Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a landmark video game. A monumental testament to not only to the power of storytelling, but to video games as a vehicle for tackling adult subject matter and telling stories in a way that other mediums cannot. It also shows that there exists an area for “independent AAA”, as developer Ninja Theory calls it. All of the technical and artistic prowess of the biggest games of the year, but half the length and half the price, created by a team less than half the size with less than half the budget.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is grim. It is harrowing, it is emotional, and it packs a punch unlike anything else I have played. The titular character, Senua, suffers from psychosis. Her experiences range from hearing voices in her head, to entirely consuming delusions that disconnect her from reality. Ninja Theory worked closely with mental health specialists, as well as psychosis patients in order to understand and accurately represent their experiences within the game. The set up is simple; Senua is on a quest to fight her way into the realm of Helheim, in order to save the soul of Dillion, her deceased lover. This simple plot is present primarily to service what is one of the finest examples of a character study put forth in the medium of video games. Senua is brought to life with a tremendous debut performance by Melina Juergens, and well-directed cutscenes that opt for long takes and lingering shots; giving the player ample time to immerse themselves into the world and into the character. It may read like a cliche, but these long takes and the use of naturalistic lighting throughout the game show an understanding of cinematography that is becoming increasingly prevalent in video games. I drew immediate comparisons to the work of Emmanuel Lubezki on Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant. The only real issue I found with Hellblade’s visual presentation is in its’ use of live action elements, something Ninja Theory has utilized in the past. As these visions became more prominent throughout the game, I found it a tad jarring to see 2D elements interact with 3D character models. That doesn’t stop the game from translating gorgeous artwork into stunning visuals that rival the work of bigger developers with much larger budgets, but the show is stolen by the incredible sound design.
From every hit of Senua’s blade to the ambient noises heard while exploring the Norse mythology-inspired environments, the sound design is consistently excellent. Perhaps the most important thing I need to mention is that this is a game that recommends and must be played with headphones to be properly experienced. The most common form that Senua’s psychosis takes is that of disembodied voices commenting on her every move. They constantly chatter away, bickering with each other. Some discourage Senua on her quest, continually telling her that she will fail and her mission is futile. Others encourage her, warning of danger and assisting when solving puzzles. Not only is this representing a symptom of psychosis, it is the way the game communicates to the player. There is no tutorial, no heads up display, nothing explicitly “game-y” to guide the player. In addition, one of the voices in Senua’s head serves a role as a narrator, and acknowledges the player’s presence. I took this to mean that the player is another voice, assisting Senua on her journey. The decision to add in those bits of dialogue are one of the real strengths of a interactive media, as it immediately draws the player in by making them a part of the story. These voices were recorded using binaural audio, essentially tracking the distance of the voice away from the microphone and replicating how the human ear really hears things. This creates an incredibly unnerving effect of feeling like some of the voices are coming from someone standing right next to you.
The gameplay segments of Hellblade primarily consist of combat and puzzle solving. Combat is simple but effective; Senua can unleash light and heavy attacks with her sword, stun enemies with kicks, parry with a well-timed block, and evade enemy attacks. Players can also charge up a focus ability with attacks and parries, allowing them to slow enemies down and increase the speed of Senua’s movement and attacks. There’s no XP to earn or skills to unlock, the combat purely comes down to the skill of the player’s guiding hand. I played the game on the hardest difficulty, which added a degree of intensity that I felt suited the somber and oppressive tone of the game. Still, combat is not overly challenging and does not call upon the player to learn intricate combos in the style of a character action game, nor does it require the precision of a Dark Souls-like combat system. This can lead to early encounters feeling somewhat stale, especially with a lack of enemy variety. Despite this, each boss has a unique twist to make it memorable. As the game progresses and begins to ratchet the intensity up with more and more enemies, it does find its’ stride. What certainly isn’t missing from Ninja Theory’s previous efforts are gorgeous animations for all of Senua’s abilities in combat. Hellblade is not a “fun” game, but the combat is satisfying and left me wanting more.
One of the greatest concerns I had going into the game was how close the camera remained to Senua in combat, retaining an over-the-shoulder view that looked like it could cause problems when surrounded by enemies. That fear was quickly dismissed, as this is where the voices in Senua’s head will often come to her assistance, warning the player to evade an incoming attack. However, the more damage Senua takes, the more panicked the voices become, easily eliciting a similarly panicked response from the player. These voices, referred to as “Furies”, also factor into the game’s puzzles.
Puzzles mostly boil down to a mechanic in which Senua must unlock doors by finding runes within the environment. This is meant to represent another symptom of psychosis where a person will see patterns and make connections that others cannot see. It’s simple but can be obtuse, and players finding themselves to be stuck can easily right the ship by once again listening to what the voices are telling Senua. Ninja Theory does make an effort to change these puzzles up with each section of the game, and always makes sure that the player’s feelings align with Senua’s. There are sections of the game where I truly shared her confusion and fear, and — without spoiling anything — I found one area of the game struck a particular chord with me that made it among the most frightening sequences I have experienced in any form of media.
I am wary to write these next words, as I feel it would be easy for me to show my lack of understanding, and I know many suffer worse than I. I do not struggle with psychosis, and I have not received any professional diagnosis of any mental health disorder. I do believe I have struggled with bouts of depression and anxiety, based on the history of both within my family,and simply on my own day-to-day struggles. With that, I was immediately able to relate to Senua. I believe anyone who has dealt with any of mental health issues will be able to relate to Senua. While I do not hear literal voices in my head, but I am often challenged by thoughts of inadequacy, of doubt in my abilities, to the point that I have given up on things or passed by opportunities I wish I had taken, purely out of fear. A sense of dread that can make it difficult to get out of bed some mornings. As I have gotten older, I have increasingly been able to find the strength to fight through thoughts of, “you can’t” and “you don’t know how” and “you’re no good”. I have been able to say, “I can, and I must”. Watching Senua struggle with her affliction, and continue to find the strength to fight against the horrors of her world became an inspiring and almost cathartic experience.
Psychosis is a part of Senua, but it does not define her. In the game’s many lengthy cutscenes, she will often look towards the camera. Not necessarily at it, but looking beyond it at… someone, or something else. This allows the player to look into Senua’s eyes and connect; to feel what she feels. To see her fear, but more importantly to see her determination and strength. Ninja Theory has does something remarkable in creating a truly believable character. A character that feels well-rounded, and one that avoids many tropes of a character struggling with mental health issues.
In a featurette included with the game, writer/director Tameem Antoniades discusses how one of the things the team discovered in its’ research is that the “disease” of psychosis is often derived from the stigma that surrounds it, rather than the psychosis itself. They go on to represent this lack of understanding with Senua believing she is cursed. Like Antoniades, I must plead a great deal of ignorance towards what psychosis truly is. While Hellblade provides insight in a way that a movie or a book cannot — an insight that I hope will lead to myself and others becoming more empathetic as people, an insight I hope will provide strength to those who struggle with psychosis — it is only scratching the surface of understanding it.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a work of art. It is a landmark for the video games industry, showing that it is possible for a smaller team to produce something of the same quality as a AAA game with significantly fewer resources. Perhaps more importantly, it continues to establish video games as a unique and powerful form of storytelling. It builds a story that is centered around psychosis, a subject that is unfortunately still considered taboo and rarely handled with the skillful tact Ninja Theory shows here. Few games have felt so deeply personal or elicited such a strong reaction from me. Hellblade is grim and unrelenting, using a trip through an increasingly disturbing depiction of Hell as a metaphor for Senua’s struggles with mental health. The threat of a permadeath scenario — even though it turns out to be an empty one — only serves to add to the unreliable narration, tension of combat, and overall oppressing feeling of the game.
Simply put, it is a video game that I implore everyone to experience.