Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice: You can’t put it into words.
Updated: Dec 27, 2019
I have never suffered from psychosis; I have never experienced any form of schizophrenia. My encounters with these forms of mental illnesses have only ever been second hand. Watching someone I know lose all touch of themselves and reality, becoming complete strangers. When I heard about Hellblade I was curious as to how it portrays psychosis, considering how little it is explored in any form of media (let alone games). Portraying accurate representations of mental illness are in itself a rarity. They often fall back on crude stereotypes that give misleading impressions that otherwise demonise the sufferers in the real world. That is one of the reasons why Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is rather special; it uses the unique attributes given to gaming as medium to place the player directly into a person suffering from an illness. To make them see from that point of view. It creates sympathy that otherwise might not be present by placing the player in the shoes of a sufferer: Senua.
The game opens with Pict warrior Senua arriving at the border of Helheim (the Norse underworld, also known as Hel). She is trying to save the soul of her love (Dillion) from the goddess of the underworld (Hela). Her hope is that she can somehow confront Hela and persuade her to give back Dillion. The story might appear simple, a pseudo Dante’s Inferno, exchanging Christian mythology for Nordic myth. However with the inclusion of the fact Senua does suffer from psychosis, there is an element of intrigue. In fact, an interesting feature Hellblade offers is the narrator. One of the so called furies (the audio hallucinations) narrates Senua’s actions to you, the player as well as talking to them directly.
Having one of the voices be the narrator creates a intimacy between Senua and the player. The player strangely becomes a silent voyager, watching the world through Senua’s world, being told a story from a hallucination. It’s a compelling aspect to the story, keeping the player guessing how much true while coming to understand how psychosis influences perception, exaggerating aspects or lying to beat Senua down.
The voices and other hallucinations
From the very moment the game starts, the voices are everywhere, from the instant the game starts, things do not seem right, facts like Dillion’s head appears to be breathing or how light can suddenly become blinding or dim a moment’s notice. Hellblade effectively grabs hold of the player’s attention and never let’s go. Some people can call the voices annoying, I never considered them annoying. The utter omnipotence of the voices helps the player sympathise with Senua, gaining understanding though firsthand experience . Something that only a game can provide.
Having the voices that are sometimes sweet and helpful to scared, cruel to even violent is quite harrowing in a ten hour experience let alone possible lifetime. The visual hallucinations lend themselves to the both gameplay and storytelling, creating a world that is always not quite real. I love how Ninja Theory has been able to capture the sense of distorted reality. I love how in times of stress, Senua can see her surroundings visibly tear and fracture. How her pleasant memories are dreamlike. Hyper saturated and colourful, telling us Senua’s emotional state in a dozen little ways both via visual and traditional narrative.
Senua and Dillion
If I had not known that Melina Juergens (actress for Senua) was in fact, a video editor and freelance photographer before Hellblade. Who had never acted or did motion capture before then I would have thought she was a trained, professional actress. She embodies Senua was a humanity that keeps her relatable to an audience that otherwise might not understand. When she screams in panic you feel her fear, when she remembers or talks about Dillion you know she shares a deep connection with him. In fact I really did buy the relationship between Senua and Dillion. Oliver Walker and Melina Juergens bring across a tenderness and humanity that, is not only believable. But also provides some light in what is a very dark game. It provides the player and Senua a motive to keep fighting, to not let Helheim take them down. I hope Melina Juergens continues to act as I suspect she has a good deal of talent.
A question of horror
Hellblade is: (in my humblest professional, academic opinion) fucking terrifying. In my experience, Hellblade has proved to be among some of the best psychological horror games I have played (PT, Outlast, Silent Hill 2, SOMA, Bloodborne ,System Shock 2 etc). Everything from the monster designs, to the environments to the suburb sound design (the voices among others ) to the claustrophobic combat sections. Hellblade is harrowing in ways that another so called horror games could only dream of. However is it right to call Hellblade horror? Can a game that is nightmarish from every single aspect (theme, story, gameplay audio- visual design and atmosphere) be considered horror if the intent is not to scare but to destigmatize?
I found myself going over this question quite a few times, both with myself and when discussing it with a few of my friends. (Some of them being game designers). They argued that Hellblade can’t be considered a physiological horror game as Ninja Theory wanted to explore psychosis in a accurate way. This meant having to explore the darker aspects of the illness. Ninja Theory did not set out to use psychosis for a scary game but used psychosis to help the player understand the illness.
And that means?
A small difference that make a huge impact on classification. I personally don’t have an answer, on one hand I cannot really deny the authorial intent of Hellblade. But a lot of the methods used by Ninja Theory for that intent is designed to scare you. The sea of corpse’s level springs to mind or how Ninja Theory made the camera feel so claustrophobic. These design choices among many others instil dread in the player. I must stress that I can understand why people won’t consider Hellblade a horror game, due to the intent. But I personally cannot dismiss the triumph Senua’s sacrifice has as an effectively terrifying experience. I can’t as it would be a disservice to the horror genre. I want more games to learn from Hellblade. I want to see more games that command such incredible tension as Hellblade, to sustain such a sense of terror as Hellblade. Hellblade might not horror game in the technical sense but it should be applauded for its ability to scare some humanity into suffers.
Hellblade’s gameplay consists of three main gameplay loops. I will go through all three in good time. These consist of walking through the environment to get where you have to go. Puzzles that have to be solved in order to progress. Lastly that of the combat and boss fights that need to be overcome in order to continue. I just want to express that none of these three are particularly bad, they are polished and very enjoyable to experience. But are worth look at in some deeper detail.
Hellblade’s levels are rather small and linier. This is not a bad thing as the player is always moving towards the goal, the pacing is tight as a result and the player always knows where to go. At points it is practically a Walking Sim. However you do more than just traverse unsettlingly beautiful environments, made all the more sinister by the voices and the growing threat of something sinister (puzzles). It’s not entirely a straight line however; the game does have some exploration. Senua can find stones that tell a part of a Norse myth. These not only build on the atmosphere but provide a context for Senua doing what she does. How she might have been able to craft a world and a delusion from the stories her father told her. They are rewarding and fascinating to listen to. I only wish they worked more as an audio book (think System Shock 2).
Puzzles (it’s not what it seems)
The theme of the puzzle design in connecting shapes. Sometimes Senua is confronted by a door that has some runes etched into the door. She has to search the environment to find certain objects that will aline to create the shape. Some have complained that the puzzles were sometimes obtuse or solved before they even realised it. Fortunately, this was not the case for me. The runes were just difficult enough to be enjoyable but not annoying. They are in keeping with the theme of psychosis (seeing patterns that do not exist).
Sometimes you have to position yourself in order to right a distorted view of, say a pair of stairs or repairing a part of a bridge. These could have gotten dull but the pacing is good enough to be different. It also helps that Hellblade adds a change in effect to the outcome. Also, finding a rune might trigger a flashback that you would be forced to run through for instance. There are some clever uses of perception where the tarrien changes if you go through certain archways. They are rewarding and engage the player by twisting an already distorted worldview. These are more along the theme of perception.
However the puzzles have just mentioned are rather pedestrian when compared to the trials, two of which I would like to talk about. The blindness shard trial is a genius bit of horror and design. You cannot see anything, all you have to guide you is your hearing, your touch and Dillion’s voice. The level design is deceptively simple. Practically a straight line. However the complete blackness that surrounds Senua creates an intensely harrowing experience. Made all the more so that you have to navigate your way past monsters. You only have a vague sense of where they are(you only see the sounds they make remember) . Its basic design is creates a nightmarish situation that creates a memorable gameplay moment.
The Labyrinth shard is similar for a slightly different reason. Its layout reminds me PT in a way, not so much how it winds and circles its way in itself. Every corner promising danger. Dillion’s cry always simitainously too close and too faraway. You have to navigate your way through it trying to follow the cries. The deliberately confusing layout and silence build a tension that just keeps building and building. All through sound design and level design alone.
The combat is not the most special or unique system in the world. You have your light attack, strong attack, parry and dodge roll all down pat. Some might take umbrage with the standard combat system. But I would be damned if it works well. It’s standard, but polished and works perfectly. This might not be that worthwhile talking about if it were not for how the combat was designed. The camera is very claustrophobic, focusing on a single enemy at a time. This makes every fight very personal, as you do not know where any of the other minions are at any given time.
You have to pay attention to insure that you avoid getting hit by the foe you are currently attacking. But also to insure that you don’t get hit by anyone else. Enemies do not swarm you per say, they hang in the background. They sometimes attack, not enough to overwhelm but just enough to keep you on edge. If you take fatal damage, you have the chance to avoid the death and get up to continue fighting (if you get out of the way in time). This adds a sense of desperation to the fight, if you not quick enough you will have to start it all over again. The fear of failure from lack of reflex and skill make the combat rewarding and as intense as an unreliable jack in the box.
About that rot mechanic
(Warning of spoilers)
Ahh, the infamous rot mechanic. How it supposedly works is that every time Senua dies, a black rot will creep up her arm. Once it reaches her head she will die. All progress will be erased as a result. However, it’s a complete bluff. No matter how many times you fall the rot will never reach Senua’s head. It’s a gameplay delusion. Akin to the irrational belief of being poisoned, in this case it is Senua’s belief that her curse (psychosis)is killing her inside. The fear of peradeath can add a lot of stress to the player, deluding them into thinking that failure will eventually mean death. Ninja Theory uses gameplay to show the player what it is like to experience schizophrenic delusions.
Graphics and artstyle:
Hellblade might be on a lower budget but it does not show. The production values are unmistakably AAA. The graphics are lush, beautiful and richly detailed. The imagery mixes body horror and Norse myth. Valravn looks like some horrid mixture of a raven and man with knives for hands. It reminds me of a more agile Mergo’s Wet Nerse. Surtr is massive hunk of a man with a fire for a head and thorns in his skin. The creature designs are can give Silent Hill a run for its money and I do not say that lightly.
There are times when the camera clipped through the sides of walls, revealing the outside of the map for the briefest of seconds. The camera does have a minor problem of getting stuck behind environmental objects. This is due to the tight focus the camera has on Senua. It can be distracting, it shows a little rough work in an otherwise polished product. On the high settings I did have some frame rate issues but that is a problem with my machine not the game.
Hellblade’s depiction of mental illness is an important moment in the history of video games. Before at best people could use simulations of audio hallucinations and not much else. Hellblade grants the player direct access into the mind set of someone with psychosis. An experience that one cannot put into words, or easily forget. Hellblade: Senua’s sacrifice humanises a group of people that need help and cultural understanding (even sympathy). Ninja Theory made an important game that works as an artistic work and as an awareness campaign. Not to mention that it is also one of the scariest games I have played. Ninja Theory made a fantastic, thought provoking piece of art.
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Edit: General spelling and punctuation improvements.
Edit: Fixed some strange choice of words in the first paragraph in the Senua and Dillion section.