Affectation is something we don’t often expect from video games due to their history of mechanics mostly being rooted in arcades – amusement centres with toys for children and those who refuse to grow up. Those games then that do attempt to tell an emotive story commonly have scripts primarily influenced by Hollywood tropes, and such familiarity often undermines the messages in their stories, however memorable they may be. In 2017, however, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, a game that has been developed and marketed by renowned studio Ninja Theory as a “independent AAA” title, aims to set itself apart as it manipulates the inherent artifice of gaming as a medium by integrating clever audiovisual techniques, strategic combat, logic bending puzzle-solving and psychological horror to create something truly new. Most impressively, all of this is done in service of its message and story.
Set during the Viking age, players journey as (or with) Senua, a Pictish warrior maiden suffering from psychosis due to severe emotional trauma. Players meet her at the beginning of her vision quest to lay her dead lover’s spirit to rest in the Norse realm of Helheim. Senua is beset by the near constant presence of numerous voices within in her mind; the first of which is one that refers to Senua in the third person and gently tries to invite you on her journey. The other voices are hostile, doubtful, pernicious, pertinent and childish. While they may seemingly be there to torment Senua and the player, they are also guides for understanding how to overcome obstacles in Senua’s path. Also besieging the warrior are aural and visual hallucinations running the gamut from distortion to stigmatised light, sensory dissociation, disappearing parts of the world, the presence of eyes watching you on all surfaces, and vivid experiences of Senua visualising her own death. These moments are as confusing as they are harrowing and will frequently feed into extended puzzles. The majority of these puzzles take the form trying to find symbols that match those on locked doors, found by looking objects in the world from difficult to reach places. Regardless, you’ll need to explore and think abstractly to overcome them as well as pay close attention Senua’s voices.
While Senua’s downward spiral is one of near-constant misery, Hellblade will keep you captivated in spite of all the ugliness it throws at its hero by fostering a perverse sense of fascination, and eventually, empathy. Her voices appear to come from different directions at a nearly constant rate – as the game itself recommends, headphones are a necessity for properly experiencing Hellblade. These voices were recorded using a binaural microphone, and as such, the experience of listening to them is like being blindfolded and strapped to a chair while strangers leer at you in the dark. Some voices are whispers, some are clear, while others are terrifying and seemingly not Senua’s own. They’re not just a narrative device, though; they’ll also mock you for going the wrong way, suggest where to go or to try a new approach, albeit in a cruel fashion. The need to disseminate information from insults will have you tuned into everything that the voices have to say. This simple fact is possibly the most effective way I’ve ever experienced attachment to a character in a video game before. Within minutes of beginning Senua’s journey, her tormented inner dialogue had me in its grip.
Thankfully, there are just enough reprieves from the assault of Senua’s self-loathing. Flashbacks to more positive moments in Senua’s life – safe places in her mind to hide from her self-torture – happen with enough regularity to keep both Senua and the player grounded and motivated to soldier on. Druth, an Irish Celt and survivor of a Viking slave-raid, recants his learnings of the Norsemen, their Gods and their legends. His stories can be found by exploring locations for menhirs emblazoned with Norse runes, and mostly are reflective of Senua’s current point in her decent into Helheim. The teachings of her lover, Dillion, also punctuate as more beautiful and uplifting moments of Senua’s life, where she gains a degree of self-respect or understanding. These lighter moments are brief yet flesh out Senua as someone more than just some tortured hero, but a real person whose pain comes from relatable places – trauma, familial failures, alienation and sensitivity.
It’s never distinguished if any of what Senua is seeing is real, but throughout her journey, she is assailed by not only her voices but the attacks of phantasmal demons resembling Norse warriors wielding various melee weapons. Combat is not the primary focus of Hellblade; I’d hazard that roughly a third of my time in the game was spent fighting, but every moment of it was enjoyable. Regarding pacing, combat takes place mainly as a footnote to extended sequences of exploration and puzzle solving, and until the third and final act of the game is kept relatively simple. Senua has two main attacks, one light, one heavy, an offhand melee move for disarming shields, a dodge, and a block. If timed correctly, the block acts as a parry and can deflect projectile attacks. Learning the application of Senua’s abilities is not like in traditional brawlers where you’ll look up move lists in the pause menu, though.
In combat, as always, you’ll have to listen to the voices – they’ll tell you when to strike, when to retreat, despair when you’ve taken a blow, and encourage you to get back on your feet. As the camera sticks close to Senua’s back during fights, it’s easy to lose track of opponents and be attacked from behind, but the voices will warn you at the last moment of this as well, but it’s not a fail-safe mechanism. You’ll need to maintain a level of situational awareness closer to that of a shooter due to the frame of the combat camera. Counterbalancing this realistic level of player knowledge is both Senua’s speed and her ‘focus’ ability. Her copper mirror, a gift from her lover, will glow blue as Senua lands successful blows without taking any herself – once ready, the voices will alert her, and the mirror will shine brilliantly. Pulling the right trigger to activate focus will slow down time and allow Senua to deal greater damage. It also becomes necessary for pulling shadow enemies into the material realm later in the game.
On that note, the complexity of Hellblade’s combat slowly escalates with the player’s progress – new enemy types are gradually introduced as the beginning chapters move along, drawing players into the story without throwing overwhelming numbers of enemies at them. By the final act, when Senua has greater access to more powerful abilities and more moves, your skills will be appropriately tested. It’s a pacing curve that will be familiar to fans of Ninja Theory who’ve played Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, albeit with one significant extra nuance. Adding to the risk of dying in combat is the game’s briefly controversial inclusion of permadeath. If you die too many times, a dark rot will creep up Senua’s arm and eventually consume her completely, and your save game will be deleted. From a gameplay standpoint, this adds weight to the player’s actions, keeping them in sync with Senua’s fear and desperation. It’s also a readily understood and important metaphor for Senua’s ever-present terror of losing herself to her psychosis.
The perverse irony in this is that you as a player will want to lose yourself in Senua’s journey – for all I’ve said of the horror, confusion and challenge that Hellblade presents, it can’t be understated how beautiful this game is, even when it’s making your stomach churn. Hellblade is a game produced on a smaller budget than most major commercial releases given Ninja Theory’s decision to go independent, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell from looking at it. Running on Unreal 4 tech, Hellblade’s texture and lighting work frequently border on photorealism, with clever use of film-like post processing effects and even full-motion-video to fantastic effect. Melina Juergens’ mo-cap performance is excellent, as is the supporting voice work. Audio is used for more than adding extra effect to cinematics, where echolocation is used as a puzzle-solving mechanic in parts and simply to screw with your expectations in others. In all possible ways, Hellblade accomplishes in using its presentation not only to enhance but expand its gameplay and storytelling. This is the kind of game you use to show how far technology has come, so long as the person you’re showing isn’t squeamish. The only criticism I have of it is that Senua’s internal dialogue can get in the way of other forms of aural storytelling, but in spite of this annoyance, it does fit the narrative context of the game.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the definition of a must-play game. Not simply because of the creativity in which it combines unorthodox aural and visual techniques to create a gripping story and gameplay simultaneously, no. Hellblade does this to generate a tale about understanding the struggles of those whom we condemn as insane. In creating a warrior’s tale in the vein of epic poems of old, Ninja Theory created something truly new that no one else has in any medium – an affecting and humbling understanding of some of the most severe forms of mental illness known to us. Madness is a frequently exploited theme in video game storytelling, but few venture further than the tropes of Lovecraftian pap, as loved as his work is. No, Hellblade frightened me not with its monsters or its otherworldly Gods, but because much of what Senua told and saw of herself throughout her story are things worryingly familiar to me. I will never forget this game. And neither will you. I just think I need to see a shrink now…