I have meant to write about this game since I first discovered it but that intention kept slipping away. I’d forget about it for days on end only for something to remind me and then just as easily lose it again. My initial response is to blame my less than pleasant physical health but I don’t think was it at all. I think it may have more to do with my mental health than my physical. Which kind of amuses me as mental health is the very reason I wanted to talk about it.
My… that was a bit rambling wasn’t it? Let’s cut to the chase then. Today I am talking about Ninja Theory‘s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice on PS4, Windows, and (if you have poor taste) Xbox One. It is an independent title as much I believe for the makers to keep close creative control as for the fact that no large game publisher would ever take the leap of faith this game requires.
As per usual let’s start with the summary from the PS Network:
“Set in the Viking age, a broken Celtic warrior embarks on a haunting vision quest into Viking Hell to fight for the soul of her dead lover.”
Okay. That was really brief and not super informative – though, I must admit, that it does accurately describe the framework of the game. But this is also like describing Scarface as “a Cuban immigrant goes on a bloody quest to live the American Dream”. Yes it is technically correct but a whole lot of nuance is being lost.
Let’s try the one from Wikipedia shall we?
“Inspired by Norse mythology and Celtic culture, Hellblade follows Senua, a Pict warrior who must make her way to Helheim by defeating otherworldly entities and facing their challenges, in order to rescue the soul of her dead lover from the goddess Hela In parallel, the game acts as a metaphor for the character’s struggle with psychosis, as Senua, who suffers from the condition but believes it to be a curse, is haunted by an entity known as the “Darkness”, voices in her hand known as “Furies”, and memories from her past. To properly represent psychosis, developers worked closely with , mental health specialists, and people suffering from the condition.”
Now that was a little more informative! It paints a much clear idea of what you are getting into. A mythic quest into the Norse lands of the dead full of monsters and gods mirrored by Senua’s quest against her inner demons for the last tattered shreds of her sanity. That is a list of heady themes. Ones easily done poorly. So the real question is does it treat them right? Does it convey the twisted mentality of a psychotic realistically?
Abso-fucking-lutely. The game is a treasure. In fact I hesitate to even truly call it a game. For sure it has all the markings of a game. It has combat that is simple but fun and beautifully animated. It has surprisingly subtle and clever puzzles. It even has some element of the increasing of abilities over time. Yet still I do not find the label of game satisfactory because it is more than that. Between the story, the voice work, the unbelievable motion captured face of Senua, the way Senua’s mentality colors everything. and the atmosphere it becomes something else. An experience. Something genuinely different and special on it’s own.
There are so many things I could go on about here but the one that strikes me the most is the presentation of Senua’s psychosis. Why does it strike me the most? Because I myself am psychotic. I am a schizophrenic. I suffer from admittedly mild delusions and auditory hallucinations. I suffer sleep problems and have been known to slide into social withdrawal – oh and something about lacking motivation but I might just be lazy. I have dealt with these issues for the better part of 20 years. So when I see something that addresses mental illness and psychosis in particular I tend to look with a critical eye.
For the first time in my life I found something that not only treated the subject with dignity without sugar coating the ugly side of things but did so while accurately recreating the experience of being psychotic. It fascinates and disquiets me. I finally have something that I can have other people experience so they can have a glimpse inside my head. At the same time the game crawls up my spine. Reminds me of the days when my condition howled at me. It’s voices mingling with my whispers. Feeling my hard wrought control slipping as hers slips. I’ve sat down the controller with shaking hands after playing this.
The work they put into this must have been exhausting. So much attention to detail. So many days where they consulted with scientists and psychologists and then to turn around and listen to the words of my fellow sufferers of the affliction. Tweaking and researching every day to make it as real as they possibly could. And to do this while maintaining a high quality story in the Norse mythic style through the lens of a Celtic character? The team at Ninja Theory has earned my highest praise for this.
I would recommend anyone to try this game. Take a moment to walk in the shoes of someone who’s own mind lies to them. Someone the world betrays because it is not what they have been led to believe by the voices and the twisted chemistry in their head. Play it to experience a gorgeous journey through the darkest parts of Norse myth. Play it to support a development team who did something I did not think was truly possible. Play it to understand your fellow men and women a little better. Also play it because it is a fucking awesome game.
Even if you have to play it on an Xbox.