Why We Need to be Talking About ‘Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’ & Mental Illness
The long uphill battle of accurately portraying mental illness in video games (and all media) starts here.
What is Hellblade?
I know. I also think it’s very strange for someone to kick off their blog with a relatively lowkey title like Hellblade for a first official post, but this game really matters and just made a massive stride in the independent gaming community.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a self-proclaimed “indie AAA game,” by developer and publisher Ninja Theory, better known as the creators for popular hack and slash franchise Devil May Cry. If you are familiar with this franchise, you will sense a running theme in their portfolio.
Hellblade follows the long and harrowing journey of a Celtic warrior named Senua. With her dead lover’s head strapped to her side, she takes up her sword and vows to bring back her lost love from the gates of Helheim, better known as Viking hell. The game is heavily drenched in Norse mythos, so if that’s your cup of tea, you need to get on this. Above is the trailer if you want something more convincing. And yes, it has a generous dash of horror as well.
However, there’s a strange twist to Senua’s character that immediately becomes apparent when you hit start. Senua has psychosis, and it takes the form of mostly auditory and visual hallucinations. It’s strongly recommended that players go forth with this game with their best pair of headphones, since the voices sound like they are speaking, beckoning to you right around the player’s own head. It’s terrifying to be totally honest. Utterly realistic and bone-chilling.
Here are the first ten minutes of gameplay, however to get a good idea of how the voices interact with the player and affect the game, you only need to see the first two minutes or so and you get the idea.
When I first heard of this game, I was instantly afraid. Video games have often horrifically stigmatized mental illness, to the point of making it a cheap horror trope made to alienate those that actually have them. Mental illness does not make violent or scary criminals like toxic media has led us to believe. Games have never had a great relationship with mental illness. Hellblade is very different, and it seems to be a step forward in the right direction for once.
Ninja Theory themselves seemed very concerned about their approach to Senua’s character regarding her psychosis. They even called in Professor Paul Fletcher, a psychiatrist and professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge on how to accurately and sensitively portray this mental illness. He was able to provide consultation on the project, but they didn’t rely on just his word. Ninja Theory actually consulted with patients that have psychosis and schizophrenia. With this, they got a sense of how to use Senua’s own mental illness as both representation and a unique gameplay feature instead of adding their game to the pile of crap games that have further stigmatized mental illness as a cheap horror trope.
Senua is a Celtic warrior, and is able to be a powerful one without fear of her own psychosis, of her own mind, as she is in complete control of herself and her emotions and her power. Senua has command over her surroundings, and a lot of the weird hallucinations and surreal visuals in the game are very vague as to whether it’s Helheim messing with Senua or if it is her own mental illness at all. There is reason to believe that Senua’s journey to hell isn’t even real at all, whether it’s a cruel trick of the gods or it is her own mind. There aren’t a lot of answers, and I suppose a lot is up to the player’s interpretation. Either way, it’s such an interesting journey to take with a character that is easy to root for, and the writing gives so generously to Senua’s strength. Quite shocking too for an actress who has never acted, voice-acted, or motion-capped once in her life before this game. Melina Juergens, who also happens to be Ninja Theory’s video editor for both Hellblade and their old DMC franchise, gives such a heart-wrenching and wonderful performance of Senua. Melina has also spent a lot of time with schizophrenic patients to better prepare for her role in the game.
Ninja Theory did their homework, and they reward the players for it too. My one gripe is that it may be very hard for someone who easily writes off mental illness as something scary to get into a game like this. It’ll be hard to hear all the streamers and bloggers get into this with judgment for the next couple months, with fear rather than wonder. But once the game ends, and the dust settles, Ninja Theory has done their research and it has paid off into a beautiful game where the stakes are raised high.
Oh, did I mention how high the stakes were yet? So much so for Senua that there is a permadeath mechanic that kicks in if the player screws up one too many times?
The moment Senua steps into Helheim, her hand is infected with a rot by Hela, the god of Hel. Every time the player dies in the game, the rot runs further up her arm and when it hits her head, its a permanent game over. This means you start the game all the way over from square one with all your progress lost. So yes, the stakes are high as hell (no pun intended). Senua’s inner voices feed into this paranoia as well, the player feels the same stress that she feels, just as the point of the game is to feel her illness as she does too.
That being said, this is not a game for those prone to secondhand stress. This game might freak you out, and it will likely stress you out. If you are able to handle it though, I more than recommend this game.
Right now, the game is available on PC and PS4 for the low price of $29.99, since the game is technically indie and it’s average playtime is only around 7–9 hours long. It’s half the size for half the price of an AAA title. Still, I recommend it to any hack and slash fans, or anyone that cares about mental illness being portrayed respectfully with Norse mythology and dashes of horror and puzzle-solving.
Please, support this developer to support the succession of healthier portrayals of mental illness not only in games, but in all media. Or better yet, spread the right information about mental health! Do your research, and refuse give in to the stigma.
Thanks for reading! If you want to discuss anything I have written, or better yet send me recommendations for movies & games, you can email me directly at email@example.com and you can also check out my IMDb @kellerae.