Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is being reviewed based on the PS4 version of the game; no comments on the PC version will be provided.
Mental illness is a sensitive subject. Due to their invisibility, disorders of the mind can be difficult to recognize, diagnose, or treat; like most things that aren’t fully understood, mental illness is feared, and stigmas against those with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia find root in that fear. Entertainment media, in particular, has a rocky relationship with discussing mental illness, perpetuating stereotypes of institutionalization and possibly glamorizing the tragic ways individuals choose to deal with their struggles. While recent shows like The Legend of Korra (whose main character suffers from PTSD in the final season) and books like Maggie Stiefvater’s The Dream Thieves (self-destructive and suicidal behavior due to trauma and/or internalized homophobia are rendered expertly in the narrative) do depict mental illness in a nuanced, sympathetic way, the world of video games has rarely attempted to do the same.
Enter Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. A project hoping to pioneer the indie triple AAA movement in video game development and publishing (basically, this proposition argues that it is possible to create high quality video games for half the cost with a smaller crew), Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice centers on the title character of Senua. A Celtic female warrior whose lover, named Dillion, has been sacrificed to Norse gods by the “northmen” (vikings), Senua has taken it upon herself to locate the entrance to Helheim (the Norse underworld) and retrieve Dillion’s soul so he may live again. In order to do this, she carries Dillion’s skull on her belt (“the head is the seat of the soul”, the game mentions multiple times) and ventures into hellish landscapes full of monsters, corpses hanging from trees, walls of writhing arms and hands, rot that corrupts her body, and dark gods that all seek to halt her progress.
Alluding to the myth of Orpheus, the game initially seems to be following a familiar “hero’s journey”. However, one thing separates Senua apart from many of her other contemporaries: Senua has severe mental psychosis.
Psychosis is a fairly broad term that covers many mental health illnesses, but developer Ninja Theory chose to focus on a handful of its symptoms that relate to schizophrenia or bipolar disorder: delusions, hallucinations, impaired insight, paranoia, and the presence of multiple voices in an individual’s psyche. From the moment Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice begins, there are three or four voices speaking at the player through their headphones (the game opens with a suggestion that it is best experienced with headphones, which is without a doubt true), one of which narrates the story, and before long fever visions begin to plague the protagonist. Darkness seeps into the corners of her sight, tree branches warp into claws, growls can be heard from afar and nearby though nothing is close. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice makes it abundantly clear from the get-go that this will not be a conventional gaming experience: this is not about playing a character, this is about becoming a character.
Developer Ninja Theory is able to achieve this empathetic experience (over a sympathetic one) thanks to incredibly inventive design and fantastic production. In order to accurately illustrate the effects of psychosis on an individual, Ninja Theory worked with people who are actually living with psychosis (see the documentary above) to make sure they were depicting the mental illness realistically and honestly, not wanting to fall into stereotypes; the developers discussed with these volunteers their hallucinations, their understandings of the world, their fears about their psychosis, and much more. Throughout development they playtested Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice in front of these volunteers, and adjusted scenes and puzzles in order to better replicate real life experiences.
For example, the voices inside of Senua’s head (and, therefore, the player’s) were recorded using a binaural microphone, which replicates how the human ear perceives sound: the audio dips and weaves through the headphones, and there were many times while playing that I felt as if someone was truly whispering into my ear, or calling over a void, or talking to me through a solid surface. By recording the audio in this way, it creates a disorienting experience because it asks the player to do two things: one, try to understand how sound moves throughout space; and two, to live in Senua’s mind for a moment, and hear what she hears. The audio of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is produced so well that when there were actual moments of silence I felt more unnerved than relaxed, missing the voices that’d warned me of danger and scolded me for rash decisions before.
Senua is played by Melina Juergens, aided by revolutionary motion tracking animation technology. Voice over work is a key aspect of many game narratives, and while there are many that elicit powerful emotions from their audiences due to their quality, Melina’s performance is on a whole other level because she is Senua. Her likeness was used for the character model, Senua’s soulful eyes and anguished expressions taken directly from Melina’s own, every movement and sword strike thanks to her truly impressive acting.
However, it isn’t just the stellar production that helps the player experience Senua’s psychosis. The gameplay itself is married to the subject matter as well through its navigation, puzzles, and combat. While at times the game can feel like a walking simulator, there are moments of pure terror when Senua is moving through an environment. A sequence about halfway through the game strips sight away from Senua, so the player has to help her escape wherever she is by following the sounds of a river and, later, the groans of enemies. Another moment challenges Senua to stay in the light that breaks through the cracked ceiling of a cave, and the moment she steps outside of light the image distorts around her, shifting and warping and flashing red until she finds safety. These sequences are harrowing to play, but that was the intent: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice isn’t supposed to be a “fun” gaming experience.
Furthering this immersion, the puzzles Senua must solve revolve around locating Norse runes throughout the environment in order to open locked doors. According to the developers (see the documentary above) this is supposed to echo the process by which people with psychosis try to comprehend the world: finding meaning in symbols and repetitive imagery in the real world. The puzzle sequences are the most frustrating part of the game, testing if the player can recognize environmental cues and move in specific maneuvers in order to make tree branches or shadows or blood stains look like runes. But the frustration is visceral, and isn’t due to gameplay mechanics but, instead, more thoroughly captures Senua’s own desire to find meaning in a world that views her mental illness as a “curse” or “plague”.
The combat of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, is made of the same basic principle: depict Senua’s emotional state. Despite her skill as a trained Celtic warrior, Senua’s movement in combat against phantasmic soldiers and terrifying gods feels desperate: her sword strikes, alternatively heavy or fast, feel meaty when they hit, the weight of her swings accentuating her war cries. When she dodges she ducks and weaves, the voices in Senua’s head giving her advice on where to move and what to look out for. When Senua is hit, the anguish on her face is palpable; this isn’t the cartoonish way Nathan Drake of Uncharted survives multiple headshots and gut punches. Every encounter feels like a fight to stay alive.
While the production and gameplay are both expertly crafted, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice‘s real stars are the story and Senua herself. Steeped in Celtic and Norse mythology and symbolism, Senua’s descent into the underworld (or, perhaps, her own psyche) feels, at times, uncomfortably real. Although the game takes place in a medieval time era, modern day stigmas and prejudices against those with mental illness resonate through Senua’s struggle to belong, whether that is with her lover Dillion or her father Synbel, the village shaman that tortures her in hopes of relieving her of her “curse”. The voices in Senua’s head constantly doubt every move that she makes, and the writing of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is more frequently than not the most powerful when Senua battles these voices, stakes a claim on her own sanity while also respecting the input of these symptoms of her psychosis. Though I won’t spoil any plot details, the game tackles themes of self-acceptance, fighting back against those that oppress us, eternal love, and the recognition of one’s own flaws. The final act is able to take these very real, very painful experiences and tie them into the mythology of the world Senua inhabits, and the payoff is haunting, violent, and beautiful.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is an important game for multiple reasons. It challenges the video game industries standard that high quality games can not be developed with limited resources; it argues against expensive releases by being digital only and retailing for $29.99 (in comparison to a normal rate of around $60); it shirks conventional gameplay to better focus on its story; its production and art direction are a new watermark for gaming. But the factor that solidifies Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’s importance, and greatness, is that it takes the medium of gaming, which is all about putting players into the roles of other characters, and asks us to experience psychosis in an empathetic way. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is not an easy game to play through. But it is a vital, intelligent, moving work of art that demands to be experienced and felt.
IF YOU LIKE HELLBLADE: SENUA’S SACRIFICE, TRY: THE LAST GUARDIAN, DARK SOULS