Hellblade as a Transformational Game

Analysis of Senua’s Sacrifice using the EDGE framework

Warning!

In my examination of the game Hellblade, I will include information and mechanics that can be considered as SPOILERS. If you have not played the game yet and intend to, read ahead with caution.


About the Game

Basic Information

Game Name: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Developer: Ninja Theory

Platform: Xbox One, PlayStation4, PC

High-level Instructional Goal: Tell a classic hero's journey type story and represent a person experiencing psychosis accurately.

Brief Description

“This is my battle, I must face it alone.”

When I was younger, I would read a lot. The books I loved the most were ones where I would be able to immerse myself into the story. When I finished the books I was always left stunned and feeling slightly empty. It’s a feeling of loss. Playing Hellblade has a similar effect. After I completed the game and the screen went black, I found myself looking at my reflection in the television, satisfied with the story but craving more.

I played the game for the first time in a focus room at my internship after work. As recommended by the game, I played with headphones (mine happen to be higher quality and noise canceling). As an added boost to fit the mood I also left the lights off.

Starting the game, the first screen you see is a warning about the nature and content of the game. Following this is a recommendation to wear headphones as you play. Doing so is an imperative part of the experience. Throughout the game the voices in Senua’s head act as narrators, warning systems, guides, and an integral part of the games aesthetic and experience. The closeness of them and the other sounds help to immerse you in the fear and panic of the character. As you work your way through the levels the speed of the game continues to increase. At some points there is barely a chance to catch your breath or explore lest you allow Senua’s to die, witch each death potentially bringing you closer to permadeath (a permanent death of the character and game where your saved data is deleted). Which each death, the darkness, and rot cover more and more of Senua, heightening the stress and panic of the player.

Concept art of Senua

You play as Senua, a Celtic Pictish outcast and warrior on a personal mission to save her lover's (Dillion) soul from Helheim after Noremen sacrifice him and the rest of her people to their gods. The game begins on a small wooden boat Senua rows forward through credits. You don’t know where you are or why you are there, only that the voices in your head day you should keep going and that there is a worrying amount of bodies in the water. The first parts of the game focuses on perspective. You explore the environment to match patterns Senua sees blocking doorways and pass through archways to change the world around you to continue moving forward with the goal of fighting various Viking gods and making your way into Helheim to fight Hela. To solve the puzzles and notice the patterns more, you need to focus, which is an ability the character has to tap deeper into her perception on the world.

In these slower puzzle and exploration parts, there is a high focus on the story. Because of the varying sources of the story, Senua’s flashbacks, the hallucinations, and shifting environment, the game never feels boring or quiet. If anything, parts of it are borderline overstimulating. The second part of the game is more focused on fighting and running and feels much more fast-paced and stressful. The transition is gradual enough that you don’t find yourself questioning the lack of exploration and perspective puzzles towards the end.

A gif and screenshot of the level that caused me to stop playing due to anxiety

I, myself, had to take a break from playing after reaching one level that made me feel particularly unnerved. It brought my own feelings of anxiety to the forefront and resulted in my quickly packing up my belongings, exiting the office, and driving home with too much haste for a night in the middle of the work-week.

Educational Objectives

Prior Knowledge

It can be argued that in order to play Hellblade with the explicit intent of education, players should have prior knowledge of the inspiration for the game and of the mental illness category of psychosis. The game does not state this at any point as it would interfere with the aesthetic and immersion. The main place this is mentioned is in the mini development documentary made available on the games main menu. Is it suggested that the documentary is watched after playing the game, mainly to avoid spoilers. Coming into the game without knowledge of its educational potential can be a benefit. Psychosis, Schizophrenia, and mental illness, in general, are subjects often considered taboo and are avoided in public discourse. Immersion into a game often results in an empathetic relationship with the main character that could help bypass personal biases and connotations players may associate with the titles psychotic or schizophrenic.

Players will need prior experience playing story-based action games and critical listening skills to connect the fragments of stories together as they are fed to them, and then connect those stories to each other and to Senua. They will also need to know how to read at an advanced level to read the subtitles elaborating what any character is saying and have a solid grasp on the English language to piece together the words of heavily accented characters. It is also necessary to know how to connect headphones to their console if they are playing on one. The binaural nature of the audio is a large part of the experience, therefore not using headphones changes the effect of playing.

What Do Players Potentially Learn

Finding educational objective categories within Hellblade was difficult because the educational aspects of the game are not as explicit as with other transformational games. The most forefront objective is a gained sense of empathy with and an understanding of those with mental health difficulties. The game does not teach psychology principles or name any symptoms but instead subjects the player to a journey with an unreliable narrator. Senua cannot trust her senses and searches for patterns as her mental illness, or darkness, as it’s referred to in the game, tries to break her down and take away any security.

The second category of good mental health was introduced at the games end. Throughout the game, Senua’s voices berate and belittle her. Every other action the player takes is a mistake to them, every decision a dumb one. The player feels personally hurt by them at times. Her delusions and hallucinations are disorienting and turn a simple walk into an all-out sprint-for-your-life scenario. Patterns and hidden symbols demand to be connected and completed before the player can even hope to move forward. This all comes to a head in the last section of the game. Multiple times leading to the final scene, Senua faces and confronts herself. The first time her voices take form as her reflection stepped into reality, attempting to persuade Senua to not go any further.

Then Senua confront’s her mother's death, her faith and fear of gods, her darkness, Hela’s armies, and, finally, Hela herself, pushing past the voices and seeming futility of her mission. The world falls away as Senua fights on, even her voices stay silent except to whisper warnings of incoming danger. It’s one of the most direct and clear metaphors for mental illness I have seen. On a personal note, as someone who has suffered from issues with mental illness, this section is profoundly important to me. In the middle of Helheim, Senua fights a never-ending stream of enemies rushing from all sides. If you struggle with the fights, this part is short and the story continues after you are defeated. If you are skilled at fighting, the experience changes. The more you take down, the more come up. The longer you survive the more apparent the endlessness of this final fight is. After a while, the player becomes fatigued themselves and likely comes to a realization that there is only one way to end it, to give up. For me, at least, it’s elicited an almost sacred-feeling emotional catharsis that is, frankly, difficult to explain. After taking a particularly heavy hit and going down, finding myself nearly yelling at Senua to keep going it clicked. They get it. They get me. Everything has been taken from her and yet she fights on.

In the last scene, she looks on her own dead body in the form of Hela as the one who killed the ‘old’ her and then lets go of Dillion’s head. This is a reveal of Senua, not Hela or the gods, as her greatest enemy. After letting go she is herself. This is her second confrontation with herself in this section resulting in her growth and ‘rebirth’. The main narrator who started the story is this Senua. She is stronger now, she sounds surer of herself and acts confidently. She looks at the player, telling them that this story is over for the Senua they know, but has begun for the current Senua. It is a happy ending where Senua has gained a better ability to cope with her illness and moves forward with her life.

Skill or Knowledge Transfer

One of the quotes gathered after the release of the game described an experience of someone who had had a mental break that created a rift between them and their brother. The brother was ashamed of them and didn’t understand the situation. Playing the game created a common ground to communicate the experience and was a physical representation of an otherwise invisible illness. That is where this game shines, it allows players to step into the experience of a woman with severe schizophrenia.

Similar to Oregon Trail, the games nature is highly experiential. The game cannot be used to explicitly educate about psychosis but can be used to communicate a portion of the experience and feeling of it. Players are subject to the rules, connections, and beliefs presented to you, whether they are a real barrier or in the mind of Senua. Players even have their own false belief that, to the best of their knowledge, if they fail too many times everything will be over. Mistake and missteps hold a weight of moving them one step closer to losing everything. When the player realizes it’s fake, much like when Senua realizes out that her illness being darkness and a curse is, they feel cheated and frustrated. They can’t go back and redo anything with this knowledge. They can’t fix or change their choices.

The game does not acknowledge (in-game) how personal these experiences are, though. While it is addressed in a way in the dev diaries mini-documentary. Senua’s experience is a compilation of the lived experience of multiple people with varying symptoms. Experiences with psychosis vary in duration, frequency, symptoms, and content. Whereas one person may experience short-term episodes that give way to lucidity after some time, others may experience a constant symptom of voice-hearing or a more subtle delusion.

Mechanics, Dynamics, & Aesthetics

“The darkness touched you. Everyone could see it in the hollows of your eyes. A gaze averted from light.”

Mechanics

There are a plethora of mechanics the player is introduced to within Hellblade. Some of these include changing perspective to change your world, the unreliability of voices, fighting, and permadeath. If the player chooses auto difficulty, the enemies become tougher as you progress through the game, making fights more grueling and tiring. No matter what difficulty you choose, though, the act of fighting is monotonous. Senua can do a light blow, a heavy blow, dodge, block, or evade. The rule set of the game is Senua’s beliefs: if she believes a sword is a god-killer, it is; if she believes she can’t open a door without solving a pattern, she can’t; if she believes the darkness is a lie, she can be free from its hold.

In the same way, permadeath is a belief based system. Senua believes the rot is a measure of the darkness taking her over. The player is told that if it reaches her head their saved data will be lost. Neither she nor the player has reason to doubt the validity of this danger.

Aesthetics

The game has a strong set of aesthetics in narrative, trust, and sensation. Time is unknown. The amount of light you see, the players health, and their progress are all affected by mental state. In reality, Senua’s goal is simply to get to a temple, cross the bridge, and get to the other side of it. In the game, though, she must battle Northmen, gods, uncover truths, fight her darkness, and solve their puzzles in order to save her lover’s spirit from the clutches of Hel.

The game is placed solidly placed in mythology and history which provides grounding and support for the fantastical nature of Senua’s delusions. Her experiences are ties inherently to her story and beliefs, in Helheim she fights the Northmen Druth described to her, she follows the path he laid, submits herself to the puzzles he listens, and fears the darkness her father told her was taking her over. There is almost never silence in the game despite there only being one character present. The Northmen are delusions, as are the voices and the appearances of Druth. The sensations Senua and the player have are reality.

Dynamics

The mechanics and esthetics lead to the dynamic of a grueling constant battle fought against enemies both within and out, taken on with a savage single-minded drive. It is dark and heavy and the weight is felt by the player. The player is made to be stressed out and to believe Senua’s delusions as the rules of the world. The game does not guide or prompt a reflection on her experience or on psychosis in general, but the void the ending leaves before the return to the main menu leaves a space for the player to consider their experience with the game. There are also a few quieter moments in the game that have a somewhat similar effect, although they are rare. Many of the ‘quiet’ moments are usually filled with the player’s own internal monologue and attempts to cope with fearing what may be next.

Senua is an unreliable narrator and her voices often are overbearing lyrics negative, but the player chooses to trust them. In a battle when a voice warns of an attack behind Senua, the player dodges. When they see that the voice was right, the trust is reinforced. The same happens as the voices guide the player on when a battle is close to ending and when Senua’ ability to focus is recharged. When the rot visibly rises on Senua’s arm after she fails, the player trusts the threat of permadeath. When Hela confronts Senua on the bridge, the player trusts that they’ve been attacked by a god, rather than that Senua might have had an episode as the visibly old bridge might have broken under her weight.

An interesting dynamic also rises from the fighting in the game of fatigue and button mashing. I have included a video of one of the longest battles in the game. Entering a fight causes the camera tightens in. The view becomes claustrophobic and the player can only really see what is in front of Senua. Inc combination with the nonstop voices, unrelenting enemies, Viking chanting and more contemporary music, it creates a sense of panic in the player. The panic at times leads to button mashing in an attempt to keep up with the barrage of information. Enemies are sometimes in a shadow-form where Senua cannot hit them but they can hit her. To fight them she needs to focus which further crowds the screen with symbols and fragments of light and slows time down. Rather than giving the player more time to think, it adds to the stress of the fight, leading to more button mashing.

Learning Principles

Hellblade implements Jim Gee’s principle that “the learner is given explicit information both on-demand and just-in-time….”. The voices in Senu’s head help teach the player how to focus and match patterns right before they need to use it, and Druth appears in visions to give them context for her journey as they progress. The instruction complexity principle of spacing explains how spacing practice across time works better than mass practice at once. The puzzle solving and fighting techniques they find come in handy throughout the game. The ways in which the world breaks into patterns are consistent. it’s even present in the final battle where the player forces the exploded bridges back together after defeating the waves of enemies. On the second to last platform, the player fight repeats of gods they beat on their journey there.

The game also utilizes Arthur C. Graesser Principle of stories and example cases where “stories and example cases tend to be remembered better than didactic facts and abstract principles.” The player lives a short journey of Senua’s life. Thanks to the immersion of video games, they live this time with her as she moves from the lowest point of her life to overcoming her loss and learning to cope with her illness, rejecting the idea that it is a darkness within her. Following Senua’s lead, the player comes to the same conclusion, her mind is not tainted with darkness, it was a lie her father and other fed her.

According to Graesser’s principle that “Learning is deeper and students are more motivated when the materials and skills are anchored in real-world problems that matter to the learner.” In one case detailed in the video linked at the bottom of this post, a person who has experienced a psychotic break recounts how the game helped establish communication with their brother, who was unable to understand and empathize with them before. Prof. Paul Fletcher, who helped tremendously in the development and design of the game, utilizing his expertise on psychosis and other sources, uses the game as a teaching tool. In one interview he states “[Hellblade has] provided material and content that I’ve been able to use in my lectures to medical students and the public so it’s already feeding back into educating and helping people.”

Synthesis and Critique

In Hellblade, the educational value lies in immersion in the game’s narrative leads to player interest through a type of “first-hand experience”. The player, through Senua, is able to gain an idea of the lived experience of persons who have or have had experiences with psychosis. This has the potential of creating interest to learn more of the clinical information by tapping into the player empathy for the character. The developers stated at the Game Developers Conferences that other psychologists, in addition to Dr. Fletcher, have reached out to use the game as a way to show and communicate experiences with psychosis. The empathetic connection the player makes with Senua is the main educational value in the game. Other aspects of the game are in support of this such as emotionally straining the player with the stress of long battles with the threat of potential permadeath. The game introduces various aspects of psychosis experiences such as voice hearing, hallucinations, and delusions.

In contrast, the Game only states the relevance of psychosis on the loading screen. If the player ignores that, then part of the empathy-based educational value is lost. The game cannot stand alone as a way to educate people on psychosis because there is no deeper explanation of Senua’s psychosis within the game itself. The information is available in the mini-documentary available as well as in online materials, but that relies solely on the player to search out those materials and to select to watch that mini-documentary.

It can be argued, though, that while the game does succeed on an empathic front and does not succeed at being a stand-alone educational experience, it would succeed with supplementary material. This is exemplified with how Dr. Fletcher and other psychologists already use it in an educational setting. Similar to games like Civilization and Oregon Trail, the game exists in a state where it can fit well within a lesson plan.

Overall, though, the original goal of the designers was to tell a class heroes journey. Their secondary goal was to accurately depict the main character as someone with severe psychosis. They succeeded in both of these goals and, as a result, created a game that allows those who otherwise would not be able to experience psychosis. It works as an empathy game when paired with supplementary materials and as a communication tool to create an understanding of an experience.