or ‘the tragic flaw’ (Halliwell, 2009, p.128). Hamartia is a fundamental weakness that simultaneously humanises a character as well as embedding them in a plot that, springing from that weakness, makes their suffering more palatable and often inevitable (Kaufmann, 1992). Or, as Burke puts it, “a motive whereby the disaster would to some degree be the logical result of the character's own decisions” (Burke, 1959, p. 349). However, this does not mean that the character is justly cast into the fire. Rather, the hamartia largely exonerates them and by extension those that identify with them (Murnaghan, 1995, p. 764). Furthermore, the flaw makes the character noble as we watch them struggle and persevere despite the disadvantage.

As shown by the principles of aporia and epiphany, these units of struggle are made actionable as chunks of gameplay, whether that be combat or puzzle mechanics. Furthermore, they will be overcome by an epiphany, an understanding that leads to the resolution of the immediate aporia (Kway & Mitchell, 2018). The process that pivots around the hamartia is one from ignorance to knowledge. By not fully understanding the consequences of their actions, or being misguided in a way, we judge people differently. However, this dictates an arc where the character and the audience must come into full acquisition of “the truth.” This means that the narrative and the protagonist must pass through certain stages and eventually reach a tipping point where they “know” what is happening and, essential for the audience, “understand” what the portrayed events mean (Di Pastena et al., 2018). Ryan identifies the epistemic plot in videogames as “the superposition of two stories: one constituted by the events that took place in the past, and the other by the investigation that leads to their discovery” (2008, p.7).

This is certainly the case for Senua, whose travails in the world are largely metaphors for past traumas. Her journey is to recognise and contextualise those events so that they are not just individual traumatic incidents, but can add up to something learnable. In the language of Poetics, this character arc necessitates two essential changes: peripeteia, or a change of circumstances and anagnorisis, a change or discovery in cognition (Halliwell, 2009, p.48). The former is usually a physical change while the latter is internal to the character. However, the two are usually fused together; the most famous example of course being from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex where it is Oedipus’ new knowledge of his parentage that leads to his change in circumstances. Yet, while this example is archetypal, it is part of the cultural misrepresentation of tragedy. Anagnorisis does not have to lead to ruin. Anagnorisis, as a form of recognition that leads to a protagonist’s new understanding of the world, can instead save the character (and we the audience) from having to follow through on a tragic path. As Murnaghan states, “what really interests Aristotle about anagnorisis is the way that recognition can forestall pathos, the way it can prevent an act of violence from taking place, and the way it supplants that act of violence”(Murnaghan, 1995, p. 763). If this is not an option, and we must see the deed done, the recognition afforded by anagnorisis tempers the fall by giving it some meaning. By recognising it the hero is able to comprehend their fall and the audience can draw universal conclusions from the particular circumstances of the plot (Myers, 1949). For Else, this is the “purification of the tragic act” (in Potter, 2007, p. 3) into something more than a simple cascade of actions but rather a taut canvas of human experience.

The Trials of Senua

Senua’s hamartia is her essential inability to parse her troubled history from her current predicament. Her process of anagnorisis is to dispel these illusions and see the world for what it really is. This change in cognition offers her the peripeteia where she is no longer buffeted by the winds of her past. We see this play out on every level of the game. Major enemies are contextualised around prior events in Senua’s life. Valravn, the god of illusion, represents an earlier attempt by Senua to exorcise her “demons” by exiling herself to the woods. While Surtr, the fire giant, represents the destruction she returned to finding her entire village razed and her partner Dillon killed. These plot points are never explicit but are certainly explained through narration that functions as deft exposition. However, there are other subtler choices such as the “evil force” of the plot having the same actor that plays Senua’s father. These metaphorical devices reach a crescendo in a sequence where Senua must re-forge a legendary blade by going through a series of trials. The entrance to each trial is a mirror and Senua is forced to face herself as we hear a story. Each one details a clear reflection of Senua; a story of a father’s curse, a warrior’s fear of the dark. It is during this section that we get to see Senua’s traumas in their most visceral detail; the death of her mother who supported her and her fanatical father who essentially tortured Senua in an attempt to “cure” her. Senua passes through the stories that relate to her, but are not about her, and arrives at points in her past with new knowledge and insights.

This trial of mirrors is a tipping point for Senua where she reforges her painful experiences into a new determination, a physical weapon that makes her stronger and literally illuminates the dark. This is the process of intellectual clarification made tangible and clear. Senua takes the emotional resonance of stories and through them comes to a deeper knowledge of general truths. This is not full cognition, which in this story is largely left for the player, but rather the “Understanding” that O Tuarisic refers to as the emotional imperative of catharsis (2002). Interestingly, the player joins Senua in this journey but does not share the same points of intellectual clarification. Their journey is tied to her because as she learns and slowly dispels the fog of her own trauma and confusion, the player is also gaining new insights.

Learning by Doing

This is also delivered to the audience through the gameplay and the mechanics on offer. In the words of Swain;

“The term “mechanic” describes both a) the actions a player takes as she interacts in the context of a game (e.g., run, jump, shoot, negotiate) and b) the response of the system to player actions. In other words, the mechanics are the essence of the player interacting with the game. When the mechanics of a game align with the values the game’s designer strives to communicate, then the player is learning those values experientially.” (Swain, 2010, p. 217)

The mechanics in this game, while ostensibly being fairly standard third-person action fare, perfectly encapsulate the experiential values of the game’s theming. Senua’s two main verbs of action are “fight” and “see” and the game is separated into two main interactive elements; visual puzzles and visceral fighting. The first exists as either seeing through illusions or finding patterns in the game geography. The second is fast paced and often unrelenting combat. In both of these situations the perspective of the player allows them to see more than Senua, and in this way know a little more as well. However, the increased competency of the player of course translates into increased competency by Senua. While the game may not offer players opportunities to interact with the games story directly, it does indirectly allow for the knowledge acquisition of the player to be mirrored by Senua’s interactions with the world. This may seem an incidental detail, but given that the game is about Senua’s increased competency due to her perseverance in the face of adversity we can see this as an important transformative element. This becomes increasingly obvious when we consider that Senua’s character flaw, or hamartia, is her inability to see the truth. It is not her particular affliction, but rather the way it obscures her view and ability to reason with events. This is neatly encapsulated in the role of the voices in the game. From the very beginning Senua is beset by a constant chatter of voices that illustrate her fear and self-doubt but they also offer advice in combat and during the environmental puzzles. This becomes so crucial that we may add the verb “listen” to Senua’s key actions. Senua uses her hamartia and both she and the player learn to use the voices. Senua does not need to dispel them but rather bring them into reconciliation in the same way she re-forges her pain into a weapon which allows her to complete her quest. The change that she passes through is all based on perception; it is only by perceiving the world differently that she (and the player) learn something new and can proceed. Paralleling Ryans’ earlier description of the epistemic game (2008) Senua investigates the events of her past to move forward into the future. The verbs of action are all transformed through the acquisition of knowledge showing that this is the critical momentum of the narrative. Both Senua and the player are propelled forward and, through distancing which allows for catharsis, come to new understandings about their environment, re-contextualising the world around them.

This is similar to Reed’s definition of a “storygame,” that is “a playable system, with units of narrative, where the understanding of both, and the relationship between them, is required for a successful traversal” (in Kway & Mitchell, 2018, p. 235). From here the story is, in the words of Ryan “cumulative” (in Mason, 2013), where meaning is constructed out of the specific accumulation of events. It is only by this process that we can forge our knowledge into understanding and illuminate the dark. This is the catharsis of intellectual clarification where “the last piece isn’t any more magical than the others, and it has no magic without its connection to the other pieces” (Hendry in Di Pastena et al., 2018, p. 207).

Again, we see how Aristotle’s categorisations put an emphasis on knowledge and understanding not just for the audience but also for the characters themselves. This mirroring further enhances the cathartic effect as we sympathise with a character through a full cognitive process of the plot. Which itself is effective because of its structure. Catharsis is the final resting point for the audience and the text; it is both resolution and conclusion. The teleology is borne out by the clear structural imperatives that this creates in the text and how clear, and elegant, these fusion points can be. Indeed, this is the lineage of true tragedy; a structure that is not so prescriptive as to be easily visible but so intrinsic that it’s always recognisable. As Golden states;

“tragedy is a carefully planned and structured imitation of human action that is guided at every step by an organizing or controlling reason… the goal of tragic imitation is to educate an audience in regard to how man can and does respond to the grave human situations that are the subject matter of tragedy” (1976, p. 358)

Given that Golden later emphasises the importance of making the plot “personally relevant” (1976, p. 358), this statement seems to describe the relationship between a player and a game even closer than an audience and any other narrative medium. Given that games often flout the traditional three act structure and stretch other paradigms such as Freytag’s Pyramid into new and confusing shapes the question must be asked; where does the similarity lie? The answer is the cathartic effect and the weaving of text and audience that produces it.


Among Aarseth’s animated defence of game scholarship against “the slanted and crude misapplication of "narrative" theory to games” (2004, p. 10) he also notes that “[n]ovels are very good at relating the inner lives of characters (films perhaps less so); games are awful at that, or, wisely, they don't even try” (2004, p. 5). We would argue that Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice not only shows that games try and succeed at relating a character’s inner life, but they do it in a specifically game-based way. Despite this, the objective of telling a successful story through that character means that there are particular mechanisms that stretch between the different mediums.

We have tried to show, as concisely as possible, how Poetics not only overlaps with much of contemporary game theory but also illuminates these processes in action. The Poetics itself, as a document based on observation, is not meant to be dismantled but considered and applied wholesale to understand how the interconnected parts work. While there is certainly advantages to interrogating individual elements, it is in their totality that they seem to offer the best insights. Here, for example, we see how mimesis connects to distancing which functions through pity and fear and connects to the intellectual clarification of catharsis. While there are certainly other ways to articulate these processes this one entangles the audience and the text simultaneously.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice presents a narrative that uses the very materials of mimesis and distancing to produce layers of meaning, exploration and emotional illumination. The double distancing between Senua and her reality and the player and Senua is an elegant illustration of the way mimesis works, creating a crucial pocket to explore the inner workings of our humanity. The actual structure of that distancing is facilitated through the complicated alchemy of hamartia, anagnorisis and mimesis as well as a range of smaller elements that there is no space to detail here. Senua’s Sacrifice contains all these elements and they interact forcefully, making it enjoyable as a pure narrative experience as well as an elegant piece of craftsmanship. In Murnaghan’s words this is “Aristotle's ideal plot” because it “recapitulates within the play the kind of event that the play itself constitutes” (1995, p. 757). That is, Senua’s growing understanding of reality and her ability to recontextualise facts is exactly what mimesis and its resulting catharsis is about. This offers us the unique pleasure of enjoying harrowing events, not because we are callous, but because we can feel them in a way that is both general but feels complete.

The authors recognise that not all games are narrative games and further not all narratives are encompassed by Aristotle’s Poetics. However, given that Aristotle’s observations are intrinsic to what we might call serious narrative art, and that games come formed by and conscious of the narrative mediums before them, there can be little doubt that the philosophy will relate even if some structural norms are challenged. The game play for example, rather than being an obstacle to narrative engagement, is in fact a prime opportunity for enacting the narrative themes and incorporating them into player agency.

Applying the Poetics to narrative focused videogames gives us the language and mechanisms to interrogate the relationship between form and audience. It emphasises the way that a player is central to the meaning making process but this does not mean that they are the centre of the narrative. Mimesis and the balancing of pity and fear are what lead to the cathartic effect. However, this does not advocate for a practice of dry plotting, rather Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice illustrates how interesting and idiosyncratically these strategies can be designed and implemented.



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