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Hellblade’s battle with mental illness is an agonizing story only games could tell

Screenshot: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Screenshot: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

As Hellblade begins and our main character, a Celtic warrior named Senua, paddles down the foggy river that serves as the backdrop for its opening credits, the first name we see doesn’t belong to a director or producer or actor. The first credit goes to the game’s mental health adviser, Cambridge neuroscience professor Paul Fletcher. He was one of several experts the developers at Ninja Theory brought in to help shape this attempt at creating a game that honestly and compassionately represents the experiences of people with mental illness, specifically those who’ve gone through psychosis. It’s clear the developers really wanted to get this representation right, not just to save their own hide from critical backlash, but to do well by the people who’ve lived with this condition and whose experiences aren’t usually treated with care when depicted in pop culture. Freed from the demands of risk-averse publishers, the studio has let these lofty artistic aspirations inform every aspect of Hellblade, rather than string them around a flashy Viking-themed hack-and-slash adventure like a piece of highfalutin tinsel. In doing so, Ninja Theory crafted an empathetic tour de force, a game that takes advantage of all the powerful modes of sensory and emotional manipulation the medium affords to create a gut-wrenching personal journey of acceptance and empowerment.

Screenshot: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice/Ninja Theory

Looking at Ninja Theory’s past work, that might seem like an odd change of course. This is the studio whose most famous game is DMC: Devil May Cry, a supernatural romp powered by obnoxious rebelliousness and an unfathomably deep, frenetic combat system. There’s plenty of swordplay in Hellblade, too. It’s simpler and more deliberate but thrilling in its own right, especially since the game reveals none of its nuances through tutorialization and instead allows you to find those contours on your own. (Seriously, do yourself a favor: pause the game and give the control menu a thorough reading. Take note of the “run” button, which is a necessity both in and outside battle.) It’s a bold choice, but one that’s in keeping with the game’s dedication to immersing you in Senua’s reality. She’s a great warrior, and while the voices in her head might warn her when an enemy is about to stab her from behind, arguably a manifestation of her own fighter’s instinct, they’re not going to whisper some nonsense about pressing R1 to block. Making fights even more tense is the game’s threat to delete your progress if you die too many times, a blunt but effective way to make players fear failure and the darkness that grows inside Senua as much as she does. In practice, if this is more than an empty threat and the game actually does erase your save, it seems like it shouldn’t be an issue for most players, as the battles are extremely forgiving (I made it through the game without dying once in combat and only a handful of times during some obtuse, frustrating action sequences), but it still makes every close call feel that much more dire.

What’s most impressive about Hellblade is how every aspect of the game is working in concert to achieve that effect of emotional and mental unity between Senua and the player. This is a character study in a way only video games can pull off, throwing audiences into the mind of someone who is experiencing a psychotic break, making them see what they see, hear what they hear, and feel what they feel. Much of this reality, it seems, is one that Senua has constructed within her own mind, a melding of her real world—based on the history and culture of the Pict people who once lived in Northern Scotland—and the Celtic and Norse mythology that has been handed down to both her and us. It jumps from cold, deserted natural landscapes to corpse-riddled hellish nightmares. It tears at the seams and deceives your eyes. And all the while the voices in Senua’s head, dueling manifestations of her most fearful and confident and self-hating sides, flutter around your ears through convincing audio trickery. Even here, Ninja Theory finds a way to link the reality of what Senua is doing with the reality of how we play, having the voices cheer you on or scold you or nudge you to question whether you’re on the right path. The effect is even more potent, and constantly unnerving, if you’re playing with headphones, as the game recommends.

Screenshot: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice/Ninja Theory

While important figures from her life show up in visions, depicted with heavily filtered live-action footage of actors, Senua is the only character who’s ever truly present and the only character given life by Ninja Theory’s incredible performance-capture technology. Miraculously, Senua, the digital human, is more than up to the task. She’s probably the single most emotive, believable character ever created for a video game, a necessary achievement considering the way every facet of Hellblade springs forth from her psyche. And she’d be nothing without the incredible performance of Melina Juergens, a Ninja Theory developer who became the voice and body of Senua after wowing the rest of the team during the project’s initial testing. Because of the range that’s demanded of her and the visceral emotion she brings to the role, Juergens outshines any performance-captured character in recent memory. Those moments where Senua succumbs to her illness, where she writhes and screams in agony as the world blackens around her, are legitimately hard to watch, but she’s allowed quieter scenes as well. We see her fall into flashbacks, reliving the innocent, inward glee of the first time she met her lover, Dillion. We see her at her most apathetic, crushed by a dispiriting defeat after coming close to her goal of retrieving Dillion’s soul and bringing him back to life. And we see her rise up from that low, renewed and exhibiting the silent confidence of a survivor who’s accepted and overcome their demons.

That build to acceptance and understanding is the crucial element of Hellblade’s arc. Slowly but surely, Senua’s life before this spiritual journey is revealed. We’re shown, in gruesome detail, the tragedies that have struck her and her people, and we’re introduced to the epicenter of her trauma, a person who should be one of her principle caregivers but instead demonizes her for the “curse” she bears. Appropriately, they also manifest as the most menacing of all the voices bouncing around her head. Her mother suffered from the same illness and offered comfort, but she was taken from Senua at a young age. It’s not until she meets Dillion that Senua finally has someone to make her feel loved and like her illness isn’t something to be feared. With him, the darkness had receded. He played such a pivotal role in her life, in her overcoming the stigma of her condition, that when he’s killed, it’s no wonder she’s riddled with guilt and falls into this horrific episode where she’s convinced the only course of action is to travel to hell and revive him. This journey is more about battling off the notion that Senua’s illness is a scourge to be condemned than it is battling the Viking hordes of Helheim. And considering the stigma that still hangs over mental illness, that’s exactly the message Ninja Theory should be sending.

Screenshot: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice/Ninja Theory

There is one big downside to this all-consuming commitment to basing every detail around Senua’s perception of reality. When she isn’t doing battle with herself or monstrous warriors that may or may not be real, Senua spends most of her time solving environmental puzzles where she’s searching for magic runes to open locked doors. Hearing Ninja Theory tell it, these puzzles are based on some people’s tendency to ascribe meaning to patterns and symbols they notice during psychotic episodes. In this case, Senua is seeing Celtic runes in the world around her, letters formed by shadows or the intersecting wood beams of a dilapidated home. It’s a noble effort at turning a real-life experience into a video game challenge—and, brilliantly, another place for the voices to whisper doubts about Senua’s reality and quest into your ear—but these puzzles often feel contrived and just plain boring, forcing you to wander around the game’s blandest locations until you happen upon the exact right spot to see a pointy “P” and get on with the story. The deeper you get into the game, the more these modern-era pixel hunts start to be integrated into bigger set pieces and puzzles, which helps alleviate their tedium. Even then, they’re not always a welcome break from the forward momentum, and you might find yourself wishing Senua could listen to that one voice in her head who keeps telling her these runes don’t actually exist.

But she can’t do that. To her, in that moment, those runes do exist, as do the mythological beings she battles and the crippling plague running up her arm. Even upon finishing the game, it’s not entirely clear what, if anything, you did was “real” and what was constructed by Senua’s mind. The truth is it doesn’t matter because it was all real to her, a terrifying collision of the tragic life she’s survived and the illness she’s been battling. What makes Hellblade extraordinary is just how thoroughly and thoughtfully Ninja Theory went about making it feel real for us, too.


Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Developer:
Ninja Theory
Publisher: Ninja Theory
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Windows
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4 Pro
Price: $30
Rating: M