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"You will see the world through Senua's eyes, and in doing so, address a subject that is still considered taboo." - Tameem Antoniades, Chief Creative Ninja (Director)
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice quite clearly has something it wants to say. It's something that isn't easy for us to listen to either. It's an experience that is visceral, one that breaks down every barrier of security you have. It is a game that stays unflinchingly true to its message.
Hellblade bravely tackles the tricky topic of mental illness, more specifically psychosis. It warns that players may find themselves suffering from some of the side-effects of psychosis or an underlying mental illness, directing them to the website "http://hellbladehelp.info/" where they can get help or answers to any questions they have.
Ninja Theory don't hold back when depicting Senua's ailment, which sets in after Vikings raid the land of the Picts, slaying her beloved Dillion. With his head (the home to the soul in Pict mythology) strapped to her hip, Senua now sets out for vengeance as she looks to retrieve his soul from the Norse realm of Helheim, where the souls of the dead are watched over by the Viking goddess Hel.
How does a game tell the story of someone with psychosis, portray such a distinct illness and deliver insight you can't get from any textbook? You take inspiration from real life people, from doctors who study neuroscience, and you work with them to make it authentic, just as Ninja Theory has.
For Over Two Years Ninja Theory Worked With Psychiatric Doctors and Those With Psychosis
From the opening moment of the game, players, as stated, are made aware that the game is about a mental illness, one that can be crippling, and even overwhelming to those who live with it. The disease is known as a cancer of the mind, a personal Hell, and one that drastically deteriorates those who live with the illness.
During the game's development, Ninja Theory worked closely with Paul Fletcher, a Neuroscience Professor and Psychiatrist at the University of Cambridge. The team worked diligently to portray Senua's illness so that players may perceive the illness's effects in a way they can understand.
Visual tricks, such as the world melting away around Senua or even creatures appearing from nowhere, are employed in unison with a unique sound design known as binaural audio or 3D sound. This is discussed more in the game's developer diary, which can be viewed below.
Does This Make It Perfect?
When you look at the capability of video games, it's about immersion and drawing the player in. It's about keeping them engrossed in a world so that they can see what the character sees and how they perceive it in comparison to our own view. For Senua, we see that her world is fragmented, broken, and haunted by "The Darkness." For her, her insanity is a living, breathing entity, one that is slowly consuming her just as it had her mother.
The game portrays her hallucinations in various ways. In one case players get to see the skull of Dillion breathing, an emphasis that his soul, in Senua's eyes, is still trapped within, and it's now her duty to save his soul from Hel (both the realm and the goddess) in order to return Dillion home where he belongs. There are also moments when players will see puzzles scattered throughout the world and the only way to solve them is by finding the glyphs in the environments around her.
However, these are only the minor mechanics. The game serves up something a bit more delicious when it comes to Senua's hallucinations. The ones that become more intense are moments such as when she first enters the realm of the Norse fire giant Surtr. In his realm players are pushed to find runes where they can undergo Surtr's fiery trials. These trials plunge the world into flames.
During the trials players must navigate walls of fire, burning buildings, while Senua slowly succumbs to smoke inhalation. However, once they complete the trial there's no sign of the fires. There's no appearance of a fire having ever been there. This could very well be a reflection of Senua's traumatic past, one that has triggered her psychosis, and fragmented her mind, which is often the case for some who lives with psychosis. However, do keep in mind, that the game does suggest that Senua has always been ill.
That she, like her mother, has a gift that keeps them alive even though many will never understand the darkness inside of her. For many in real life this is a reality, a reality that a game is portraying with every respect for accuracy thanks to Ninja Theory's commitment to realism and authenticity.
While I could continue to tell you what Ninja Theory has done that others haven't, it's an experience players must undertake themselves, and one that is unlike any other. Thankfully it's one that isn't costly (to your wallet, at least), and is readily available for fans to enjoy on both PlayStation 4 and PC.