There is one thing about being dropped off into a new game world and finding that you’re fighting against feelings of dread, anxiety, and fear. In Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, there is nothing scarier than facing the human psychology head on. The gameplay, sound, graphics, and story tell it all and leaves you looking at reality from another angle.
The British developer Ninja Theory worked together with a team of mental health specialists, professors of psychological sciences and people recovering from mental illnesses to express their experiences. They have also donated all the proceeds from the sale of Hellblade; Senua’s Sacrifice, which raised approximately $80,000, on World Mental Health day to the mental health charity Rethink Mental Illness. There small gesture has made a difference in a big way by helping people shed light on their darkness.
The story progresses like a beautifully dark and tense novel as it follows the main protagonist, Senua, in her expedition through the land of the Northmen. The game puts Senua’s illness front and center of the whole experience. Her quest is both a physical and mental journey that puts her through trials, dangers, terrifying opponents, and disturbing ideals. Only by wrestling with her innermost “demons” and trusting in herself can Senua hope to survive and live another day.Throughout this unsettling adventure, Hellblade’s gameplay is very simple. Despite the complexity of the story, combat only happens when it needs to, and the puzzle solving moments help reveal to the gamer more about Senua’s motivations for embarking on her quest. However, this also reveals the struggles that she is suffering through.
This in turn can often prevent her from moving forward.Hellblade’s visuals and audio design is haunting yet amazing. The camera lingers around Senua from a close third-person perspective. As the player, it tends to feel like I am one of the disturbing creatures following Senua from a close distance.The 3D binaural sound is undoubtedly the best and scariest part of the game. Several voices are present at all times with no real sense of identity or location from where they could be heard.
Throughout the game, I felt as if I were slipping from reality into Senua’s world. The voices came from all sides and would occasionally overlap one another. I truly felt as if I were slowly becoming Senua while being cheered on, degraded, laughed at, warned, and questioned to no end. I would recommend playing with a good surround sound headset to really immerse yourself into Senua’s world where there is no quiet.Hellblade does not apply all of these ideas of mental health perfectly.
Any representation of mental illness especially one as intense as Senua’s story, deserves critique. However, a good representation does not have to be perfect. It just needs to be honest. And Senua’s story is honest as it shows attention to her struggle.
At one moment during the game, Senua just sits and screams, long and loud. Once she is done letting her pain and frustration out, she gets up and advances into the darkness that laid ahead.Not many games nowadays can represent severe mental illness with such empathy or understanding. This game is more of an experience. From one who suffers from mental illnesses, I resonated with this game because it touched me like no other. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is by far one of the most intimate games I’ve ever played.
With the voices whispering through my headphones and the camera during cutscenes, I felt like I was right beside her. I highly recommend this game to other gamers and people who feel like no one can understand what it’s like to have a mental illness. It’s nice to know that you are not alone.