Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice – A Retrospective

I’m in the woods. It’s dark and a fog is starting to form. I trudge along a dirt path and listen to the voices in my head, a ghostly cast of characters who comment on my every move. The woods are quiet and nothing else exists. Then I’m jolted out of my reverie because the game wants me to solve a puzzle. A minute ago, there was no game.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (Ninja Theory), released for Windows and PS4 in 2017 and Xbox One in 2018, is one of the most talked-about games of the last year. It was exported to Oculus Rift and HTC Vive and is getting a physical release for retail stores this December (it will cost £24.99).

If you don’t know Hellblade, it is an action-adventure game that leads the player on a journey through a fantasy setting, heavily based on Norse and Celtic mythology. Senua is a young woman, possibly aged about 18, who we first encounter in a small rowing boat, alone on a grey and misty ocean. Her face is smeared in woad, which suggests that we are in the Iron Age or early mediaeval period. A large, spherical object wrapped in cloth is strapped to her waist – it turns out to be the severed head of her lover. She is hearing voices, which seem to come from within her own head. They offer a continuous, judgemental commentary on her actions.


Mental health in Hellblade

The most-talked about aspect of Hellblade is its treatment of mental illness – a very difficult subject for games to get right – see the lack of consensus around the introduction of disabilities to The Sims 4 and the way that EA quietly changed the name of the ‘Insane’ trait to ‘Erratic’ in light of a newly sensitised political climate. Because the subject of mental health and illness is so sensitive and potentially inflammatory, it is a lot for games designers to take on, but British studio Ninja Theory bravely went ahead with it anyway. Anticipating potential criticism, Ninja Theory was careful to bring some experts on board. It worked with the Wellcome Trust (which also provided funding for the project), psychologists from Cambridge and Durham universities and several people suffering from mental illness to make a creative contribution and also to ensure an element of responsibility and realism in depicting the symptoms of psychosis.

Hellblade won five BAFTA awards in 2018, of which the most interesting was the newly-created award for Games Beyond Entertainment. Hellblade is the first game to win that award. BAFTA says it created the award in order to recognise games which go “beyond pure entertainment – whether that is to raise awareness through empathy and emotional impact, to engage with real world problems or to make the world a better place” (bafta.org). One might argue that the primary purpose of games is to entertain but let’s note that there’s a difference between ‘pure entertainment’ and ‘mere entertainment’. Entertainment and social utility are not mutually exclusive.

Despite Ninja Theory’s award-winning efforts, not everyone was happy. Should complex mental illnesses such as psychosis be depicted in games at all? The arguments against even trying to represent mental health in video games, products which are firstly about entertainment and only secondly about education, can be summarised as exploitation and tourism. Exploitation in the sense that if Hellblade is an entertainment-first video game, it is doubtful whether it should be capitalising on the intricacies of psychosis to amuse gamers and increase Ninja Theory’s own profits. Tourism in the sense that if people sincerely wanted to educate themselves about the experience of psychosis, they could read, talk to sufferers themselves or become involved in community support projects. If you want to learn about psychosis, it really isn’t necessary to take yourself on an attractively-designed path through an early mediaeval landscape, solving puzzles and taking your shiny sword into melee combat to achieve those results.


Story and gameplay

Immersion in Hellblade is helped immensely by the fact that there is no HUD – something that takes a bit of getting used to but which is a refreshing change. Real life doesn’t have a HUD and nor do movies. Meanwhile, the experience of gamers is often profoundly altered by the existence of a HUD – you can spend more time looking at graphic indicators of progress than you do at game events themselves. This is particularly true of PC games which can be heavily modded. On the one hand, not many people can successfully run a dungeon in World of Warcraft without Deadly Boss Mods, and that is just the thin end of the wedge – gamers soon find their screens so cluttered with data that the action is almost completely obscured. On the other hand, one of the things I’ve always liked about Ark: Survival Evolved is that the map is so primitive as to be nearly useless. In order to find your way around you will have to get to know the shape of the coastline and the distinctive ridges of mountains through raw, first-hand experience. Paying close attention to the physical landscape of a game is a means of getting to that coveted state of immersion that most of us are denied by the irresistible pull of a mini-map, not to mention health bars, tool bars, quest lists and all the rest of it. Hellblade has none of that visual clutter – all you can see is Senua and her world. It’s surprising and incredibly refreshing. It will make you wonder why more games don’t clear all that stuff out of the way so that you can concentrate on the gameworld itself, which is the more attractive and immersive aspect that we want to look at and which probably sold us the game in the first place.

Eventually, Hellblade rather becomes a victim of its own success. To clarify what I mean by that, many games do not make a priority of story or characterisation. They are not story-first. They are gameplay first. The mechanics, physics and level design all happen ahead of the writing which is applied like Polyfilla in an attempt to glue everything together in a meaningful way. This is one of the reasons why story in many games is the equivalent of young adult fiction. It’s not the writers’ fault, but a consequence of the way that writing is grafted on after the fact. However, it’s possible to err in the other direction and Hellblade shows why. When writers are allowed to drive game design, they sometimes create a story which may be amazing in its own right but which is poorly connected to the actions of the gamer. They produce work which would have made a fine novel or even screenplay but which does not acknowledge that gaming is distinguished by the player’s ability to take action. It’s a difficult balance to get right and perhaps this is the difference between writing and narrative design. Writers will produce dialogue for the most awkward and belated of situations if that is what their job requires, but the task of the narrative designer is to see that situations don’t become awkward and belated.

If all this sounds rather theoretical, it manifests itself in Hellblade in a very practical way. Senua’s world is mysterious and outlandish, yet completely convincing. It is immersive. The dialogue is mostly excellent and although Senua looks young, she doesn’t come off as childish. She is a fully-realised character. This is great until you get to the parts where Senua needs to take game-like actions. Of course, you knew there was going to be fighting, and sword-fights are easy to accommodate in this tale of a young woman who journeys into Hell to fend off demons. However, most of the remaining aspect of gameplay is puzzle-solving and this doesn’t mesh with the narrative and gameworld quite as successfully. There you are, tramping through a forest, absorbed in Senua’s internal dialogue, a lonely condition, indeed, and suddenly you are confronted with a situation where you have to solve an unlikely puzzle. Jigsaw pieces, brightly illuminated, hang among the trees like Christmas decorations and your job is to stand in exactly the right position to make them appear to fit together. Added to this, you will spend time walking back and forth through gateways and portals and then scrutinising the physical environment to see if a doorway or bridge has suddenly appeared. The puzzles can only be solved by trial-and-error, and in themselves, they aren’t unpleasant tasks. But they are implausibly connected to the Celtic/Nordic back story and to Senua’s own psychology. Solving the puzzles can be a very functional and technical matter and so the player is required to switch from one mindset to another at short notice. Overall, it yields a slightly disjointed experience, where immersion in the story and character is punctuated by unrelated tasks.

As gaming matures, games are appearing which allow story to drive the game forward but where narrative design has ensured that writing and action are integrated. Firewatch (Campo Santo, 2016) is one of the best-known examples. It is strikingly rich in character and story, but all the actions the player takes are integral to the unfolding narrative. While Hellblade didn’t quite find the right balance, it was almost there. It was certainly one of the most intelligent and intriguing games of the last couple of years, with real maturity that promises more good things in the future from Ninja Theory.