Ninja Theory released Hellblade in August 2017. Earlier this month, a sequel was announced. And this Thursday, oblivious to the sequel announcement at that time, I played the original. That has become one of my favorite gaming experiences in 2019, and I anxiously await the follow-up title.
I haven’t played any of Ninja Theory’s other games. I had only heard of Hellblade because of the general praise for its depiction of psychosis in a video game. I didn’t have any set expectations going in. I found myself sucked in very early.
To begin, let’s acknowledge that Hellblade is a very pretty game. That it manages to preserve so much of its graphical fidelity in this Switch port is impressive in and of itself. It’s interesting to look at–I say interesting because it’s often more fantastical, horrifying, or grotesque than beautiful.
Combat is easy to pick up and feels good, too. It’s simple enough: heavy and light attacks, dodge, block, a headlong charge useful for disrupting certain opponents, and a focus ability that charges up over time and slows enemies down (and makes certain enemies stagger or become corporeal) when used. The formula doesn’t get mixed up much. And while new enemies are introduced over time, there are less than a dozen enemy types altogether. Sometimes battles can be trying, with multiple opponents wielding mixed arsenals. There are also several boss fights against larger, unique enemies; these fights required the most precise use of the combat system and felt uniquely desperate. If I sound muted about the combat, it’s because I am. It’s engaging most of the time, but it’s nothing special. Thankfully, the game is not combat-focused; it’s just one of three major play modes. The other two play modes are exploration and puzzles.
This is a game designed around levels, but they can often feel vast, with many paths to wander. You don’t level up in the game; Senua is Senua, and her equipment is her equipment. This isn’t a quest for gold or glory, and so there’s nothing to collect. At one point, Senua has to get a new sword, but the process of obtaining that sword is deeply tied to narrative; it’s not about fetch quests for materials or finding treasure chests with new weapons. While you do have many paths to pursue, few are truly unrelated to the narrative of the game, and the main “resource” to locate consists of the runic monoliths that, when focused on, unlock a voice-over narration about some aspect of Norse myth (as told by a deceased mentor of Senua’s). In short, exploration is part of the narrative.
Puzzles are varied but typically revolve around the use of Senua’s focus to change her perception of reality. You might be called to detect the natural presence of a rune in the environment, or to line up symbols with the shape of a seal on a door, or to reconstruct a bridge or set of stairs by viewing the ruins from a particular angle. It’s often mind-bending, though thankfully seldom frustrating.
More than anything, this is a game about story. Senua is a Pict from Orkney in the late 8th century. She experiences psychosis, which is mainly represented in the game through delusions and hallucinations, though also through interesting use of visual phenomena and a certain sort of pattern-seeking behavior, among other things. Senua is plagued by voices, which can be hurtful or helpful. The worst of the voices is representative of the Darkness, a destructive force that she believes kills everyone she cares about and is slowly rotting away within her. The game kicks off in the wake of a Viking raid in which her lover was tortured and killed as a sacrifice to the Northmen’s gods. Senua is under the delusion that if she can take the decapitated head of her loved one to Hel and bargain with or defeat Hela, she can restore him to life. Her personal journey, and her past life, are secrets to be uncovered by the player, and I won’t get into them much more here. Suffice it to say, one of the greatest successes of the game is that it presents the journey as a fantasy narrative that the player can buy into; while you’re playing, Senua’s goals seem like reasonable objectives, as they must seem to Senua herself (in fact, she sees them as the only options). In this way, more than any particular visual or auditory device (although the use of light and color and sound is unnervingly effective), the narrative itself does a remarkable job at placing the player within Senua’s mindset. It all seems so reasonable, so plausible, that we can easily forget that we are playing a game of historical fiction, not fantasy.
Death and fear of loss are central concerns of the game. Senua fears her own decay and death. Senua cannot get over the death of her lover. The death of her mother becomes an increasingly prevalent trauma. The game’s narrative literally sends us to Hel. But the game design also makes that fear of death part of the gameplay. Early on, Senua is infected with a variant of dark decay that creeps its way up her arm, advancing at key story moments and every time she “dies.” Death unwinds events a bit, but it has still “occurred,” and the cost is the advancement of the rot that threatens to permanently end her. She can die many times, but once the darkness reaches her head, she will die her final death. The game presents this as a risk of permadeath. This threat reinforces the fear of death in the player’s mind, but the rot progresses so slowly that it is not a primary concern, and there are so many opportunities to surge to your feet after a fall with enough button mashing that death is rare anyway, at least on the auto-difficulty that I played on. In fact, some sources I’ve seen indicate that the permadeath is all a bluff, not something that can actually happen within the game, and yet another example of game design used to reinforce the psychosis and unreliable narrative/experiences of the protagonist.
The cinematography and direction of the game are also fascinating. There are a great deal of cutscenes, though the distinction between cinematic and gameplay is often blurred. While we almost always experience the game from the third-person perspective, despite sharing in Senua’s hallucinations, most cutscenes feel oddly second-person. A good deal of the game could almost be described as second-person, as one of the primary voices often narrates the story and the past to us, often speaks to or about us as if we are one of Senua’s voices, and comes close to breaking the fourth wall in its engagement with us. We are Senua and yet we are apart from her; you are always a “you,” not an “I” or a “they” but a tag-along presence directly connected to the events. The cinematics can be especially disconcerting, focused so much on Senua’s face and reactions; we are often forced to take the perspective of a monster or abuser or similar predator/dark force. It’s a disorienting effect that I’m still thinking about, coming to terms with. We are Senua; we are the forces that oppress her; we are an observer; we are an aid. The focus always on Senua, even though perpetually outside of her immediate perspective, reinforces that the external world as we see it is merely a representation of Senua’s inner reality, that we should always be questioning what is “real” or “unreal.”
The use of historical and psychological research, considerable interviews and involvement with academics and those who have experienced psychosis, and innovative game design creates a truly compelling, unique, and authentic experience. It’s more than the fantastical monster-slasher that it may seem at first glance. I would strongly recommend this game to anyone, except that it is a deliberately disturbing, uncomfortable experience. I was often on-edge, uncomfortable, distressed, and even terrified while playing. If you have experienced psychosis or have an aversion to disturbing images, graphic depictions of suffering, or violence, you should pass on the game. My wife was fascinated by it but ultimately had to abandon viewing the game because of the disturbing sound design. Hellblade actually comes with a trigger warning, the first I’ve seen in a game and hopefully something the industry will start to pick up more and more in the future. It also offers a website for those suffering from mental illness, to tap into mental health resources in their own country. It’s a smart, thoughtful, empathetic touch.
If you can’t play the game, try to look up the documentary about its making that comes with Hellblade. It’s fascinating to learn more about the historical and psychological research that went into making it. And while virtually every game has dozens, if not hundreds, involved in the creative process, the documentary really drove home to me that this was a game that uniquely had an auteur guiding its creation, development, and vision: Tameem Antoniades, the game’s writer and director (and a founder of Ninja Theory). I have considerable respect for his vision, the work of his team, and the insight of those involved in aiding the project to ensure an accurate and visceral representation of psychosis.
I hope that we can see more games willing to go to such depths to portray a challenging subject like psychosis. To have mental illness in games as more than a simple threat, debuff, or sign of villainy would be amazing. And Hellblade shows that games are uniquely positioned to place their audience within the mindset of minorities who are otherwise Othered.