DISCLAIMER: This piece is in not intended to make light of mental illness. I am not, and have never had any diagnosis for mental illness of any kind. My intentions here are to give an accurate opinion, to the best of my ability, regarding the game Hellbalde: Senua’s Sacrifice. If I have made any errors in judgment, or trespasses, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love for this to be an opportunity for me to further my understanding surrounding these complex topics. Also, spoilers ahead.
Let it also be known that I abhorrently avoid anything in the horror genre. My constitution is frail when it comes to being frightened, and especially if jump scares are involved. If you are planning on diving into Senua’s story headfirst, and find yourself in a similar situation as I was surrounding these things, please feel free to do so knowing in good faith that this falls along the lines of “psychological” horror. (If you have no problem with that type of thing, of course.) Conventional horror elements are absent here, and I welcome that.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a linear experience that puts you in the shoes of Senua, a Pict warrior, who embarks on a treacherous journey to lay her dearly beloved to rest in what she believes to be the best way possible. The game is laden with Norse/Celtic mythology, which was my initial draw into the game. It was when I found myself reading the back of the box when I realized it would also tackle the complicated topic of mental health.
My initial thoughts surrounding the discovery of this inclusion were positive. I have played a plethora of video games in my life, but none that strived to bring such a sensitive topic directly to the forefront. Reading a bit further down the box, I learned that Ninja Theory worked to portray psychosis accurately through collaboration alongside neuroscientists, mental health specialists, and people who are suffering from the ailment itself. Concluding from this alone, I felt that the aspects of her mental illness would be considered with the utmost regard for accuracy and edge away from potential stereotyping. After completing the game, I found this to be chiefly true.
The quest of Senua’s is one of love, and also great pain. The bond she created with Dillion, her single anchor of hope in the sea of anguish that is her life, was severed. Senua sought to dispel the “darkness” from her mind, the darkness in this context being her psychosis. While she was away on her quest for sanctity and clarity, her tribe underwent terrible attacks by the Northmen, which resulted in her lover’s demise. She carries his severed head on her belt in her struggle to Helheim (Norse/Celtic Hell) and free his soul from eternal torment. It is within these moments that the story of Hellblade begins.
Throughout the game, we see flashbacks to different periods in Senua’s life. Some are more vivid than others, but all of them provide critical plot information to the overarching story of the game. There is no set-up to Hellblade; it is effectively a “cold open.” There is never a jump back in time for context, the story is told through Senua’s psychosis, whether it be visions or the voices in her head. Senua has two discernable voices that speak to her for the entirety of the game. Both of these voices are hers, but occasionally a third voice will get added in, usually spawning from an outside stimuli, a result of severe trauma, or from to a flashback she has. These voices help paint the entire story for you as you venture through the game, as Senua herself rarely utters a single word.
The table has is set, the appetizers are out of the way, and the main course just arrived. It’s time for me to stop playing with my food and take a big ole bite of why I decided to write this article in the first place. I’m somewhat conflicted in regards to how Ninja Theory handled the mental illness portion of this game. While the more prominent part of me believes they were trying to shed a positive light on the subject, there is still room for criticism. Perhaps calling it a “portion” is the incorrect term, as her psychosis plays a significant role throughout the game. It’s impossible to experience Hellblade without noticing her maladies. Even if you played with the sound off, the auditory hallucinations are only half of it. So let’s start with the visuals.
Senua’s psychosis lends her aid in her journey in the form of solving puzzles. Frequently are you encounter a locked door with a glowing set of runes on them, my interpretation is that this is her illness projecting into the real world. To progress, you must find these runes scattered about the real world, and it’s always the “hidden in plain sight” type of solution. You might need to line up two objects that are far apart from one another, so you utilize the depth of field to bring these objects together in a creative way. These types of puzzles became commonplace quickly, but never quite got old. It was a good excuse to roam around the immediate area looking for the specific hallucination of a superimposed rune to begin to hover around the screen. The stronger the hallucinations became, the closer you were to the correct vantage point, and in turn, solving the puzzle. My thoughts surrounding this “mechanic” are twofold; on the one hand, I can see how this is just fun and creative game design — appropriating aspects of psychosis into a visually clear and understandable representation, one that helps you solve immediate problems.
On the other hand, however, I can see how this would be slightly intrusive upon someone who is suffering from psychosis while playing Hellblade. The whole implication here is that Senua’s malady allows her to hone in with a super focus, and notice things that most people wouldn’t. This gameplay mechanic functions as intended for Senua. Still, I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that I have doubts that anyone who has psychosis can utilize the illness in any meaningful way. Just based off of Senua’s experience alone, it seems like the illness almost exclusively “gets in the way” of her having an average life. Again, the way the mechanic plays out is creative and fun, I don’t believe that Ninja Theory had any ill will here, and I am only offering up a potential interpretation. One that comes from someone who is not ailed with psychosis nonetheless.
I loved the portrayal of Dillion’s character in the story here. He was a pure force for good and sought to find a more profound understanding to Senua’s illness. He never saw it as a demon, darkness, or any other superstitious curse. While he didn’t quite understand what she was going through, he had a great deal of empathy towards her, at one point that begging Senua to join her on the quest to free herself from her mental prison. The way Dillion behaved in the face of, what was undoubtedly a point of great strain on their relationship, was not only admirable but also a testament and an example for society to follow when it comes to mental illness. In the times Senua needed him most, the version of Dillion that lived on inside of her head dispelled all other voices. These moments were unquestionably beautiful because they arrive during what is arguably the most frightening part of the game, not only comforting Senua, but also the player.
At the very end of Hellblade, Senua confronts herself and her past in ways she has never done before. The last few hours of the game were arguably the most intense, and also maybe the most confusing. The final moments you spend with Senua seem to allude that she has completed her quest to “cleanse the darkness” and no longer suffers from psychosis. I’ve seen people highlight this as an impossibility. They cite that you can’t dismiss such a gravitas ailment. However, I think I will reserve my judgment here until we experience the sequel. The ending might paint one picture, but it’s also entirely possible that they never planned for the series to continue. What happens to Senua after she walks into the cloudy mist remains to be seen.
I want to touch on a nonstory element very briefly. The set pieces in this game are amongst some of the most creative and beautiful I’ve ever seen. While the game is roughly 10 hours long, you can expect to feel like you’ve been taken all over the world. Each “level” is unique and evokes a different feeling of dread and anxiety.
Once I had completed Hellblade, I set down the controller after the credits rolled with a better understanding of what people with psychosis might go through. I thought Ninja Theory’s delivery of the story and the illness is exceptionally well done here and goes hand in hand with working to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness of any kind. It was only after diving deeper in, reading opinions online, and reflecting upon the story that I decided to sit down and write down my feelings in their entirety.
It’s strictly coincidental that Ninja Theory would announce their next endeavor dubbed “Project: Mara” during the time I spent working on this essay. I’ve seen them come under some heat already for using specific terms surrounding mental illness as PR and marketing. Again, I’ll reserve my judgments on that; I do believe they have good intentions and will go through great lengths to “do the homework” involved in making a game with such a culturally taboo narrative.
Well, you’ve made it this far down the page, so thanks for sticking with me and enduring my rambling opinions. I struggled for a while writing this piece. All but one other entry here took me around an hour or two to produce, and I think I’m on day 4 or 5 of trying to put this one together. I wanted to try and make sure that I got across my thoughts and feelings as succinctly as possible while also taking care to stay in my lane. In a way, I still feel as if I am a bit unfit to talk about these types of things. As someone without mental illness, and also as someone who want’s to show great respect towards those who are suffering, I hope I made my intent clear. I’m sure the longer I sit around, the more I could say about this game. It was an absolutly amazing experience.