Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
As gamers grow and mature, so do the themes presented within the media. Studios seek to engage more with their player bases beyond simply inspiring Heroism. Firewatch or Life Is Strange are good examples, wrapping their main narratives around a sense of Isolation. Ninja Theory’s latest release, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, is looking to show a different picture, as the lead suffers from Psychosis. October 10th 2017 was designated as World Mental Health Day, what better time than now to begin one of gaming more unique experiences? Hellblade takes players on a journey through the mind istelf.
Caution: Minor Spoilers ahead!
In Hellblade you are Senua, a warrior on a quest to Helheim, Norse realm of the dead. Senua hopes to bargain with Hela, for the soul of her lover, Dillion. Along the journey, she’ll encounters the flames of Surtr and the illusions of trickster Valravyn, seeking to slow her progress. For one as skilled, physical combat is not an issue since the biggest threats come from within. The game paints a grim view of Psychosis; Senua hears voices consistently, and is never certain of what’s in front of her. Oftentimes the voices are dissenting, even mocking. In several instances they suggest she’s going to end up dead, as she passes corpses on the road. Even in combat if you find yourself losing! Later, in puzzle-solving elements the voices explicitly state to Senua (and the player) that she should just give up since she’s just going to fail, again.
Senua’s internal struggle is anything but, and her self-doubts, become yours. As accomplished as the player may feel, that sense of triumph is rarely if ever, transferred to Senua as a character. Senua’s demons may be defeated, but only temporarily. You managed to survive another night despite the visions, but the next event is never far off. In short, though it may be fun to experience as a player, it just doesn’t feel good to be Senua. Rarely have I felt so much for a character in such a short among of time. Outside of combat, she appears constantly traumatized. The character model is often looking side to side and over her shoulders, breathing heavily as if responding to some unseen, but omnipresent threat.
Hellblade’s developers suggest playing with headphones, and I second that to better experience Senua’s affliction. I will warn though, this can become a little unsettling, depending on how immersed you become as a player. You can still play without headphones if things feel too claustrophobic, though the game has more than clever audio tricks to simulate Psychosis. I chose Valravyn’s stage first because I wanted to see more of the visuals – at a certain point though, I had to take a break. I was incapable of deciphering the world enough to progress, and after a few minutes, I was just as confused Senua!
There have been attempts to bring awareness to similar issues through entertainment; some succeed while others tend to border on sensational misrepresentation. To avoid falling into the latter category, game developers consulted with Mental Health professionals, as well as those afflicted with Psychosis to retain accuracy. Paul Fletcher, Cambridge University’s Professor of Health Neuroscience said, “I’m very excited by this way of trying to represent Mental Illness, because I think it actually might be offering insights that we wouldn’t get through Scientific explorations, and actually giving us quite an empathic view of what it might be like.”
Regardless of some of the game’s features, the story is as much a reason to stay as anything. Ever since she was a child of five, Senua’s visions that enable her to “see the world differently” than others. We learn that Senua’s mother had the same affliction as she, though her father thinks it a curse. I’ll not reveal much more though, the story of Senua’s parents is worth experiencing on its own. Her parents’ tale parallels similar instances of trauma and their effects on developing Mental Illness. Hellblade’s story is revealed gradually, and at completion some players are left feeling uncomfortable. As stated earlier however, there are several opportunities long before then.
Ninja Theory is known for fast-action and beautiful visuals, like in Heavenly Sword, and DmC: Devil May Cry, Hellblade is no different. Players with high-end PCs or PS4 Pro consoles are in for a really treat! Combat is simple, but ultimately enjoyable. Hellblade doesn’t depend on its players having decades of gaming experience either. You don’t have to string together complicated button combos to feel empowered. Simple presses enable Senua to attack, block, and evade, though the combat is deliberately light. A further sense of anxiety is present when playing Hellblade through its “permadeath” feature. As Senua falls, corruption spreads up her arm, towards her head. If the player dies after that, the game deletes your save file, rendering Senua’s journey meaningless. Maybe not though… At around 8 – 10 hours, and priced at 29.99, Hellblade doesn’t overstay its welcome — you’ll likely finish in a weekend. Players may even learn about themselves in the process.
International readers can seek assistance through the World Health Organization here.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice released on August 8th for PlayStation 4 and PC